By Philip White
As this country is gratefully approaching the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, a national down ballot issue rages on – the battle for control of k-12 education. Forums from Washington, DC to Atlanta, Georgia have been conducted that pit groups advocating for various aspects of school reform and school funding. Essentially, the contest continues for the power to control the minds and resources of the urban educational communities across the nation.
The k-12 issues that has generated much of the attention are charter schools and school takeovers. Recently, a Town Hall Meeting, titled “Is School Choice, the Black Choice”, moderated by TV One’s Roland Martin, and was held on the campus of Howard University. Mr. Martin noted that Howard University is the first HBCU to sponsor a charter school on its campus. The panel included a number of educational and community leaders who advocated various positions. The panel included strong charter school advocates and advocates of traditional public schools. It appears that there were a couple of major observations of the Town Hall Meeting. One observation was that the discussion regarding the effectiveness of charter schools received a great deal of attention. Charter advocates were forced to defend cherry picking students and community relationships. The second major observation was that charter advocates Roland Martin and Steve Perry, nationally renowned educator and charter school founder, both said that they now support successful public schools even if those successful schools are not charter schools. Both now support high quality public schools even if those schools are traditional schools.
Charter School advocates have become concerned because Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, after supporting the charter school movement for more than thirty years, is now quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “Most charter schools don’t take the hardest to teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Clinton stated that charters have weeded out weak and challenging students. She stated that charters have failed to comply with the initial objective of the charter movement which was to provide a small sample of innovative schools that could utilize successful strategies that could be duplicated in traditional public schools. In addition, the NAACP has formally called for a moratorium on any new charter schools.
On the ballot in Georgia is a referendum to the Georgia constitution. Amendment 1, written by school takeover advocates and supported by a conservative Republican governor allows for the state to “intervene” in chronically failing schools. The “intervention plan” called the Opportunity School District, would allow for the governor to appoint a “superintendent” to manage these schools and that “superintendent” would report directly to the governor. Local school districts would have the honor of continuing to fund the schools taken over by the state. New Orleanians would be excused if they thought that the Georgia plan is very similar to the Louisiana Recovery School District. How did that work out?
Atlanta icons, New Orleans native and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young and Mobile native, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron have voiced their opposition to the Opportunity School District. Young’s opposition is based on the drastic cut back of funding for public schools during the past decade. Aaron’s opposition is based on his experience as a student growing up in Mobile where his education was greatly impacted by great teachers.
Remember them, great teachers when there was real school choice. Before the invasion of the educational mercenaries in New Orleans, there was real school choice. Before the charade of One App, parents exercised real school choice. Before lotteries, parents selected the schools their children would attend. Few lines, no lotteries, no vouchers, few funny games.
In the Seventh Ward, there was Valena C Jones. In Pontchartrain Park, there was Mary D. Coghill. On St Roch, there was McDonogh 39 (now Avery Alexander). There were highly respected schools all over New Orleans staffed by educators who cared about their communities and established extremely strong relationships with the people in those communities. When there was real school choice, teachers actually walked to their schools in the neighborhoods in which they lived. When there was real school choice, teachers brought their own children to the schools in which they worked. Educators honored their colleagues, their profession and their communities by teaching each other’s children. Educators talked the talk and walked the walk. Educators made their groceries in the same neighborhoods as the families they served. (If you don’t understand the meaning of making groceries, that’s your problem).
At McDonogh 35, the oldest public high school for African Americans in New Orleans, it has traditionally been a point of pride that the children of the faculty and staff of McDonogh 35 attended McDonogh 35. Of course, if you just showed up in New Orleans five minutes ago and proclaimed yourself a reformer and savior of public education, you don’t have a clue about the traditions, culture, successes and heritage of that school’s community.
Real school choice existed before the current system of yellow buses entering a neighborhood and busing children to twenty different schools across the school district. Real school choice existed when some of the best teachers on Planet Earth taught in every New Orleans Public School.
Those advocates of an exclusive charter school district claim they believe in competition and market forces. They claim that they have the answers to improving the educational outcomes of students from low incomes environments. However, they don’t own their failures. Whatever happened to Abramson, John McDonogh and Miller McCoy? Also, whatever happened to the money received by the reformers?
Investment of the community’s resources in order to improve educational outcome and close the achievement gap between economic classes must be done strategically. It must include job training for the unemployed and family services for the families experiencing social and economic stresses.
Investment in quality schools must recognize why charter schools was proposed as a model for progress in the first place. Any successful strategy for improving outcome must be sustainable and transferable.
These school labels are counterproductive. Quality administrators and quality teachers must be supported and recognized. Quality learning environments must receive the support of the entire community. The allocation of resources must be done fairly and based on need. There must be a recognition that communities that have greater needs must receive greater resources. The absolute essential element for improving outcome is the reality of high quality early childhood and primary programs. The best people must teach children in the primary grades.
None of these suggestions are secrets. The community’s commitment to intelligently implement these suggestions is the challenge.
Quality schools require a long view and hard work. Quality schools reflect the communities they serve and visa versa. Communities that don’t like what they see in that reflective mirror must be willing to make the commitment to make that change.