I like everything about Courtney E. Martin’s new book “Learning in Public,” but what I like most is that it’s full of kid energy. It deals seriously with adult subjects – education, integration, race, class, the challenge of living “the white moral life” – but Martin’s young daughters and their friends fill up the pages, playing and learning together and reminding us of what this is all about.
“Learning in Public” centers on the experience of having Martin’s older daughter, Maya, attend a public school in their Oakland, California, neighborhood. The title suggests two themes: Maya is learning in a public school. And Martin is learning the messy role of being a kind and responsible member of a racially integrated school community, with the public – the book’s readers — watching.
The neighborhood is historically Black and working-class, but it’s gentrifying, and Martin’s family is part of that. Her friends are mostly white, affluent and politically progressive, people who drive Priuses, eat organic food and support leftist causes. But in the elementary school down the street, called Emerson, most students are Black and most families are low-income.
Martin’s white neighbors profess to believe in public education, but many enroll their kids in a “progressive” private school where tuition is $29,000 or finagle their way into better-resourced public schools where only a handful of students are Black or poor. (Readers, does this sound familiar, if you live in a self-identified progressive community? Even if you don’t? I suspect it may). Martin and her husband eventually choose Emerson, never mind its low test scores and GreatSchools rating of 1 on a scale to 10.
Martin feels the universal maternal urge of wanting what’s right for her daughter. But “most of all,” she writes, “I don’t want to live with the hypocrisy of claiming to care about equity but abandoning the kids with the least resources in my own city from day one. I want not that.”
That’s the fundamental tension in the book: the conflict between living one’s values, including a belief in public schools, vs. doing what’s supposedly best for one’s children. Maya thrives and makes friends at Emerson. An integrated school feels like what’s best for her and her family.
But being part of a diverse community takes learning. Martin agonizes over how to engage with and support the school without using her privilege to dominate. She frets that, if too many white students enroll, Black and low-income families may no longer feel welcome. (Cue the “Nice White Parents” podcast). She loves Emerson, and she worries about its students, especially when COVID-19 shuts down in-person schooling and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others spotlight the children’s vulnerability.
The book also has compelling subplots. Maya’s dynamic pre-K teacher has no faith in public schools and leaves Emerson to start a culturally affirming preschool for Black children. (Martin gave the teacher a platform this month when Martin was interviewed for the Integrated Schools podcast). A white mother with a background in education alienates teachers and parents with her blunt views on the urgency of improving test scores. Oakland school board meetings turn ugly when some parents and teachers protest a plan to close a predominantly white school because of financial problems.
And, like many of us who support diverse schools, Martin was shaken by the death of her mentor Courtney Everts Mykytyn, founder of the national Integrated Schools group.
Martin is an engaging writer with an eye for detail and a style that’s conversational, confessional and authoritative. She shares missteps and awkward moments. She makes brief and fluid digressions into policy matters: Oakland housing issues, the history of segregated schools, the “reading wars” over phonics, etc. Citing research from the scholar Rucker Johnson, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and others, she raises a flag for diverse, integrated schools and finds her faith in integration strengthened by her family’s experience.
“Integration isn’t the answer,” she writes. “But it’s a wildly worthy quest – personally and politically – in these beautiful, broken times.”