Public Education and Black Empowerment



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


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

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.

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.





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