The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 8: Watching the Bucks Game

I am sure there is bound to be a lot of work done in the very near future around equity and the promotion of equity. Our organization has been spending a portion of the summer working reading, talking, and reflecting in small groups around how to best promote equity. We know that it starts with each individual making conscious decisions around their own sphere of influence. We watched the first Bucks game last night and I was a little taken a back at how much air time social justice/injustice was getting. At one point my wife, Meg, got up off of the couch and came over to where I was standing eating a piece of pizza. She was crying.

This has been an emotional week for her and I. Our neighbor, a really great woman and friend, is in a really terrible situation. I assumed she was upset because of something having to do with her. We are working on purchasing her house. It is right next to ours. I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of what I am about to say, because I know what I am about to say is truth. In 2005 she got conned into taking out a mortgage on her house. I do not know what year she moved into that house. I know she lived there before the highway was put in, so that would make it somewhere in the early 1960’s at the latest. She is about 90, so that timeline makes sense. She was married and bought the house with her husband and stayed there over the last 60 or more years. I tried to find purchase data, not that it really matters, but figured if I could find out the actual numbers it might help prove a point, but I don’t think that is even necessary. Houses here at that time were selling for about $10,000. It’s a big house, at least 2,300 square feet. So maybe we give her the benefit of the doubt and say she bought it for $15,000.

In 2005, she took out a mortgage on the house. The loan was for about $80,000. I don’t know why she did that or how she even came to the conclusion it was a good idea, but it happened. We bought our house in 2006 for $75,000. That was the worst time to buy a house as a new homebuyer. Prices were overly inflated and everything was selling for ridiculous amounts of money, remember the housing bubble. I have no idea why Meg and I were approved for a mortgage at all during that time. We had a combined income of $36,000, one college degree between the two of us, and no savings. I literally paid more for the pizza I was standing there eating than we did at the closing of our house. I remember writing a check for something like $27. Everything else was rolled into the mortgage. During the last 14 years we have easily added another $75,000 of renovations (just material since we have never really hired anyone to do any of the work) into our place. A house in a “normal” (normal to me based on where I grew up) neighborhood would have ridden out the price fluctuations and for the most part returned back to it’s valuation in 2005 or 2006 with a percentage of the renovation costs included in the gain in value. Conservatively, the property would be worth $125,000. I like to think I could sell my house for $100,000, but I doubt anyone would pay that much based on the neighborhood. I doubt that anyone would pay $75,000 based on the neighborhood. If my house won’t garner $75,000 in a sale, her house won’t either.

She currently still owes about $60,000 on her house, which based on comps in the area, probably is realistically worth less than $20,000. It sucks to think that for the last 15 years she was paying off a loan that she shouldn’t have been allowed to make. Her house was never actually worth $80,000 because the values of properties here have never approached that amount again. Owning four houses all on the same block makes me wish they would go up to that amount, but I can’t realistically see that happening. I’m sure there were programs she could have gone through years ago to help fix her problem, but I don’t see her being able to navigate those, even back then. This makes me think of school a little because there is a level of personal responsibility that we all have and then there is a level of societal responsibility to make sure we take care of those that could be taken advantage of. That is why programs instituted during the Obama administration to help people in her exact situation, being severely underwater in a property, were instituted.

Now as a 90 year she is left with almost nothing. The house is going to sell for way under what she owes, maybe that’s a good things since she gets to stick it to US Bank by already having the money and needing to short sale or let them forclose on the house. Still though, it’s a crappy situation to be in. When I die, I want to leave something for our two kids. She doesn’t have that option. Her and her husband had decent jobs and pensions and simply because her house was in a poor Black part of town its value never recovered back to what it was when she took out the loan. If the house was worth $80,000 she would have literally no problem selling it and using the money to for better care in her assisted living facility or use the money for funeral expenses or for her great grandchild’s education.

