"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Friday, January 27, 2006
Public Education and Black Empowerment
By Manning Marable

Part One

I recently was keynote speaker at the National Caucus of Black School Board Members, held during the sixty-first annual National School Boards Association in San Diego. I met hundreds of dedicated, progressive African-American community leaders who serve tirelessly on public school boards throughout the country. The Black Caucus functions as a national forum for problems faced by African-American school board members at the local, state and national level. The keynote gave me an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between public schools and the struggle to empower black communities.

Few issues are more controversial in American politics today than the debates over privatizing the management of public schools, and the conservative campaign favoring school vouchers, in which public funds are used to pay for all or part of students' tuition at either public or private schools. Most advocates of public education fear, with considerable justification, that these moves toward privatization will do nothing to enhance the actual quality of education especially for black, brown and poor children. Conservative Republicans, from President Bush to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, preach that market-based initiatives will provide the necessary incentives to promote higher levels of educational achievement. Millions of African Americans who usually support most progressive and egalitarian public policy positions, are increasingly divided over these issues. A growing and vocal constituency has become convinced that public education has failed, and that privatization is the only hope for our children.

Nationally, public opinion has also shifted during the past decade toward privatization and "educational choice." In 1990, only about one-fourth of all Americans supported school vouchers. By 2000, nearly one-half did-but only depending on the way pollsters asked the question, of whether public funds should be used to pay the tuitions of children attending private schools.

Opinion surveys among African Americans and Latinos have indicated for a number of years that there is a widely held perception that minority students perform better in private schools, and especially in parochial schools. One 1990 educational survey of over 100,000 students reported that African-American Catholics attending parochial schools were "more likely to complete high school and college." It is also significant to note here, that African Americans, Latinos and Asians now comprise more than one-quarter of the 2.6 million children attending Catholic schools in the U.S.

On the other hand, vouchers have not done well to date when placed on the ballot. In November, 2000, California's voucher initiative, Proposition 38, was overwhelmingly defeated. Even California's Catholic Bishops refused to campaign for the passage of Proposition 38, complaining that the initiative failed to "serve the poor."

How did we reach this point in the national discourse about public education? The roots of today's debate about privatizing schools and vouchers actually go back a half century, when the Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed "separate but equal" public schools. According to education scholars Robert S. Peterkin and Janice E. Jackson, one response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision was the creation of magnet schools, which were originally designed "to draw students across segregated residential areas to desegregated school environments."

In the late 1970's, the idea of "controlled choice" emerged in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which "was not only an attempt to voluntarily desegregate the schools but also one of the first district-wide plans to promote parental choice of schools as a major goal." Liberals and many radicals also began advocating the concept of "charter schools," public educational institutions that were given much greater flexibility in administration and curriculum. These alternative, public choice models of education rapidly proliferated across the country.

The Reagan administration got behind magnet schools in a big way. In 1984, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program as part of Title VII of the Education for Economic Security Act was passed. According to the research of Peterkin and Jackson, the magnet schools grew "from 14 districts nationwide in 1976, to 1,000 schools in 138 districts in 1981, and to 2,652 schools offering a combined total of 3,222 magnet programs at the end of the 1991-92 school year." By 2000, there were also about one thousand charter schools nationwide.

Criticisms about public school choice reforms began surfacing as early as twenty years ago. Critics argued that magnet schools created privileged learning environments primarily for middle class white students and a much smaller percentage of minority students, at the expense of lower income black and brown students. Others pointed out that these educational reforms did relatively little to stem the growing exodus of white middle class children from predominantly minority urban school systems.

By the early 1990's, the racial demographics of America's public schools were almost as striking as the racialized patterns of apartheid in South Africa. According to the national Center of Education Statistics, as of 1993, of the more than 15,000 school districts in the U.S., the 100 largest districts enrolled more than 40 percent of the nation's total minority student population. In 19 of these school districts in 1993, more than one-half of all students were African American, and in six, the majority were Latino.

African-American and progressive educators and school administrators are increasingly confronted by a conservative political establishment, corporate interests, and the media, that all overwhelmingly favor privatization schemes, of one type or another. It's time to take a stand for our children, and for public education. Because the fight to defend and enhance our public schools is a struggle that black folk cannot afford to lose. When one objectively analyzes all the different arguments for vouchers and for school privatization, they fall apart, one by one.
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