Access to Learning

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This fall I had the opportunity to attend the annual Des Moines Branch of the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Des Moines, Iowa. The featured dinner speaker was Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School District. Prior to becoming Superintendent in December of 2010, Dr. Lane was the deputy superintendent of the Des Moines Independent Community School District and she was the first female and person of color to hold the position of chief operating officer. From 2006 to 2010 Linda served as the deputy superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School District. During her time as Deputy Superintendent, Pittsburgh achieved adequate early progress (AYP) for the first time in the district’s history. The district was able to achieve AYP again for the second time in three years with Dr. Lane in the superintendency.

Dr. Lane’s keynote began with her reflections about the impact of the economic crisis on students and families in her district, as well as how funding cuts have had some devastating effects on the Pittsburgh school system.  She stressed that educators and community members must be clear about the purposes of education and that it is paramount that students have access to a high quality education to prepare them to pursue college or work force certification – not just vocational opportunities.

Dr. Lane recommended the book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It by Don Peck (2011) to the audience. Peck’s book asserts that the current recession is creating a white male underclass and that unskilled workers are being pushed out of low paying jobs. Unfortunate economic conditions caused by this recession will make it even harder for students of color to find opportunities in the work place. According to Lane, these patterns create an even greater urgency for communities to push for better schooling and clearer paths into careers for students who don’t immediately go to colleges or universities. Lack of education fuels what has been described as the 1% and the 99% wealth-gap. Dr. Lane went on to make the argument that education is power and that history reveals how racial inequities are created and maintained by limiting access to education. For example, laws were established to make teaching slaves to read and write illegal for the purpose of diminishing their power. Sadly, the current laws to prevent Latino/a students from qualifying for in-state tuition because they are undocumented, suggests that denying educational equity continues to this day.

Dr. Lane admonished the audience, “For our kids to do better, we have to do better.” She described efforts to increase student access to education such as the Pittsburgh Promise program that offers scholarships to students who meet grade point and attendance requirements, as well as Promise Net, a network of communities investing in education and economic development by establishing place-based scholarship programs. Dr. Lane wrapped up her remarks by challenging the audience with some difficult questions. What is Des Moines doing to establish scholarship programs? What else can be done to help students to grab opportunities? What more can your community do to increase students’ access to quality education?

To suit the occasion of a banquet, Dr. Lane’s remarks had to be compelling and motivational, but brief.  I found them to be thought-provoking, but I left feeling more worried than motivated. The two themes, that access to education is power and that the negative effects of the current recession will make it harder for students to succeed, caused me to wonder about the ongoing struggle to pass federal education policies to improve student learning. Will the policymakers support and fund actions that increase student access to the robust and meaningful education needed to move large numbers of struggling students to levels of success needed to be successful in college and the workplace? Will the policy platforms being crafted now result in better outcomes for students of color or will they exacerbate the economic and social pressures that are contributing to the current gaps in student performance and graduation rates? Dr. Lane’s reforms are getting traction in Pittsburgh. Work underway there is closing the gap. In another venue, with more time, I am sure that she could elaborate on policies and strategies that work. Perhaps, legislators should be taking a look at her ideas for increasing access to quality education.

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