Making the equitable choice the easiest choice

5 questions for midwife, mother and activist Rachel Latta

As we all stare down next week, I want to remind us that politics are not solely presidential. That, in fact, much of the most important political action of our lives is in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and certainly in our cities. That is both overwhelming, because it means there are so many places in our own lives where neglect and possibility exist, but also liberating because it means we don’t have to buy into the garbage that our fate is entirely determined by who is in the White House.

One of my favorite humans that “does politics” in a daily, radical, humble way is my friend and collaborator Rachel Latta. If you sit and have a cup of coffee with her, you will be convinced she has a Ph.D. in education, at the very least, and maybe also an MSW or a Masters in critical race theory. In fact, she is professionally trained as a midwife. She spends her work days catching babies, and her non-work days raising three and making the whole city of Oakland better for everyone’s babies through her work at Equity Allies for OUSD. (She is also my co-lead on the Integrated Schools chapter here in Oakland.)

If even a fraction of us were as informed, brave, and collaborative as Rachel, this city—this whole nation—would be a more wise and wonderful place. I vote for Biden/Harris, but really I vote for thousands of Lattas everywhere, stirring up good trouble, centering those on the margins.

Rachel canvassing with her new babe.

Courtney Martin: Your kid was at one of the schools with the highest demand rate in Oakland and you switched her to a more poorly rated, global majority school. Why?

Rachel Latta: Before I had kids, I always said I would never send my kid to a private school. I believed in the studies saying kids whose parents had a college degree do fine in any environment (I realize this isn’t the case with every kid). I believed that the main purpose of school is for kids to learn how to be good people. I often shared this opinion, and older people than myself would nod politely and often reply with a knowing smile and some version of “We’ll see when you have kids of your own.”

I had misgivings about our neighborhood school before our daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Our district has school choice, which in Oakland means you don’t necessarily get into your neighborhood school if you don’t apply during a window nearly a year before school starts. Once I realized I had choices, I scrutinized the school more closely and noticed that the kids that arrived seemed predominantly White. Online research confirmed that the previously majority Black school was becoming whiter and wealthier each year.

But after many, occasionally contentious, conversations, my husband and I decided to try it. Living 20 feet from the entrance was too tempting. My misgivings intensified as Kindergarten began and I saw how much money parents at the school raised, with more discussion about corporate matching donations than racial justice and equity.

It hit home one day when I picked her up, and she said, “Mommy, did you and Dad donate to the (Annual Giving Fund)?”

“Not yet, but how do you know about that?”

“Well, our class gets an ice cream party if enough parents give money and we need five more donations,” she said. “They didn’t say who needs to give - so can you donate so we get an ice cream party?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Mom,” my daughter paused and began to speak more slowly, “if enough parents give each class gets an ice cream party. And, if enough parents in the whole school give, we get another WHOLE SCHOOL ice cream party. So - did you give money to the school?”

“Honey, we will give the fund, but I don’t like that you get a party only if a bunch of parents give money. What about families who don’t have a lot of extra money? How do you think this might make them feel?”

I remember the confused look and pause. “Maybe they feel bad they can’t have a party?”

“Probably honey. I don’t think it’s very welcoming to bribe you all with an ice cream party to get parents to give money; money that they might not have. Plus, you have a ton of stuff at this school - what about kids at other schools who don’t have all this stuff? Wouldn’t the money be better going to more kids?”

“I guess that makes sense. Anyways…” And she moved on. I remained dazed by the interaction.

At a school full of extras - art! gardens! ice cream parties! - the fact that my daughter was learning she had less and deserved more scared me.

I met parents at a school three blocks away that was majority Black and low-income but under-enrolled (the school we were at had a long waitlist). They were threatened with closure and our school added a Kindergarten class to meet the “demand.” I reached my breaking point. Our son was due to start school the following fall and we enrolled him in a global majority school and began to talk to my daughter about joining him.

Ultimately, I asked myself, what do our children learn when we say we fight for justice while making the conscious decision to keep them in a segregated, privileged learning environment? I felt that no matter how much I say I value integrated schools and educational equity, actions speak louder than words. If we stayed we would not be participating in community to bring about justice, but instead upholding the status quo.

***School ratings are an interesting talking point because so many privileged people talk on the one hand about how unimportant and biased testing is, but on the other dismiss a school due to low test scores. ***

A look at four Oakland schools, by longtime educational advocate Dirk Tillotson.

You’re a believer in the power of integration, but you’re also not naive about the challenges. Can you talk about some of those, as you experience or understand them?

Integration isn’t the goal in and of itself; integration isn’t equity. It’s a strategy to get resources locked in whiter, more affluent schools to global majority schools. If we are all together, then everyone has the same stake in the school, because we will fight for all kids the way we fight for our own.

But that’s not where most White and/or affluent folks are; they can easily picture their children amongst kids with a rainbow of skin tones and learning Spanish, but abolishing parent fundraising is a step too radical.

And communities of color often have skepticism about integration. The way we’ve tried it in the past has not only harmed communities of color (see the destruction of the Black teaching corps after Brown v. Board of Education), but also assumes that global majority schools do not have their own assets and value.

That’s why I appreciate Integrated Schools’ approach, which is about joining a community with humility and joy, because it relays that while society may not understand the assets of global majority schools, those assets are plentiful and it is our responsibility to identify and value them. A good example is culturally-affirming curriculum, something that cannot be quantified, but is noted as an asset by educators, students and families and has robust research supporting it.

