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
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
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
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.
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
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.