"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 pt 2
By Manning Marable

Part Two

A vigorous defense of public education is directly connected with the struggle for black community empowerment. Despite the many arguments now circulating in favor of privatization and "school choice" in many African-American neighborhoods, only a strong public schools system will produce real results for our children.

Any reviews comparing the scholastic performance of students in public vs. nonpublic schools can be misleading for a number of reasons. Many "choice" schools achieve their levels of excellence by limiting access to the most "competitive students." Indeed, what researchers are frequently measuring may not be the effectiveness of an educational program, observe education scholars Gary R. George and Walter C. Farrell, Jr., but the process of selectivity "along even more rigid lines of race and class. Private choice schools often recruit differentially, pursuing students from middle-class public schools and other private schools aggressively and in person while sending only promotional brochures or booklets to students in low-income schools." George and Farrell also note that private schools frequently "do not provide services for handicapped students, and limited-English-proficient students often are discouraged from applying."

There is a widely held belief that students generally do better in private schools, but the evidence for this is at best mixed. One 1992 study assessing the results of private vs. public schools with statistical evidence taken from the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress actually found "the longer students stay in private schools, the worse they do, and the longer students stay in public schools, the better they do."

What is clear, however, is that public schools have the greater potential for creating culturally diverse environments, that measurably enhance the critical intellectual skills of young people. One 2000 study sponsored by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, in partnership with the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education, found that "high school students in metropolitan Louisville-a particularly diverse and integrated urban school system-reported that they benefited greatly from the diversity of their schools."

The survey, which was administered to over 1,100 students, found that "strong educational benefits" were observable in three key categories: "critical thinking skills, future educational goals, and principles of citizenship." About 90 percent of all students surveyed reported "that exposure in the curriculum to different cultures and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups has helped them to better understand points of view different from their own."

The advocates of school choice fail to comprehend that the purposes and functions of profit-making businesses and public schools are fundamentally different. Education scholar Alexander Astin of UCLA makes this point brilliantly: "Successful profit-making businesses grow to accommodate the increasing demand for their products or services because growth tends to increase profits." What happens when a particular public school becomes very popular or highly successful in the market for students? It doesn't increase its enrollment to accommodate demand, Astin observes, "It becomes 'selective.' Notable examples of such schools would be the Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, New York, or the many 'magnet' schools.. In short, since the size of successful schools in the educational marketplace does not usually increase, the least successful schools seldom go out of business. Students have to attend school somewhere.

This process of selectivity concentrates the "best students"-those who are highest achieving and highly motivated-in the elite schools. These are also usually the children of the wealthiest and best educated households. The net affect of what Astin calls "differential selectivity is thus to stratify schools" by socioeconomic status and academic achievement. "These realities suggest that one highly likely consequence of implementing a policy of choice would be to magnify the existing social stratification of the schools." Vouchers will only be financial incentives for more middle-class families to take their children out of public schools; many private schools will simply respond to this increased demand by becoming even more "selective," or by raising their tuitions, or both.

I believe that real academic excellence can only exist in a democracy, within the framework of multicultural diversity. Indeed, our public school systems, despite their serious problems, represent one of the most important institutional safeguards for defending the principles of democracy and equality under the law. There is, in effect, a dual function of public education. As Diane Ketelle, a professor of education at St. Mary's College of California, recently wrote: "A public school has both internal public purposes and external public purposes. The internal purpose is learning, but the external purpose is to build community."

Public education alone has the potential capacity for building pluralistic communities, and creating a lively civic culture that promotes the fullest possible engagement and participation of all members of society. In this sense, the public school is a true laboratory for democracy.

More than a century ago, African Americans understood this. For the new freedmen, after Emancipation and the celebration of Jubilee, desired two things above all else: land and education. The formerly enslaved African Americans were absolutely clear that knowledge was power, and that the resources of the government were essential in providing the educational context and social space for their collective advancement. It is for this reason that so many of the decisive struggles against Jim Crow segregation in the twentieth century focused around our access to quality public education.

It makes absolutely no sense to divert billions of dollars away from struggling public institutions to finance privately owned corporations that consider education merely as a profit-making venture. The fight to preserve and enhance public education, is inseparable from the struggle for black empowerment and black freedom.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University.
posted by R J Noriega at 8:42 AM | Permalink |


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