I also struggle to call people in, rather than call them out. I find myself so angry at times that I perhaps shut down conversation. People need space to evolve, which includes self-exploration, and it’s also true that communities furthest from power have been waiting for far too long already and I am so skeptical that self-reflection is being used as an excuse (even subconsciously) to maintain the status quo. But in the long term we need a big tent; maybe I’m just better at keeping people in the tent than welcoming them in.

People very often set this up as a Black vs. White issue, but you’re neither. How does your racial identity impact how you navigate the quest for more integrated schools in Oakland?

As someone who is mixed race, I feel both deeply implicated in and somewhat next to the history of school segregation. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by my family who did not experience American schooling and, like many immigrant families, the priority was on excelling in school and getting a high-paying job. The use of social class to gain advantages like the “better” teacher, access to special programs, internships or jobs was not something I experienced or understood.

In discussions about parenting and what “we” have been taught, I often feel like I’m learning a new language where some parts feel familiar, some foreign. I have found myself nodding along when people discuss their anxieties about their kids adjusting to school - will they make friends, will they be comfortable - but when the conversation veers towards going on school tours, observing a class, to requesting a specific teacher or to be in a class with a friend, I suddenly find myself shaking my head. So many people with means seem to feel comfortable requesting special things for their kids, but public education isn’t like requesting a substitution at a restaurant. It means that there is a “better” experience for some kids and that if we fight so hard to ensure our kids are untouched, we then are ok with other kids getting a lesser experience. If we are getting every single advantage or special treatment for our kids and we act like them getting anything less is a tragedy, what does that mean for other kids in our community?

And this behavior is not exclusive to White and middle-class folks. While it has been White, middle- and upper-middle class families who have historically undermined integration efforts, in Oakland, the middle class is more racially and ethnically diverse. But even if we are new arrivals to the American middle class, we are all implicated.

And I also think people with shared backgrounds are more effective in moving people and changing their minds, so I’m still struggling with a way to reconcile being true to my identity and being an effective evangelist for integration and racial justice.

The other thing I experienced as a child was being an outsider. For example, I do not speak much Tagalog, but was regularly surrounded by people speaking it exclusively. And everyone else in my family had memories of the Philippines and all I had were pictures from when we briefly lived there. And I certainly didn’t feel 100% at home with my white relatives. Because I’m used to feeling like a fish out of water, I don’t fear having those experiences for myself or my kids.

You’ve been instrumental in creating an equity fund here in Oakland, whereby PTAs can donate a percentage of their money for the highest stressed schools in Oakland. What is the biggest pushback you get from highly resourced schools to contributing and how do you respond?

All our schools, even the schools that raise many hundreds of thousands of dollars, are underfunded in California. However, when schools that raise a lot of money from parents see how much schools that qualify for Title 1 (a federal program that directs extra funds to schools where lots of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) or other extra grants get, they balk and feel these schools get plenty of money. In Oakland, schools with majority kids of color and/or kids from low-income families get hundreds more dollars from the government per pupil than schools with fewer of those students. And for many parents who spend lots of time and energy raising money at privileged schools, they feel like they are filling a gap. So, it’s up to us to explain how those many hundreds of dollars are actually still not enough. You cannot compare a school with a wealthy PTA hiring an art or science teacher to a higher-needs school spending double that on reading coaches. And in fact, that art and science teacher is helping already privileged kids speed further ahead.

But deeper than that is to share that the schools who receive these dollars are not impoverished and needing charity; ideally we are un-“othering” these school communities. They need more resources - yes - but that these are still places where learning happens, where staff are dedicated to their students.

Reallocating resources is a start, but our goal is to expand the definition of community to one where we are doing what’s best for all students. The extra money is of course welcome, but the long term vision is that parent communities are fundraising and fighting to meet the needs of the kids with the most barriers - even if that means those kids are on other campuses.

Imagine what could be accomplished if all the PTA executive boards, auction committees etc decided to work on a campaign to increase school funding or, better yet, to reinvest in communities that have been the targets of generational racism. We need to redirect the energy many schools spend within their own walls and broaden it; we need to intentionally create our schools to serve the kids and communities furthest from power.

Part of your work is about culture change, getting privileged parents to make different choices and show up differently, but you’re also invested in policy change. Can you talk about the enrollment reform effort?

In an environment where parents have choice - whether that’s a different district school, a charter, private or moving - there will always be a way for people to opt-out of our school system. I think we are seeing now just how damaging on a large scale that can be to our democratic institutions - COVID and healthcare is a good example of a system of choice failing.

So, can we create policy that creates conditions for people to make the equitable choice the easy choice? I hope we can. The challenge is that the communities who have been marginalized need to be centered (I don’t think anyone wants to go back to moving Black and Brown bodies around like chess pieces within a White system), but needs to be implemented and funded by powerful people who often are beholden to the most privileged.

The enrollment reform effort is an attempt to take our current enrollment policy, one which has only exacerbated racial and economic segregation, and change it to serve our community. We have started by recommending changes to how schools are marketed (and what resources they receive), improving the experience of non-English speaking families as they choose and enroll in school and lastly, offering high-demand schools an opportunity to create spots for families living in areas with lower average incomes.

As we move into the future, this work will involve more community dialogue and my goal is to advocate for restoring and repairing flatland schools that have been targeted by generations of racist policy. I worry about unintended consequences and people with agendas usurping the process, but this effort feels like a chance to improve our district in a way that uplifts the desires of marginalized communities.

I will be donating to Equity Allies for OUSD in honor of this Substack community (thank you!). If you’d like to hear more from Rachel and others from Oakland and New York City fighting for school equity, check out this panel we recently did together.