I read with interest a recent column by Anita Zucker and Ted Legasey, co-chairs of the Movement for Effective Schools for all of Charleston’s Children. They articulated the reality that some schools are failing our children and that the majority of those children are African-American. They also described the process they’ve embraced in an attempt to get opinions and input from a diverse group of community stakeholders and to explore the possible means and models to achieve their stated goal — that every child is able to attend an effective public school.
I commend Ms. Zucker and Mr. Legasey for their interest in the educational well-being of all children, but I was troubled by something they said in their column: “We are actually agnostic about who operates a public school — it can be a school district, a non-profit, or a charter management organization — all that matters is that the school is operated effectively, accessible to all families, and publicly accountable for its results.”
As a veteran clergy person, the spouse of a career educator, the father of two sons who graduated from traditional public schools, an observer of what passed for public school “desegregation” in the late 20th century and a member of the NAACP, I’m definitely not agnostic and am profoundly bothered by and skeptical of such ill-advised agnosticism.
My concern revolves around the definition of a “public school.” America’s Common School movement and subsequent Public School movement grew out of a belief that all children — regardless of race, culture or economic class — deserve a good education and that the government should create government operated and administered schools to achieve that goal. That effort was opposed from the beginning by private and parochial schools out of concerns about the impact on their enrollment and the impact of children of diverse racial backgrounds sitting in classrooms together.
That’s been especially true in South Carolina. Our state’s Reconstruction-era Legislature — with major African-American membership — enshrined free and equal public education through equitably operated and administered government schools in our State’s Constitution of 1868. That was undone by our State’s Constitution of 1895, which mandated racial segregation in every area of life — including public education.
When the United States Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, our state’s response was to fight against desegregation — even to the point of setting up a legislative commission to do so. Two of the strategies employed were to allow tax credits for parents to send their children to the school of their “choice” and to obliterate attendance lines so that parents could “choose” any school in a district for their children.
It bothers me that many of the “new and innovative” suggestions to change the face of public education are tinged by that decades-old battle — especially since some predominately African-American traditional public schools are “failing” because they’ve never been fully funded, staffed or equipped with the curricular choices and ancillary support needed to retain their most promising students.
It’s no mystery why some magnet, charter and privately funded public schools — which are not racially diverse when it comes to their teachers — have done well. They’ve received public funds and have been allowed to grow and flourish while some traditional public schools have not been equally endowed and continue to languish. That’s complicated by the fact that some parents flatly refuse to send their children to predominately African-American schools.
A review of available statistical evidence shows that “public-private” schools, charter schools and “turnaround” and “achievement” school districts yield no better results than traditional public schools and that the nontraditional “public” schools that fare the best often have the lowest minority populations.
The “free market” — an amoral concept at best — does not yield better objective educational results. That can be disastrous when the “free market commodities” are children.
My personal belief — and that of the Charleston Branch NAACP — is better reflected in another recent column by co-directors Miliicent Brown and Joe Hale of Charleston’s Quality Education Project. They embrace a vision for all traditional public schools that goes in the direction of equal funding, enhanced parental involvement through School Improvement Councils and adequate staffing, curricular offerings and ancillary support in all traditional public schools.
I embrace their model as a member of the Charleston Branch NAACP, and I hope that the Charleston County School District does so too, so that every school in the district will be on an equal footing and will present a good “choice.”
I appreciate the initiative and sentiments behind the Movement for Effective Schools for all of Charleston’s Children, but unless they work to better all traditional public schools and don’t just lean toward sometimes selective “innovation,” their high-sounding marketing label will be just another creatively crafted label — like the hypocritical “separate but equal” label that was used in a vain attempt to make segregation palpable a few decades ago.
The Reverend Joseph A. Darby is presiding elder, the Beaufort District of the AME Church, and first vice-president, the Charleston Branch NAACP.