We Owe Rachel Jeantel An Apology

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I first heard about Rachel Jeantel, the star witness in George Zimmerman’s trial for Trayvon Martin’s killing, by watching conservative “comedian” Steven Crowder make fun of her for being illiterate.

Angry and sad is how I’d describe my feelings watching this woman admit that she cannot read cursive to the entire world, in a crowded courtroom, to a hostile attorney.

How can a country as wealthy and well-educated as the United States of America fail Rachel Jeantel so thoroughly? Surely Rachel is an extreme exception, not really a good example of how our education system is serving America’s children. But there are 32 million adults in America who can’t read, and countless more with limited literacy.

Many will say that public schools in America are fine. And I’d answer that they’re right. Public schools are great — for you. The middle class demands, and receives, good quality public education.

However, public education advocates rightly point out that low-income students need access to quality education the most.

When people talk about the need for public education, it’s not upper middle-class kids they are worried about. It’s the kids who they believe won’t be able to afford any education if the state doesn’t provide it. But the state of schooling for America’s poorest children is so dire right now, that it’s hard to say with a straight face that the state is successfully providing even a minimal education.

What a terrible injustice that only 38% of Cleveland city students graduate, while that number is 80% for suburban kids. Just 41% of Baltimore’s students graduate in four years, compared with 81% in the suburbs. It’s hard to imagine how we could have a system which is, in practice, nearly identical to the nightmare people warn us will result if we introduce free market reform to the education system.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, African American and Hispanic students (who tend to be lower income) perform worse on standardized tests than their white peers. The gap was 20 test points on average in 2011-2012. Regardless of whether these test results actually reflect what students learn, they certainly play a key role in who gets to continue their education.

Only a quarter of public high school graduates are college ready. Why bother finishing high school when an unattainable four-year degree seems to have become a minimum requirement for admission into the middle class?

When there are entire cities in America where a kid’s chances of being the victim of violent crime or graduating college by age 22 are roughly equal, it’s not accurate to describe a public school system supposedly aimed at serving the poor first as anything other than a complete failure.

No one should mock Rachel Jeantel. We patted ourselves on the back for a world-class public education system while we let her fall through the cracks. We promised her meritocracy and gave her failing schools and dropout factories. We owe Rachel Jeantel literacy, if only because we said we’d do it. We owe her — we owe all the kids we’re continually failing — an apology.