Education · Politics

No, Your Kids’ School Can’t Be “Neutral”

You can demand that your local public school keep politics out of the classroom. You can demand that they be race-neutral, that they discipline every child the same way, that they show equal respect for everyone’s views. But they can’t agree to that. They’ve seen too much. They know what “neutral” really looks like.

They know that when they are race-neutral, white students consistently out-perform their black and Latino/a peers on academic measures.

They know that when they are language-neutral, only English counts.

They know that when they are income-neutral, their students get the education their parents can buy.

They know that when they are religion-neutral, Christianity sits front-and-center while other faiths are pushed to the side.

They know that when they are gender-neutral, there are only two options, and any student who does not fit is excluded at best and tormented at worst.

They know. They’ve seen it.

Your kids’ school staff has seen a parent write a $200,000 check to his child’s school to buy an all-weather track, while the school 10 minutes down the road cancels track practice because the track can’t be safely maintained.

They’ve seen black kids give up on school because their behaviors, dress, and interaction patterns didn’t fit “classroom expectations” and they were labeled as bad kids.

They’ve seen wealthy white parents storm the district office, attorney in tow, and walk out with their child’s suspension cleared.

They have listened to white parents demand “accelerated” classes and programs for their “advanced” children, and they have responded, even though they know those programs will exclude children who are just as capable but have been socialized differently.

They’ve watched students still developing English, or who speak a variety of English outside the “standard,” sit quietly in class, deferring to their classmates, believing their ideas have less value because their language doesn’t match.

They’ve seen white kids spend their Saturdays in $1200 SAT prep workshops and in meetings with their $5000-a-year college coaches, having their applications carefully tailored to ensure they get into the schools of their choice.

They’ve watched teacher presentations and classroom discussions filled with examples of trips to the Grand Canyon, chocolate chip cookie baking, Monopoly games, and Thanksgiving family dinners -examples that mean nothing to children who have not lived the typical white, middle-class experience and who are left out of those discussions altogether.

They’ve seen gender-nonconforming kids meticulously plan their school days so they could use the bathroom without being mocked.

They’ve seen “neutral” selection of literature and social science materials result in a list of books by white men, with tellings of history that ignore the experiences and contributions of most of the world.

They’ve seen celebrations of gay pride countered with “Day of Truth” demonstrations, with students asserting their “religious freedom” in shirts bearing the message, “Homosexuality is a sin.”

They’ve heard girls called sluts, gay students called fags, students with disabilities called retards. They’ve heard white students ignorantly deride Islam, declare that everyone should speak English in public places, and proclaim immigration bad for the country. They’ve cringed because these comments are made with girls, gay students, students with disabilities, Muslim students, multilingual students, and immigrant students sitting right there in the room.

That’s neutrality.

Public educators know that there are structures and systems and ideologies built deeply into our society that privilege certain people and groups over others. They know that who achieves in school has FAR more to do with race, class, language background, and family income than with talent and work ethic. They know that the black kids who are in the office all the time, the kids still learning English, the kids living in cars, and the kids desperately trying to figure out which socially constructed category they fit into, are just as smart, just as talented, just as passionate and driven as the white kids who occupy the front row of their AP classes with their hands confidently in the air. They know that there is no place in the typical structures and practices of school for those students’ talents and passions to be valued.

Public educators know kids don’t start on a level playing field, and they know the playing field never levels unless they take deliberate steps to level it in school. They know that “neutral” maintains the system as it is, with all its inequality. They know that if they don’t actively work to resist and counter those inequalities, they are complicit in maintaining them. And they can’t be.

Because for public educators, all those kids who are positioned to fail have names too, just like the ones positioned to succeed. They have personalities. They’re funny and sensitive. They have stories and gifts and siblings they love. They matter, and they’re worth fighting for.

So you can demand that public schools be neutral, but they can’t agree to that. Neutral isn’t neutral. And they know it.





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