Home Opinion Gloria Ladson-Billings: Do we need more eyes?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Do we need more eyes?

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (Photo by Marcus Miles)

In a representative democracy, we elect individuals to do the will of the people and advance the public interest. What happens when those representatives betray our trust or pursue their individual interests to the detriment of their constituents? Generally, our recourse is to remove them through the electoral process or via recall. The former requires waiting until the next election cycle—2, 4, or even 6 years. The latter is costly and cumbersome. Either way, it is difficult to expeditiously unseat an elected official who does not represent community interests.

In the 1970s the School District of Philadelphia experienced a long and divisive teacher strike—11 weeks of school closure for the 280,000 students and their families. The public was being pulled in two directions by the teachers and the school board and in 1973 the parents said, “Enough!” They formed their own union and demanded a seat at the negotiating table.

In recent years, communities have demanded a level of oversight in policing. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and more recently, Tyre Nichols underscore the need for citizen advisory boards to provide public oversight for what law enforcement is doing in our names. Is it time for a similar form of oversight for the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) School Board?

Our children cannot be an afterthought on the agenda of those elected to ensure their
education. According to the most recent report of the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) (2022), the “nation’s report card,” there is a 48-point difference between the performance of Wisconsin’s Black 4th graders (201) compared to their White peers (248). Not only is this the largest state disparity in the nation, but Wisconsin’s Black students also have the lowest raw score compared to places like Illinois (214), Ohio (208), Minnesota (214), and Mississippi (220). Keeping reading “top of mind” should not surprise anyone. It should be the one area where the entire district pulls together to ensure success, especially when White students in this state outperform students in every state except New Jersey, Nebraska, Florida, and the District of Columbia. Similar academic disparities persist in mathematics. However, without proficiency in reading there is almost nothing students can do to obtain school success.

The MMSD School Board hired someone who proposed a laser-like focus on improving
reading. To be sure he has done many other things—worked with teachers, principals, staff, parents, community leaders, and students but improving reading was his mandate—a 7-0 mandate. Now it seems there is an attempt to minimize this work. Perhaps we need a citizen board that is willing to hold our School Board’s feet to the fire. Indeed, in a city where the racial disparity across all indicators of well-being is so vast, i.e., housing, employment, health, incarceration, and education, perhaps what we need is a Black citizens advisory board.

This is not to suggest that all its members would have to be Black but rather all members would have to have the advancement and success of Black students as their primary concern. We need more eyes!