So anyways, that is why I thought Meg was crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she didn’t say anything about that actually, she asked didn’t Colin Kaepernik get fired for doing the same thing all of the basketball players were doing on tv right in front of us. Before that we watched commercials about social change and video montages of protests in Milwaukee and Boston (the team the bucks were playing). Living in a marginalized area as someone who is certainly not marginalized for the last 14 has kept us aware of the social justice climate. Nothing like this has ever happened during those 14 years. An individual was fired for doing the same thing entire teams are now doing. One person not standing during a time when everyone is supposed to stand was looked at as both brave and foolish a few years ago. Now, the reverse is happening. I read an headline about a player that said we should support a coach that chose not to kneel. If I had read the article, I probably would have found out that the coach had a good reason to stand and the player probably had a good reason to advocate for the individual making his own decision. It’s wild that actions once deemed heretical are now normal.

A lot of what I talk about on this platform is from a school perspective. I worry looking at equity only in schools alienates anyone that doesn’t work in education, but actually we could all use some education in education, especially those outside of the field. Education is a service provided locally. The teachers and administrators of a school district are employees of the district which is funded partially through the state, the local municipality and the federal government. For each student present on the 3rd Friday of the school year and present again on a specified date in January, the district gets about $12,000. There are various funding structures for students with disabilities and other sub-populations.

There is this weird phenomena that you may have noticed. Greater society doesn’t really like educators. I wonder why that is. Educators are the ones that educate the next generation of people in society, so you would assume we all should like them. I have no data behind this so anecdotally it seems to me that the majority of people are unhappy with our educational system. Teachers are seen as lazy or making too much money or incompetent. They are basically one step up from a social worker in terms of difficulty of career choice. Day in and day out they are tasked with trying to create the most efficient learning space for the kids in their classrooms while simultaneously trying to manage increased class sizes and responsibilities. The hardest part of a teachers job is teaching classes which, by the way, is actually really hard to do and they have to do that for six out of the eight hours a day they are contracted to be working with almost no breaks or ability to take time off. I am sitting here trying to think of other jobs where you have to do the hardest part of your job for 6 hours of the day. Oh and most of them don’t work 8 hours a day, it ends up being more like 10 when you have to account for planning and grading and all of that other stuff. Teaching kind of sucks a lot of the time. It especially sucks when the general tone of the society at large is that we are all doing a terrible job. I get why teachers would want to stop trying or punish kids for failing to comply to compliance based demands. I get why teacher preparation programs are struggling to produce new teachers. If I was a college sophomore again and I had to pick between engineering and teaching (which is what I did back in 2002) which one do you think the 36 year old version of me would tell me to pick based on our current trajectory of perpetuating the same educational system?

The thing is, I have a feeling the system is about to be exposed for what it is, outdated and producing racial disparities that are more in line with 1960’s racial philosophies than what I saw during the start of the Bucks game. I say this because 15 hours ago I saw Black Lives Matter painted on a basketball court. I watched commercials talking about racial inequity. I saw White and Black basketball players not put their own names on the back of their jersey’s (something that would be an incredible accomplishment, to have a spot on an NBA team) and instead put a message out there for change. I watched all of that and then sat down this morning to write and the first thing I thought of was graduation rate. While I have been writing about the point of school for a little while now and how it should change to mimic real life and what we really want out of young people, the fact remains that the single goal many high schoolers have is to finish high school, to graduate. That is the goal for many students and the goal for a bunch of educators. It is essentially what the system is designed to do and what all of the oversight and curricular direction culminates in, the handing of a diploma to a kid.

Now more than ever it is “easier” to graduate high school. There are programs which mirror the GED that a student can participate in at the district level to earn the same high school diploma they would if they had earned the required number of credits. Each year, a substantial number of kids graduate through taking competency tests instead of earning credits. Each year, a substantial number of kids graduate through earning credits at an accelerated rate. Both are ways of expediting the graduation process and nice ways for districts to raise their graduation rates. At some point the mindset within districts shifted from a kid is on their own to navigate the system while moving toward graduation to one where they were going to help them once they failed to keep on pace with the predetermined progress. Both of those programs help kids achieve the “goal” of graduation.

