Exactly Wrong

root - Posted on 04 January 2007

An essay on Educational Inequities, Art and Access

by Summer Brenner

These days "exactly wrong" is an expression I employ way too often. But it has nothing to do with spatial dyslexia. It refers to policies that are profoundly consequential. They are not mistakes or accidents. They do not occur from entropy or indifference. On the contrary, they are precisely deliberated and financed -- and in my opinion, exactly wrong.

Here's an egregious example. President and Mrs. Bush entered Washington with education reform at the top of their agenda. From the beginning the logic of the No Child Left Behind Education Act (NCLB) was exactly wrong: reward schools that do well; penalize those that perform poorly.

The typical low-performing school in a low-income area lacks basic resources that only additional funding can rectify. Textbooks often have to be shared, and neither schools nor families can afford supplies. Underpaid teachers frequently use their own money in the classroom to buy necessities.

In one of the Bay Area's poorest neighborhoods, the local school district cannot fund school librarians. School libraries are closed; or hours highly restricted. The paltry art programs are funded through private grants. The schools are filled with students who speak English as a second language and require special tutors. Many children have illiterate or limited-English caretakers at home who can't help with homework or who work at night in the lowest-paying jobs. Under NCLB poor schools can only get poorer and poor children fall farther behind.

Recently, Santa Clara County (San Jose and environs) completed a "school readiness" inventory of nearly 20,000 public school kindergarten students: motor, social, and emotional development, communication and language usage, cognition and general knowledge, et al. The article states that household income is "more closely related to readiness scores than any other factor." (Dana Hall, "Ready or Not?" San Jose Mercury News, March 8,2005).

California just released rankings for its 8,329 public schools. Based on the Academic Performance Index (API) exams, the scores range from 200 to 1000 (or 1-10). A score of 800 (or 10) is considered "excellent," and real estate agents use these measurements to make their properties more attractive. Only 21.4% of all California schools achieved 800, slightly down from last year.

"As a general rule, a school's test-score success correlates to the family income of its student body. In Oakland, for example, where there is a high level of poverty, half of the 99 schools rank just 1. In Palo Alto, where family income is much higher, all but two of the 17 schools rank 10." (Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 2005).

Third grade is a watershed year: if a child does not perform at grade level in reading, it is predicted they will fail throughout their entire school career. Eight years old and already written off!

Schools and children are both penalized by NCLB for faring poorly. Under the former system, schools could set realistic goals for themselves; but NCLB requires that goals be met not only for the entire school but in various subset categories (according to ethnicity, income, etc.). If any of the categories fail to meet the standard, then the school is sanctioned (no matter how it's faring overall). If it continues to fail to meet these standards, sanctions increase and control of the school can fall to the state. There are no funds to mitigate the problems for these schools and their students, only bureaucratic impositions that demonstrate their failings.

Here's another shocker. California "graduates only 71% of its high school students -- not the 87% it claims"....and "just 50.2 percent of black ninth-grade boys received a diploma four years" after the study began (reported from the Harvard-based Civil Rights Project). The state Superintendent of Public Instruction (Jack O'Connell) "blamed the federal government for ordering California to change its method in 2003 to conform with the national No Child Left Behind Education Act. Under the national formula, California's graduation rate soared from 60.6 to 86.9 percent." (Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle March 24, 2005).

NCLB has made California's graduation rate look great on paper, erroneous or not. Fortunately, lawmakers are now questioning NCLB's effects. A bipartisan Congressional panel recently pronounced it "a flawed, convoluted and unconstitutional education reform initiative that has usurped state and local control of public schools" (Sam Dillon, "Report Faults Bush Initiative on Education," The New York Times, February 24, 2005).

What their indictment means for the future is uncertain, but the Bush solution for classroom accountability is exactly wrong.


Over the past few years, a coalition of elected officials and community groups (myself included) has worked to make bus fare either free or affordable to low-income youth who depend on public transit to get to school. While affluent school districts (few) may still hire buses (often subsidized by participating families), youth in many urban areas (across the country) have to pay to ride public transit to school.

No Child Left Behind takes on a different and literal meaning when you consider that some kids can't afford to get on the bus.

Picture this: low-income youth from a large, densely populated flatland (in Richmond, California) must ride two buses to reach a middle school in the distant hills. In these households there may be no car or family member available to drive kids to school. Nor is there always money to ride the bus.

You perhaps protest. Surely there's a jar of quarters lying around for bus fare. Take a single parent with four children and multiply the quarters on a daily basis. A monthly pass is designed to be more economical than paying for single rides. Currently, a monthly youth pass on AC Transit costs $15; San Francisco's MUNI $10; and San Jose's VTA $49. Now do the math. And check out the interview with Wu-Tang Klan's The RZA" ("Fresh Air," NPR, March 7, 2005). He grew up in New York City (one of eleven children) and estimates he missed 40 days of school a year, attributed in part to lack of funds.

