During last year’s racial protests in Atlanta, rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris tried to bring some calm to the violent clashes with police by referring to his hometown as Wakanda, the technologically advanced homeland of comic book hero Black Panther.
But Ricardo Miguel Martinez, president of the Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools, an advocacy group drawing attention to persistent achievement gaps, wasn’t buying it. “We’ve got to stop saying Atlanta is Wakanda,” he told The 74. “In Wakanda, Black and brown kids know how to read.”
Martinez is among those looking to next Tuesday’s school board election in Atlanta — where all nine seats are up for grabs — as an opportunity to address long-standing inequities in the 51,000-student, majority Black district. Pre-pandemic test scores showed that only about a third of Hispanic and a quarter of Black students scored proficient or higher in math and English language arts, compared with over 80 percent of white students.
“This election is where we start to say no more,” Martinez said.
In a district experiencing seismic demographic shifts, candidates represent a wide cross section of residents, from some who prioritize the most marginalized students to those who are well-connected to the city’s power structure. Atlanta is an emerging tech hub, where projects like Microsoft’s westside campus are driving up local real estate costs. Lower-income families are increasingly fleeing the city for more affordable housing in the suburbs, leaving some advocates to wonder if their voices are being heard.
“It really feels like our families are being forced out,” said Kimberly Dukes, the executive director of Atlanta Thrive, which helps parents track the quality of their children’s schools. “A lot of people look to Altanta as a dream. If you have money, you may be all right.”
This is the last time all seats will be on the ballot at once. A new state law, passed last year, will stagger the terms of board members. That means five of the winners will run again in two years, and four will serve a full four years.
Four incumbents, including board Chairman Jason Esteves, are running for re-election, along with 18 challengers. Only one incumbent, Michelle Olympiadis, is running unopposed. The board manages a $1.4 billion budget, roughly twice that of the Atlanta City Council. But in a year when voters are also choosing the mayor and council members — and when crime rates and a lack of affordable housing have dominated the news — Esteves wonders if education is getting the attention it deserves.
“We’re at a pivot point as a school system and as a city. We have the opportunity to tackle generational issues,” he said. “The issues we have with poverty are manifested in the things we’re seeing related to crime. How we tackle those issues directly impacts the school system.”
A September FBI report showed a staggering 62 percent increase in homicides between 2019 and 2020. The fatal stabbing in July of a woman and her dog in the city’s Piedmont Park is among the senseless crimes leaving the city on edge and calling for solutions.
Crime has also become a central issue in the mayor’s race, with some candidates drawing connections between the role of education and improving the quality of life for residents. With Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms not running for re-election, the slate includes former mayor Kasim Reed, who has promoted increased use of recreation centers to deter youth crime. Meanwhile, Courtney English, a former school board chairman, is running for city council president. He’s currently director of community development for a nonprofit providing afterschool programs in apartment complexes near low-performing schools.
City leaders don’t have any authority over the district, but a platform that includes coordination between the board, the council and the mayor’s office can “carry a lot of weight,” said Greg Clay, who served on a task force that wrote the district’s equity and social justice policy in 2019. He added that council and mayoral candidates who say, “That’s not my responsibility” when asked about education won’t be well-received.
Mann nurtured his interest in education policy while interning for the Atlanta school board. He pushed for the district’s new Center for Equity and Social Justice and wants students to have more say in their education.
“When students are included, it’s almost as a reward for being a high-achieving student,” he said. “It’s the students who are struggling in the system that we need to listen to the most.”
Mann supported a campaign to rename his school Midtown High last year, dropping the name of Henry W. Grady, a Civil War-era journalist who didn’t support equality for freed slaves. Last week, another school was renamed for Atlanta baseball legend Hank Aaron, replacing that of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Forrest Hill.
While the symbolism is important, parents in the city’s predominantly Black southside neighborhoods want more than just school name changes. At the September candidate forum, board member Mitchell, whose constituents include those families, said, “We need to have equitable options in our schools so we can retain our students in our area, so they can be proud of the schools they’re attending.”