This week the Board of Education of Atlanta Public Schools voted not to renew the contract of Dr. Meria Carstarphen, the system’s Superintendent. The reason they offered was her irreconcilable differences with members of its own body. While citing those differences they also said that she delivered exactly what they asked her to. She did what they asked, helped drag our system out of the fire, and then they fired her.
The Board Chair and Vice Chair offered their rationale publicly on National Public Radio. Their argument was wholly unconvincing and vacuous. For a decision of such staggering consequence, of such extraordinary human implication, their explanation was nearly criminally insubstantial. Against the clearly expressed wishes of legendary champions and defenders of the city – Representative John Lewis and the Honorable Andrew Young and the Honorable Shirley Franklin – against the wishes of legions of families in the system itself, they made their decision anyway. They decided to strip the Atlanta Public School system of an effective and courageous leader.
So where does this leave us?
It leaves us in the obvious place. It leaves us in a city that was once the Black Mecca. It leaves us in a city where the proportion of Black people is plummeting. It leaves us in a city where the median annual household income of Black students in APS is $24,000 and that of White students in the same system is $167,000. It leaves us in a city where the White families in APS corral their children in the guarded semi-public conclaves of International Baccalaureate, Gifted and Advanced Placement. It leaves us in a city where rich White families send their children to private schools that cost nearly $24,000 per year while poor Black students are completely dependent on APS. It leaves us in a city where income mobility for poor Black people is among the worst in the United States. It leaves us in a city where Black children are on the precipice in a now leaderless public-school system.
The Atlanta Public School system is our last chance. It is the last foothold. It is the last best hope for native, born and raised Black people in Atlanta to remain Atlantans. Notwithstanding the Black wealth class, the emerging Black nouveau-riche entrepreneurs and the generative class of Black culture creatives, 77% of the students in Atlanta Public Schools are still poor and 73% are still Black.
These children are our people’s children. They are living in a kind of grinding and terrible poverty. The kind of poverty that turns inward and assaults them from inside themselves. The kind that undermines hope and chokes the utility of choice. The kind that fuels the viciousness of fights. The kind that leaves families desperate and willing to do anything to “get an address.” It is the kind that is generational and makes the future look like the past.
The only way out of this morass is through education. It is the only place for our children to turn. It was true during Reconstruction, during the dark ages of southern White terrorism, during the Civil Rights era, during the Obama years and it remains true now. The only way for Black people, en masse, to be viable in America’s future is through public education.
Now, behind closed doors and the hidden reasoning of the board, our public education system is leaderless. Not only is it leaderless, it is stripped of any attractive quality for other potentially courageous, independent-minded and effective leaders. Why would someone with those qualities subject themselves to the whims of such a fickle board?
Alonzo Crim. Jerome Harris. Lester Butts. Benjamin Canada. Beverly Hall. Errol Davis. Meria Carstarphen. Atlanta Public School Superintendents.
The mantra has always been that children are the first priority. Yet here we are – a segregated system in the middle of a segregated city – one set of educational experiences for Black students and a separate set for White students. Atlanta is an American city. The educational outcomes correlate with race. They correlate with poverty. They correlate with all the factors that we already know. There is nothing new to study.
The gift of public funds given to intrepid young White entrepreneurs to charterize Black education and offer false choice from a golden chalice is up against the same reality. They don’t have a magic solution. The system is producing the outcomes it is designed to produce. None of the leaders of APS are strong enough, on their own, to combat the damning forces of race, especially in the south. There is no urban public-school system in America where this problem has been solved. Not one.
Up against this reality what does this board really think? That they will find a magical supershero hiding somewhere that no other school system in the country has found? That there is someone lurking in the illuminati alumni registry of their precious Teach for America leadership program that has the answer for Black people? Perhaps they think that they themselves have some divine erudition that no other collection of board members has? Perhaps, but given their public rationale, it is not clear what they think.
Without out and out revolt by Black students themselves against the sham of public education they receive in America, Dr. Carstarphen’s method of discernment and committed innovation on reasonable structural variables in APS is the only way forward. She is operating in a system of American constraints. We all are.
I don’t know the private details of her interaction with the board or the Mayor’s office. Her public decisions to close schools and contract out others were controversial for sure. Her fiscal battles over land and money with the Mayor’s office were contentious for sure. None of us in the APS family were fully aligned with all of her decisions. But how could we be? We are seeking a solution to educational problems that are rooted in American problems. The country has not yet found an answer.
Under those circumstances Dr. Meria Carstarphen is among the best we can hope for. Importantly, her argument was cogent. I could understand it. She said that she built the strategic plan for the system in conjunction with the board. They do not dispute that. She said that the plan was beginning to show signs of glacially slow movement, which it is. Her sense of accountability led her to state emphatically that she ought to be allowed to see it through. She wanted to be there so that someone is accountable in the end. That is leadership – ethical, smart, committed, courageous. At very least it is abundantly clear that she believes in our students, she loves our people and she is not afraid.
I am in this fight directly, giving my all and trying to contribute how I can. I feel justified in criticizing this board on what I think is a horrible decision. But, we are all the board. We are of the same generation, the same cohort, the same family charged with making the future for our young people better than ours. It feels that we’re failing. It feels that the permanence of a Black underclass is lurking ever near and with all of our contemporary glamour and agency and voice, we’re not doing enough. Sadly, I’m looking to the students themselves to send us a jolt, to revolt and remind us of our responsibility. My hope rests in them, not in this board.