Class (Not) Dismissed

The Eugene School Board’s annual retreat this weekend will be attended by their two superintendents. This will be George Russell’s twelfth and final board retreat. Sheldon Berman doesn’t replace Russell until July, but he’s agreed to attend this weekend. The future to be contemplated will be entrusted to his oversight.

They’ll wrestle with a budget shortfall, declining enrollment, school closures, two local ballot initiatives, a labor contract, and the leadership transition. That’s more than a high school linebacker would heap on his cafeteria plate on all-you-can-eat pizza day.

But I hope they also seize the moment and explore a perfect opportunity to explore and understand Eugene’s deepest diversity.

Perfect because Russell is leaving, so he can speak plainly about what he accomplished, but also the challenges he shrank from. Perfect because Berman can be forgiven for asking dumb questions or posing hypothetical solutions, flying in from that faraway land of Kentucky. Perfect because the school board can put two and two together, watching where simultaneous superintendents see eye-to-eye.

Berman no doubt has been told that we don’t have diversity in Oregon, but I’m sure he knows better. Racial and ethnic diversity are admittedly in short supply. Political diversity is less than the screamers on both ends would have you to believe. Even economic diversity inside Eugene’s city limits isn’t as great as you might expect.

Eugene’s greatest diversity comes from a mixture of many of those other variables — an amalgam we never talk about, lest we expose our nation’s most violent roots. Eugene’s greatest diversity is related to class.

Americans for generations have used race as a proxy for class. You’ll recall a confrontation between an African-American Harvard professor and a working class Boston cop prompted the president to call a “beer summit” at the White House. The professor drank wine and the cop drank whatever was on tap. The president split the difference with a microbrew. The lines marking race and class became more blurred.

Likewise, income has been used to mask our class distinctions. They are not unrelated. Income determines what we can pay for, but class organizes which things we pay for first. It’s only during times of income volatility that those priorities become revealed. Any realtor can predict where support for an education-related tax measure will be strongest. It’s where buyers asked first, “Where are the best schools?”

Americans never talk about class, because getting rid of it was one of our forefathers’ main reasons for leaving Europe. We’ve built our image as a nation around an anti-class mythology that does have some basis in fact. Benjamin Franklin probably did arrive in Philadelphia with only some bread and loose change in his pockets. Horatio Alger really might have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, inspiring others to do the same.

We do have a president in the White House who was not born of royalty, who was raised by a single mother, who didn’t start with every advantage. And he’s not our first, not even in the past dozen years. We’ve separated class from lineage, but it still exists.

The glossy pictures we have of rags-to-riches stories can dim our view of the world around us. The two down-and-outers who have recently become president of the United States were schooled at Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Oxford. Education is our society’s best corrective to a society organized by class, but we’re uncomfortable applying the remedy while denying the diagnosis.

Russell tried to bring up the issue of class several years ago. He pointed out that neighborhood schools had double or triple the rate of children eligible for subsidized meals, when compared to the alternative schools. He pointedly warned the city that the school choice program was inhibiting some of the vital integration that builds strong minds and strong communities. He was politely rebuffed.

Likewise, Berman was prematurely shown the door from the Jefferson County School District for daring to suggest that the schools should be integrated to address class disparities — reflected in race and income and the spending priorities of parents — across Kentucky’s largest district.

Here’s hoping Berman didn’t overlearn from that lesson and that Russell can back him up, as these two decorated educators school the board on the importance of diversity. They will serve our city best if they all leave their retreat with this unified message: “Class not dismissed.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column every Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here.