I say that because, now more than ever a non-graduate means that so many things have gone wrong during the process. There are safety nets for the safety nets and if someone falls through the cracks the long term prospects of the person finding a legal marketable skill are slim to none. The trajectory of that individuals life is going to be harder without the diploma for sure, but it is going to be much more difficult because of all of the other skills they don’t have. They are highly likely to be stuck living in the margins for a very long time. Some of them will go back and get a GED at some point and then work through the process that they could have done years before, but a lot of them won’t.

I guess I am fine with that system if we think there will always be people in the margins. It seems like we are to the point as a culture or society that we might be shifting away from overly honoring the individual and starting to honor the community more. Maybe we are to the point where we will no longer tolerate allowing people to live in the margins, because we care enough about them to do something about it. Maybe we aren’t there yet, but there are people rising up and saying I would actually forgo some of the things I have been privileged to have for the sake of the community also having access to those things. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see a movement where people making $75,000 a year (the amount of money where additional earnings no longer create greater happiness) “cap” their income by donating the excess, specifically in ways that give others access. I think that because I saw Black Lives Matter painted on a basketball court.

Do you know how I know that Black lives don’t matter in the state of Wisconsin. I know that because the graduation rate for a Black individual was 71% (just look on WISEdash) in 2018/19 for the state overall. In Milwaukee public schools, which educates about half of the Black individuals in the state, the graduation rate for that cohort was 66%. A little quick math would tell you that the graduation rate for the other half, not going to school in Milwaukee, was 76%. You would have to be pretty ignorant to deny this is a problem. And if you are that ignorant, I am sorry, but there is nothing for here for you. “We” tend to get hung up on convincing any of person that has a strong conviction against our own, when we should really just know the message is not for them, and they are just going to be the late adopters, kind of like anyone that still prefers a flip phone to a smart phone.

So even when it is easier than ever to graduate high school 1/3 of Black students in Milwaukee Public Schools won’t make it. What happens to them after they are done with their public school careers? What can you do? It doesn’t take an early adopter in social justice thought to realize the connection between high school graduation rates and zip codes like mine where the median household income is $24,000. It doesn’t even take that much high level thought to see the connection between education, household income, and home values. It wouldn’t be that far fetched to make the connection between graduation rate and the fact that my neighbor’s house is going to sell for at most $35,000, which will only happen because a greedy bank wants more for the property than it is worth and we are willing to overpay for it to attempt to honor our neighbor’s legacy by not letting the house that she lived in for 60 years be sold to a slum lord that will rent the place to terrible tenants until he or she can’t financially justify repairing it, and let it sit empty until the city takes it over and is forced to pay for the demolition of the property. Which further destroys property values in a blighted area that is over 99% non-white.

I think a system that produces a graduation rate of 71% for Black kids and a graduation rate of 93% for white kids is broken. The system is not ok. It isn’t working. It isn’t fair. It isn’t equitable. It is disgusting. We have tried and tried and tried to push efficiency and have made small design choices but nothing is working because the changes have all been within the same system. Yes, teachers can do better because we all can do better. However, we have to recognize that teachers exist to serve the communities in which they teach within a system that we either allow to perpetuate or disrupt.

While writing this, Meg walked in and said, you know I am really worried about the kids of two our neighbors. They are Black and they are poor. She was worried that virtual school is going to be a disaster for them. She doesn’t see how it’ll work based on what she knows about the way their households operate. The parents need to work. They were struggling before they had home school teaching responsibilities. We need more people to be thinking about kids in similar situations. We need more people that say 71% for the state is unacceptable. And we need those voices to not blame the educators trying to make it work. We need more people that say we perpetuated a system that birthed these results. We are responsible for the 29% that didn’t finish high school. We need to do something about that and the something we need to do can’t just be fix this or that. It’s too far gone. It was early 1900’s engineering that produced our current educational model and similarly aged racist mindsets that has perpetuated it. Seeing Black Lives Matter painted on a basketball court gives me hope that we can connect the dots and see that if we actually believe a Black life matters, we have to provide the same ease of access to education that the 93% of Whites were afforded. Being educated isn’t a choice you opt into. It is an inherent right within our societal structures and the sooner we see the 29% of Black non graduates as having their rights taken from them instead of them being trouble makers or terrible students deserving of the outcome, the sooner we will be moving toward a more equitable society.