Public Education and Black Empowerment
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.
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.