Contributing to Inequity: White Parents Must Act to Change Seattle Public Schools’ Opportunity Gap

by Hayden Bass & Vivian van Gelder

We were struck by a recent KUOW report about parental backlash against last fall’s “We Stand United” event in Seattle’s public schools. On October 19, 2016, many Seattle Public Schools teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school, and offered teachings on Black history and institutionalized racism to bring focus to racial equity. But many white parents – especially in the north end, where few students of color live – wrote angry emails in response. Their reaction suggests that many of us white liberal parents have work to do when it comes to race.  

It’s hard to imagine an environment where frank conversations about race are more badly needed than at Seattle Public Schools. Our district has the worst opportunity gap between white and black students in the state, and the fifth worst in the nation. Some of the parent emails acknowledged this gap, but asked it not be discussed openly. Instead, they suggested teachers “work diligently and quietly” to address the gaping disparity. They complained an open discussion of racial issues was “too militant, too political and too confusing” for their children.

We sell our white children, and children of color, short by assuming they won’t be able to understand racial injustice. Kids understand when things are unfair – it’s adults who often struggle. In the face of ongoing racial injustice, we white Seattleites can often be, as Dr. Stephan Blanford points out, strangely passive. We say we want everyone to have access to the same opportunities, but few of us are truly prepared for the work of turning words into action.

Some of our unpreparedness stems from what academic Robin DiAngelo has termed “white fragility.” DiAngelo notes most whites “have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort,” and as result, like the angry parents who complained about the “We Stand United” event, we often attempt to shut down those who raise the issue of race. Operating uncritically within a system that was designed for people who look and live like us, we cling to an ideal of “colorblindness” which perpetuates a racist status quo.

How, then, do we show up as active – rather than passive – progressives? DiAngelo urges us to start by seeing “white racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.” Or, as Ijeoma Oluo says, “Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.”  White parents, then, are uniquely situated to challenge institutional racism in our education system – and conversely, to uphold the status quo by resisting the understanding that our system, as it is currently designed, does not distribute opportunity fairly.

A necessary first step is to educate ourselves about the historical and continuing factors driving our district’s shameful opportunity gap. The first is poverty, which has long been associated with a higher likelihood of poor academic outcomes. The 34% of students in Seattle Public Schools living in poverty – including the 3,000 students who experience chronic housing instability – are disproportionately children of color. A legacy of racially discriminatory lending and housing laws and practices has ensured students of color are concentrated in specific neighborhoods. And because of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case banning the use of race as a factor in school admissions, many students of color are concentrated in severely segregated schools.

A second major factor underlying our opportunity gap is the way our educational system values white middle-class knowledge, behaviors and priorities. Add that to an overwhelmingly white teaching force that studies show “tends to underestimate the academic abilities of students of color,” and the product is a system that operates to entrench and magnify existing disadvantage.

Armed with this knowledge, we must move to consider the extent to which our own most cherished practices are  perpetuating the dynamics underlying the opportunity gap. Encouraging steps have already been taken in Seattle to begin to address the cultural biases of our educational system and to introduce the sort of culturally sensitive and relevant pedagogy benefiting all students. Examples that have gained the support of many white parents include the recent push to introduce an ethnic studies curriculum across the district, and Garfield High School’s new “Honors for All” program.

However, we white parents have made less progress in understanding our contribution to the glaring resource gap between our majority white schools and those that are majority students of color. One practice we believe needs immediate examination is PTA fundraising for school day programming. Studies have shown PTA funding is a significant source of inequity in public schools nationwide. While all Washington schools are underfunded, very few communities have the means to add up to $1,000 per student to their core school budget. While SPS attempts to engage in more equitable budgeting that aims to address this imbalance, the truth is that the gap is so large it cannot begin to do so.

If we truly want to be genuinely progressive, we must be willing to critically examine our contributions to inequity in our school district – and we must act to effect change. Our district’s track record shows  if we white parents were to collectively urge SPS to address race and equity on a sustained basis, we would be very likely to see results. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, many of us hesitate to act out of fear that speaking out against inequity will require us to make what feel like unbearable sacrifices. But doing so may be the only way to create the world we say we want to see. And that is something all of our children deserve.

Hayden Bass and Vivian van Gelder are parents of students in Seattle Public Schools. Both participated in Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s Advocacy and Policy Cohort.

Featured image: woman and child at last fall’s Black Lives Matter action by Seattle Public School Teachers. Photo by Alex Garland


20 thoughts on “Contributing to Inequity: White Parents Must Act to Change Seattle Public Schools’ Opportunity Gap”

  1. Nearly half of school-age children in Seattle attend private schools. I was shocked when I moved to an apartment near a public school in my largely white neighborhood and saw almost no white faces among the children on the playground, realizing that it must be because white parents were sending their children somewhere else to be educated. It made me feel very different about this city.

    1. “the means to add up to $1,000 per student to their core school budget. ”

      OK, but how much, per student, in Seattle “Families and Education Levy” monies, ($235 million levy), and distributed by the city not school district, goes to struggling students, per capita?

      A levy that goes specifically for “investments for Community-Based Family Support focus on closing the achievement gap for low-income students, students of color, and English Language Learners.”

      Anyone care to answer? Go to the SPS website too and look at per funding per student of south side vs north side schools. North side spend significantly less per student for education, which makes sense since the kids are coming to school better prepared to succeed.

      1. “the means to add up to $1,000 per student to their core school budget. ”

        Look at page 5 of the Seattle report on “Families and Education Levy” spending.

        Nearly all the funding goes south of Mercer or north of Northgate. $38 million dollars this year which would mean $760 per student IF it was distributed evenly, which it clearly isn’t (which I have no problem with).

