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Testing won’t fix crumbling schools

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Imagine working in a place where rats skitter across the floor. Where mold climbs the walls like ivy, and floors buckle, soaked and rotted from frequent exposure to rain and snow.

If you’re like most adults, such things are probably difficult to imagine. Yet schools in poor areas often must deal with problems like these.

Proponents of high-stakes testing have increasingly leaned on one particular argument to shut down opposition. They say testing is needed to achieve equality between whiter, wealthier students and nonwhite, poorer ones.

But we don’t need standardized tests to know that kids in school shouldn’t be sitting next to rats.

In privileged communities, students attend beautiful schools with diverse curricular offerings, up-to-date materials and technology, nurses, counselors, librarians and support staff to bolster the work of classroom teachers. In low-income communities and many communities of color, few of these amenities exist. This has long been the case.

That’s why, well before high-stakes testing became an issue, parents and students in segregated, neglected schools began sounding the alarm over these deplorable conditions. For decades, they’ve organized, walked out, sat in and sued over untenable teaching and learning conditions.

Yet pro-privatization advocates ignore these savage inequalities and focus on test scores. We need a full conversation on how glaring inequalities in school conditions violate students’ rights, regardless of whether those conditions are reflected in their test scores. We need to reengage our leaders in a serious conversation about fixing this problem.

Some leaders are taking up the cause. I recently heard from two leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who have addressed systemic inequity in a caucus document called the People’s Budget.

Past efforts to address these problems, Ellison noted, have been stymied by Republicans. “You may recall, when we did . the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, there was a proposal to do major investment in schools. And in order to get a deal, we needed a few Senate Republicans to come on over. They said, ’Cut that out, and do tax cuts (for the wealthy).’”

Pocan added that the People’s Budget calls for investing in universally available, quality education from preschool through college, from which students could graduate without debt.

These and other proposals, they said, could be paid for by levying a financial transactions tax, cracking down on corporate leaders gaming the system and hiding money overseas, and adding new tax brackets for the very wealthy to ensure they pay their fair share.

As elected officials vie for our votes this year, we should keep such proposals in mind. While the People’s Budget probably won’t be passed intact, progressive legislators plan to introduce individual parts of it throughout the session. Let’s push them to prioritize education and infrastructure spending.

Further, let’s publicize who is pushing to fix glaring inequity in education because it’s the right thing to do and who is claiming that they need to see test scores before they do anything at all.

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.