At the Philadelphia School Partnership, we are deeply upset by the horrific death of George Floyd and the systemic racism that continues to manifest itself across the country. We stand doubly committed to listening and working with schools, donors, families and partners to ensure Black people—and especially Black students in Philadelphia—have the same freedoms, fairness and educational opportunities that White people enjoy without even having to think about them.
We remind ourselves that the outrage of the past few days came too late for Mr. Floyd. When tragic and chilling failures occur in broad daylight, it isn’t hard to find our inner outrage. But our society rarely summons the same fury when the building blocks for such tragedies are being laid in a system, such as through the years when the Minneapolis Police Department neglected to follow through on policy promises while fielding at least 17 misconduct complaints about the officer charged with the murder of Mr. Floyd.
Too often, the story is not different here in Philadelphia, whether we are talking about public safety or our public schools.
Is it fair to connect police brutality to public education? We think it’s necessary. Black people are six times more likely to be killed by police when unarmed than White people. They are also six times more likely to be incarcerated. In Philadelphia, black 4th graders are four times more likely than their white peers to fall short of the national reading standard. None of these statistics is a coincidence, and each illustrates the urgency of dismantling systemic inequities.
Philadelphia, like most big cities, tolerates an enormous amount of day-to-day failure in schools. It’s not as if we don’t know the failure is happening. Nor is it completely a matter of resources. Yes, Philly schools don’t receive the same level of funding as schools in New York or New Jersey. But in all three places, some schools excel and many others do not. Students of color are disproportionately enrolled in the latter group.
To honor the memory of George Floyd, Georgia’s Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, we must change our social-justice systems in fundamental ways. We should start with education. In the past four years, our city has seen broad if modest progress in student academic growth. Now, COVID has knocked schools on their heels. At PSP we will continue to invest in schools that are willing to aim higher—and risk failure—in order to ultimately reduce the number of students whose education will fail them. We also are committed to supporting families in choosing and advocating for the schools they want and need. Schools need to be responsive to them first.
To make change happen, schools have to be encouraged to try new approaches (and when they do or don’t work, the lessons have to be shared). Programs with good intentions that have not been achieved may have to be cut. People most privileged by the status quo need to embrace those without privilege and work together to make the necessary changes to this unjust system.
Not changing is the biggest risk. Without change, without risk, we know what we will get: more injustice, and more of the outrage that feels futile.