In 2001 through the combined efforts of three elected officials (Aroner, Carson, Gioia), community groups, AC Transit, and public testimony, a two million dollar grant was awarded from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to pilot a free bus pass program for low-income students in the East Bay (from Fremont to Richmond, including Oakland). Eligibility would be determined by the federally funded free/reduced lunch program. In the pilot, whoever qualified for the lunch program could qualify for a free bus pass.

At the public hearings, many teenagers testified about their plight: they might have money to get to school, but at noon they would have to choose between a $1 lunch or a bus ride home; the walk might be more than two miles; and the route traverse unfriendly, gang-infested neighborhoods. In addition, they not only needed bus fare for after-school activities but also after-school jobs. School counselors, teachers, district superintendents, and parents corroborated that at certain times of the month families had to make hard choices between groceries and bus fare.

School funds are calculated by the formulas of ADA (Average Daily Attendance); and schools are docked for student absences (even if it's an excused absence!). Here's the cycle: poor school districts can't afford to bus kids; poor families don't always have the means to insure their children get to school; when kids don't go to school everyday, the school loses ADA money and the kids lose learning opportunities; yet students are expected to achieve certain levels of academic proficiency; and when their test scores are substandard, their schools are sanctioned by NCLB.

In fall 2002, the free youth pass pilot program began. It met with the usual bureaucratic complications. However, at the end of the first year, over 25,000 middle and high school students carried a free bus pass.

However, the pilot program was grossly underfunded and although scheduled to continue a second year, AC Transit's finances could not support a free pass. Free rose to $15 a month for a pass. Hearings are currently underway to raise fares.

Surveys from an Oakland-based after-school program (Kids First) indicated that flexibility and access afforded by free bus passes were invaluable for low-income youth. Once the cost of fares rose, attendance in their program declined. A study from Transportation Studies (University of California-Berkeley) reported that although the free pass made no statistical difference in school attendance, a single year was insufficient time to draw conclusions.

Unfortunately, federal and state legal precedents do not require schools to provide transportation for their students to school or after-school programs (with the exception of "special needs"). Whilethe federal food programs may provide the only nutritious meal(s) a low-income child receives, there is no guarantee the child can get to school to get the lunch. Exactly wrong.


Let's turn to the spanking new renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Calculation of costs vary (from $425 million for reconstruction to $858 million for the capital fund). As John Updike observes, "Nothing in the new building is obtrusive, nothing is cheap. It feels breathless with unspared expense" (The New Yorker, November 14, 2004).

In "This New House" (NewYorkmetro.com), Alexandra Lange describes each floor of the renovated MOMA in detail. She writes, "Visitors will be greeted on the fifth floor by Rockefeller's [the owner] Paul Signac [the artist] portrait of Felix Feneon, collector critic, dealer....[Feneon was actually an anarchist and editor of radical journal; refer to David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts about art/anarchy at turn of the last century]....The painting, on loan for four months, brilliantly represents the nexus of art and money that is the basis of the modern and the Modern." [brackets – SB]

The view of the garden has also been enlarged and enhanced -- if you're inside the museum. Adrian Glover (for MSNBC) drools over the "indoor-outdoor spirit" where what could be more sublime than eating "diver scallop tartare while gazing upon Claes Oldenburg's Geometric Mouse."

Along with the expanded gallery space and sculpture garden, the price of admission has risen 60 percent to $20 per ticket. Protests and picketing have occurred over the entry fee.

When I was last in New York, shortly after the opening, I declined to visit the museum. I simply walked by the sculpture garden (excuse me, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden) which I first visited at ten (my family stayed at the Dorset Hotel since sold as part of MOMA's expansion project).

From the sidewalk on West 54th Street, you can barely see a thing through the tight grates of the high metal fence. It conjures art prison and insures that no one (by god) will (accidentally or otherwise) have even a sliver of experience without paying for it. So much for a world-class, tax-exempt museum for the tax-paying denizens of a world-class city.

A few years ago I escorted a lovely gentleman to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. He was 55 years old and had never visited a museum. An intelligent, curious, semi-literate adult (bus driver by profession) who at the time confessed to me: "I don't know how to go to a museum."

Was he interested in art? Why not? He looked at each painting, read each title, date, and artist's name, and offered his opinion on what he liked and didn't. If he lived in New York, he might have walked by the new MOMA and caught a glimpse of LaChaise or Moore or Oldenburg through a transparent fence. He might have wondered about process, form, materials, and motivation; his intellect and senses aroused and expanded.

In planning jargon that's called "public access," a shrunken vision of the Commons but nonetheless recognized as the most vital element of urban life. It's about an accidental encounter with the marvelous. Without it, need I say -- exactly wrong.


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