This charter still stands for change: In defense of KIPP schools

By Richard Buery

KIPP, America’s largest charter school network, recently discarded its storied motto: “Work Hard. Be Nice.” (Full disclosure: until last week I served as chief of policy and public affairs at the KIPP Foundation, the national organization that supports KIPP schools across the country.) The change was met with support in some circles but derision in others, including conservative havens like the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The idea that changing a motto represents an abandonment of critical values is a red herring. The change does not signify that KIPP is rejecting working hard and being nice. Instead, it is a reflection that in America, those values are necessary but not sufficient.

The hard truth of life in a country steeped in racism is that following the rules and being a moral individual does not guarantee your success. In America, we know that it can be a crime — sometimes a capital one — to drive while Black, to go to school while Black, to drink coffee while Black, to legally own a gun while Black, to sleep in your own home while Black, to protest injustice while Black, and indeed merely to live while Black.

We know that Black people with a college degree are less likely to own a home than white high school dropouts. We have significantly less wealth, inadequate health care, and are more likely to live in food and transportation deserts. We know that Black people are over-policed and under-protected. We know that the history of racist oppression didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reconstruction amendments, the civil rights movement or the election of Barack Obama. There is simply no facet of life in America that racism doesn’t touch, and when our children graduate from our schools, that is the America they will be entering.

To say this is not to reject the values of working hard and being nice. Indeed, working hard is a value I hope to build in my own children. And as the life of the recently departed Rep. John Lewis demonstrates, being nice does not mean being servile or slavish. But there is nothing wrong with telling our children the truth: that change in America will take more than pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It will take coming together to build power and demand change.

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