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Originally published Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 3:53 PM

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Education-reform conversations must focus on opportunities, not problems

The chance for a more diverse conversation about education is now, while the spotlight is on addressing the stark disparities in public education.

Seattle Times Editorial Columnist

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It was hard to miss state Rep. Eric Pettigrew's recent testimony before the House Education Committee in support of charter schools. That wasn't just because the South Seattle Democrat is built like a linebacker but also because he is one of a handful of people of color — and the rare African American — visible in charters' fledgling local movement.

Education reformers' battle lines are drawn around top-quality teachers, career and college readiness and charters. Yet their civil rights rallying cry is at odds with a mostly white army.

The other side is equally pale. The teaching profession is overwhelmingly white in Washington state, as are most of the school boards.

Both those battling to change public schools and those fighting to keep change at bay have a troubling lack of connection with the largely minority communities who stand to benefit from reforms.

"It isn't just black and Latino kids that are being failed in the public schools, but Asian kids, Russians, immigrant communities ... " says Rev. Don Davis, a pastor who lives in South Seattle.

Davis is just back from visiting charter schools in Los Angeles. Watching young black males engaged in learning and feeling connected to their teachers sold him on the potential of charters.

I tell Rev. Davis that not all charters are good and mention the oft-trotted out Stanford University study that showed 17 percent are superior to public schools with the rest being no better or even worse.

In a conversation about teacher evaluations, I recently asked a teacher how public schools could address the stark disparities among kids of color.

"I don't think those teachers should be punished when they are poverty stricken and learning-disabled students don't meet standard," she lamented in an email. Her view that the challenges facing kids of color in public schools could be boiled down to poor and disabled seemed awfully narrow to me. I'm not discounting that some students — of all backgrounds — battle poverty and learning disabilities, but that doesn't explain academic disparities across economic lines.

Outside of my job, I meet and talk with scores of parents of color who view their children as success stories waiting to happen. Then I talk to people who oppose reforming the system and listen as they argue with damning data on achievement gaps, graduation rates and dropout rates, all the ways that the kids are the problem, not the system.

One side amplifies the challenges of kids of color to underscore an unworkable education system, the other side exploits challenges those kids face to defend themselves from professional scrutiny. Here's an idea for a school uniform: T-shirts that read: "I'm not your problem, I'm your opportunity."

I'm not promising more faces of color would change the glacial pace of education reforms. The political jousting in the state Legislature last week that sunk promising ed reforms, Pettigrew's public charter bill among them, is what lobbyists do. But Pettigrew has brought a dose of authenticity to a largely academic debate.

Raised by a single mother in South Central Los Angeles, he grew up to become the first in his family to graduate from college. The depth of those accomplishments are clear to anyone with a clue about the challenges of surviving, let alone thriving in, large urban schools. A poll by the Seattle Public Schools found that citywide satisfaction with the public schools waned in Pettigrew's South Seattle community. His efforts around good schools, both traditional and charters, ought to gain hold among more of his constituents, particularly families of color.

The opportunity for a more diverse conversation in Washington state is now — while the spotlight is on the stark disparities in education. Remote arguments about pathologies ought to be replaced by closer connections with the students education reform promises to help.

I think it can be done but the cynic in me is reminded of a character in the film "Red Tails" who explains to a companion: "Politics is the art of postponing a decision until it is no longer relevant."

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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