By Sikivu Hutchinson
The bright-eyed bushy tailed, white Atlanta-area elementary school kids featured frolicking, reading, and doing math problems in suburban “Pods” on a recent CNN morning show were Exhibit A for everything that is wrong with Covid-era education. Pods are the latest trend in elite learning for privileged, mostly white families who can afford to provide their kids with protected academic enclaves beyond the Covid storm. Decried for their exclusivity, pods simply crystallize the disparities that already exist in hyper-privatized, segregated K-12 American schools. One widely touted K-4 pod run by New York’s elite Hudson Lab school will run parents $125,000 for the academic year, or $68,750 for a five-month commitment.
As districts across the nation pushback against Trump’s fascist demand to reopen, pod learning underscores how the neoliberal crisis of public education has accelerated. Trump and Education Secretary DeVos have exhibited near sadistic glee in threatening to withhold federal funding from districts that don’t comply. Over the past several months, DeVos has moved even more aggressively to siphon funding from public schools to private religious schools. Meanwhile, some charter schools unscrupulously double dipped to receive PPP funds designated for struggling small businesses, following the “greed-is-not-enough” model of multinational corporations who got PPP loans. According to the Washington Post, “Well-funded charters with ample funding were applying for and receiving large PPP awards”. California charters alone sucked up approximately half a billion dollars in forgivable loans. L.A. area charters accounted for $201 million of these funds.
Pods, and the relentless privatization of public education, are symptoms of deep multigenerational wealth gaps. White children get to be children in single family homes in homogeneous community networks with high homeownership rates and home equity. Propped up by generations of white affirmative action and the wages of whiteness, white children’s care systems are already built in, subsidized, and largely invisible as socioeconomic entitlements. The divide between this reality and that of children of color has been re-exposed by Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s a clear through line between the corporate greed/graft exhibited by charter operators (of all ethnicities), the Trump/DeVos regime, and systemic divestment from Black public schools. Although it’s tempting to see recent activism to defund school police and reinvest in Black student capital as novel, the groundswell in Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland, and other cities is the outcome of generations of national grassroots, abolitionist activism against the school-to-prison pipeline and racially disproportionate discipline. In June, the BLMLA and Students Deserve-led coalition of over 50 community organizations successfully pushed the LAUSD school board to cut $25 million from the force’s budget. The coalition (which I have been proud to participate in as an educator, mentor, and parent) has pressed to redirect this funding to culturally responsive programming, resources, and initiatives for Black students.
The landscape is bleak. Across the district, only 2 in 10 African American students are proficient in math, while only 3 in 10 are proficient in the language arts. Math educator Dr. Michael Batie has meticulously documented Black students’ math outcomes in every LAUSD school with a significant African American population. Commenting on the potentially disastrous impact of the pandemic, he notes, “We were at an 85% failure rate in 2019. By 2021 we may be looking at a 100% failure rate in math.” Over the past twenty years, the district has passed resolution after resolution after resolution to “redress” inequitable academic conditions for Black students. Millions of dollars have flowed into programs, trainings, and consultancies with little long term impact. Hence, for Batie and some Black parents, working within the corrupt district is a dead end. In their view, breaking away from the district is the only viable solution for Black student success.
Despite years of community organizing and resistance against racist teaching practices, deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes about Black student aptitude continue to play an insidious role in African American academic outcomes. As I wrote in the 2011 article “LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame,” “From South L.A. to the Westside to the Valley the implication is the same—Black students… need to be controlled, neutralized, and heavily policed to maintain the institutional ‘sanity’ of ‘chaotic’ urban schools. In a recent discussion about adult perceptions, one of my students commented that some teachers appear to be ‘scared’ of Black students.” If Black students are taught by faculty and administrators who believe that “scary” Black youth aren’t as intellectually capable in STEM disciplines as Asian, white or Latinx students, then they will continue to be shut out of gifted and talented programs, honors classes, AP classes and IB (International Baccalaureate) classes. AP and IB classes are especially segregated by race. As one former Black AP and IB student noted, “Because tracking had started in elementary school, my public education had also included the following lesson: the more rigorous the class, the fewer students who looked like me. Even when I was only 17, I was painfully aware of the fact that few black and brown students made it into AP/IB courses.”
Pods are Covid-era vehicles for the kind of pipelining that facilitates placement in AP and IB classes. These disparities, along with nationwide racial gaps in access to technology, rigorous instruction, and social welfare resources will only widen the divide between Black students and non-black students as they prepare for college and careers. Although the LAUSD has proposed a reconfigured 2020-2021 school schedule that requires up structured daily virtual instruction, tutoring, boosted outreach to students with disabilities and specials needs, as well as limited childcare for K-8 students, they are pale substitutes for hands-on engagement and social support.
Against this backdrop, Black parents disproportionately juggle homeschooling, work responsibilities, and higher rates of Covid contraction and death. According to the “Color of Coronavirus” report, African Americans represent approximately 74 out of 100,000 victims who have died from Covid—the highest in the nation (By contrast, whites comprise 32.4 out of 100,000 victims). Clearly, the pandemic has the potential to be the single greatest catalyst for the collapse of public education. Ensuring that it doesn’t is now the “essential work” of every conscious parent, educator, and community stakeholder who doesn’t have the luxury of a wages of whiteness “pod”.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the co-facilitator of the Black LGBTQIA+ Parent and Caregiver Support group and the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project. Her latest book is Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical (Pitchstone).