Seattle is failing minority kids, despite progressive reputation

Quick, which Washington city is the most racially diverse?

If you said Seattle, well, good guess, but no. It’s Bellevue – a formerly surprising fact that’s getting less surprising as the area realigns its expectations about our region.

But here’s a fact that may surprise you. “White kids in Seattle are almost ten times as likely as black kids to attend an elementary or middle school with reading tests scores that rank in the top 20 percent citywide.”

Of the 50 cities studied in a new report by UW’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, Seattle ranks second-to-last for its racial opportunity gap in attending a school with top reading scores. “The picture for Seattle’s top schools based on math scores was similar — white kids were about 8 times as likely to attend one as black kids,” the Times wrote.

That certainly cuts against Seattle’s progressive reputation. The study quantifies, though, what many education activists have been saying for years. “It seems pretty clear that African American kids, Hispanic kids, low-income kids in the city are enrolled in fundamentally different quality schools than other kids are,” one of the study’s authors told the Times.

A different approach? Not in Seattle
The causes of Seattle schools’ racial opportunity gap are varied and no doubt many of them are “baked in” – structural reasons that have existed for decades. I don’t want to suggest that the causes or solutions are simple.

But we do know the challenges that many students face. Students of color are more likely to be raised in poverty, and poor children are more likely to come from unstable homes and live in chaotic neighborhoods. Many students of color are immigrants, so they’re likely to be learning English as a second language. When they reach high school, they’re part of a school system with a middling graduation rate.

All of which is to say, they’re more likely to need a different approach to their education. These students may need supports that children from more stable situations receive at home. They may need more hours of instruction and more purposeful community building within their schools.

They may need charter schools, which the state Supreme Court recently struck down in a troubling ruling (one the court should reconsider).

Instead, the instinct in Seattle schools has been to stick with what they know. That includes a teaching culture that clings to detailed work rules, to grievance hearings for dispute settlement, and to disrupting the school year with strikes. The Seattle teachers union stood with the state teachers union in its lawsuit to kill charter schools – one more innovation knocked off.

Closing the opportunity gap is the top civil rights issue of our time. How well we meet the challenge will have profound effects for civil society and our future economy. The same-old, same-old isn’t going to get us there. In one of the country’s most “progressive” cities, the backwards-looking system continues to put adults’ needs ahead of the kids’.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.