        So the money is there. If anything, north side parents have to make up for a LACK of funding with their PTA dollars.

      2. Simon, You undid your own argument. Families and Ed Levy dollars are designated to closing the achievement gap, and funding equitably, not equally. When private dollars are added to a school budget that creates a more equal funding scenario which isn’t the goal of the levy.

        Northend parents is code for white parents with many privileges and their kids are probably as privileged — English speaking, not as worried about unstable housing, citizens, parents with higher education. With these privileges, their students don’t need as much to be on par with students who are facing greater barriers to education. The argument North side schools LACK funding with PTA dollars perpetuates the continued inequity this article is calling out.

  2. Growing up white in Seattle Public Schools in the 70s and early 80s, bused to majority-African American schools, gave me my first life lessons in the legacies of racism and my first demonstrations of what I now know all too well as institutionalized injustice. Why, when I was an ethnic minority in my schools, were there so few (often no) students of color in my honors and AP classes? Why were there so few social spaces where students did not segregate themselves by race? These questions *should* make us uncomfortable, which is why we not only must ask them, but answer them with real strategies to address inequity and barriers to opportunity. I am an even more proud Garfield alum (Bulldog 4 Life!) when I read about the new Honors for All program! Thank you for this article, and thank you to the dedicated educators who bring Black Lives Matter to our schools for *all* students.

  3. Very thought provoking! Our PTA Equity Committee is examining how there is no mechanism in place for one school to share PTA funds with another school that is more in need. Tales of attempts to do this are rife with drama. We are seeking solutions to the offensive inequities in school resources! What has been found to work?

  4. I am a firm believer in the why. What I see lacking is the when, where, and how. I moved to Seattle from Baltimore and my 4-year-old child is about to enter SPS for the first time. What are the planned actions following this article? What is the next step? Where do we go to offer support?

  5. To get deeper into white or economic privedge look no further than special programs that require testing for students to participate: spectrum, iep’s, etc. Well-heeled parents often pay for private coaching and testing to get there kids into special tracks or services that advantage these kids over kids in general education. These practices further divide the haves from have nots.

  6. I stopped being a member of my PTSA. I never went to meetings but did share ideas with the presidents and fundraisers for our school. I told them I believed that all PTSA money should be pooled and distributed equitably. Of course this was met with the predictable response that people won’t raise money if it’s not directly going to their own school. At the very minimum wealthy schools should be partnered with less wealthy schools as sister schools to share PTSA funds. It’s good enough for the NFL but it’s not good enough for Seattle? I am so frustrated. I would like to be involved in an organized effort to see PTSA funds pool but am not sure if that exists.

  7. Great article, written to challenge those who stand to benefit the most by engaging in new learning around privilege . After just graduating my grandson DVON Fields from Garfields honors program’ which included him and Essex Porters child’ among a very few other student academics of color. However at pta night and parents night’ for the majority of white kids and their families it was like a annual our kids are tracked in the gifted program reunion. Literally ‘ As a graduate of Garfield ‘I felt like a visitor in my own school community. Glad they will have honors for all but you can believe the privileged will be in the district and the principal ‘s ear on this call. At the golden grads hall of fame annual scholarship meeting where my grandson Dvon Fields was a speaker and scholarship recipient’ I heard the principal say “He has no control over the cap on admissions and that they are overloaded again this year. ” Guess who suffers most’ Yes the underserved Black students who are not busing in to avoid paying private education fees. This is a situation that needs some serious investigative reporting.

  8. How come African immigrant children do well in our schools if Seattle is so anti-black?

    ‘Alarming’ new test-score gap discovered in Seattle schools

    African-American students whose primary language is English perform significantly worse in math and reading than black students who speak another language at home — typically immigrants or refugees — according to new numbers released by Seattle Public Schools.

  9. thank you for these thoughtful words. an action call such as pta fund-sharing is well-heard by this decades-long south end teacher… another would be discussing how we talk about this with “white” (well-heeled) Seattle parents/community members; and discussing what an “equity budget” might look like for schools that do not have as much financial access. without reforming the tax system in this state, can we really make any change to resolve the inequities in our educational opportunity in this state?

  10. I am not a parent and therefore not well versed in Seattle Public Schools admission/placement policies but has parental income ever been used as a determining factor? As you stated that students of color are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty, perhaps this could be a workaround to the prohibition of assigning students by race?

  11. The north end school PTSA’s do provide a ton of extra dollars to their schools, but it’s to fund things like librarian or music teacher salaries. I won’t argue the privilege of our north end students and am all for conversation around racial equity with our kids both in and outside of school. Super important. But, I also don’t think the extra north end money is being spent on elaborate things – the money is just bridging the gap because SPS is so under-funded. I love the ideas others have mentioned around the district setting up some sort of partnership between all the PTSA’s to help allocate the extra dollars more fairly across all schools. The north end parents I know would be all for something like this, and I think it’s unfair to assume families would not give $ unless it was going to be used only at their child’s school.

  12. I am certain that any point I make will simple be dismissed as a failure to understand my own privilege. That is the wonder of arguments like this. Any point that might not follow in lock step is easily dismissed.

    That said, I find a fundamental flaw of this argument to be the absolute ease with which the authors critique other people’s generosity as the “the problem” that needs to be solved. If we are going to follow this line of thinking then giving your support to any organization that does not decrease equity, increases inequity.

    There are many many problems with SPS and there are many problems with equity. I just find it hard to believe that other people’s support of another school is magically on the lists of things to solve urgently.

  13. What are cultural norm for young students in any school? What is it like in Japan? Russia? South Africa? Australia? Probably the students are expected to conform to basics of showing up dressed appropriately with homework done and ready to start the day. Are these norms “white”?