On Public Versus Charter: “The Dispute Has Actually Nothing to Do with Education”

I.

Published 54 years ago, Nobody Knows My Name continues to shake any reader willing to listen as James Baldwin bore witness to the region currently—and again, shamefully—in the national spotlight, “the South, which was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people.”

Baldwin continued—and we could too easily substitute for his “this” as we now witness debates long past their time for resolution:

This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.) Educated people, of any color, are so extremely rare that it is unquestionably one of the first tasks of a nation to open all of its schools to all of its citizens. But the dispute has actually nothing to do with education, as some among the eminently uneducated know. It has to do with political power and it has to do with sex. And this is a nation which, most unluckily, knows very little about either. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1102-1108). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

The “frivolous” comes not from the great questions that have always and will always confront humanity—how do we educate?—but from the “bad faith” among “uneducated people” who have undeserved privilege and power.

To believe the current education reform debate is not nearly indistinguishable from what Baldwin contested as the U.S. resisted desegregation is to live among the deaf and blind.

For more than three decades now, public education has been held hostage by the most frivolous of frivolous debates: how to design and implement accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing. This adolescent game of “my accountability can beat your accountability” has left public education and the children it should serve battered and bloodied.

From the seemingly endless cycle of new standards and new high-stakes tests (and ways to punish even more groups within our public schools) to the increasingly snarky divisiveness and personal politics of social media, the often cited reasons for all this sound and fury—public schools, the children—are being mis-served; just as a couple terrible examples, public education has re-segregated during the accountability era, and the mislabeled achievement gap among racial groups has remained robust.

II.

“I often find myself scratching my head,” writes Andre Perry, “wondering why so many black folk extol the virtues of public education.”

Perry, 54 years after Baldwin’s challenge to “frivolous dispute,” wades into not only the public versus charter schools debate but also the race and social class biases at the root of whose voices matter and whose voices do not.

Most of the U.S. sits idly by—like audiences watching the newest Avengers movie—while the arrogant and mighty battle, rarely acknowledging the collateral damage (will there ever be a superhero blockbuster film in which all those superheroes use their superpowers to rebuild the infrastructure they destroy?).

Since Marvel’s Civil War is set for film soon, we may be watching the equivalent in fiction of the public versus charter debate, and I think Perry is offering a rare but important plea, as Baldwin did: “the dispute has actually nothing to do with education.”

Perry recognizes “[i]n the education wars,”

black and brown educators who criticize the current wave of reform often find themselves rallying with those who can say that public education in this country works. But let’s be clear, blacks aren’t in a position to root for or celebrate the status quo. Likewise, there has never been a time in which blacks shouldn’t have considered themselves reformers. Yet many have incidentally joined an education “party of no.”

Although eventually (as late as the early 1970s in the South Baldwin examined) public schools were forced to open their doors to all children, Perry stresses “many of us fight for that unfulfilled promise at the expense of student learning”:

Public education should advance society and its individual members simultaneously. But black communities can’t afford to wait for whites to gentrify schools in the name of democracy to get a good education.

And thus, Perry challenges the false dichotomy that has been created by the “education reform [debate that] is too white to do any good“: public schools versus charter schools. In fact, Perry asserts, guided by Frederick Douglass’s “What To The Slave Is The 4th of July?”:

Charter schools make sense for black communities. Charter schools are independent public institutions that are freed from administrative controls of a centralized, area board, but must still meet broad guidelines or requirements of public schools. Through a charter, parents, teachers, and administrative staff primarily can gain freedom from an elected local board that’s incongruent with their values.

To fight the public versus charter war at a pitch that drowns out the voices of those whom “public institutions” should be serving, must be serving is disturbingly frivolous, Perry recognizes.

Of all the education reform debates, this tension has given me the most pause: How can we rectify rejecting “no excuses” charter schools for being racist/classist while many black families choose those very schools?

I am compelled to look again to Baldwin in order to remove the misleading labels (“public,” “charter”) and to hear, as Perry explains:

I like many see a promise that charter schools can deliver, but I also see inequities waving in the faces of black and brown students every day in public schools. Inadequate funding, harsh suspension and expulsion policies, lack of services for students with special needs and culturally irrelevant curricula are durable, standing problems in most takeover districts. I see waste, fraud, and unsavory practices that led cities to decentralize.

“Charter” for Perry represents a new promise, one responsive to the needs of children too long ignored.

So to save this debate from the “frivolous” we must guard against simplistic labels. Regardless of whether the school is “public” or “charter,” the educator’s commitment must be, as Paul Gorski explains, to “take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income[, black and brown] students and families.”

Being for public education or either for or against charter schools proves to be as callous and hollow as superheroes destroying a city to win a war between Good and Evil when we lose sight of foundational promises to achieve race and class equity.

III.

In the years between Baldwin’s and Perry’s commentaries, the promise of public institutions has remained unfulfilled because the question of race in the U.S. has never been fully confronted.

In 2015, presidential candidates expressing racist trash are viable while elected officials, although now in a minority, in South Carolina continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag as they spew whitewashed history and empty slogans as thin veils for racism that works as political capital. In 2015, because a privileged minority controls what counts as civil debate, we haven’t the capacity to denounce the morally reprehensible position that “both sides” deserve equal credibility.

So we are people trapped by trivializing debate and democracy in a moral vacuum.

And again, Baldwin’s “debate” allows us to insert his voice in our moment now:

And yet, it became clear as the debate wore on, that there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimiliar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 346-351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

From Baldwin’s world of overt racial segregation to Perry’s world of covert racial segregation, then, whether the debate be who we educate or how we educate, the tarnished promise is the consequence of the white illusion:

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1080-1085). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

IV.

We need “educated people,” as Baldwin explained—not the credentialism of formal schooling, but the education that comes from Freire’s reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world unmasked of race and class privilege.

Educated people who can state clearly that no black child should have to sit in Robert E. Lee Elementary.

That no black young adult should have to sit in Tillman Hall.

Yes, names matter.

But then, the indignity of honoring “men with wicked histories” must not be compounded by what happens inside those institutions.

No black, brown, or poor child should be walking through the doors of any school only to be treated as criminals, failures, or data.

We need educated people who can admit public, charter, and private schools remain too often institutions of inequity reflecting a country in which a child’s race and social class at birth have a greater bearing on her/his life than the content of her/his character.

We need educated people who can admit symbolism and practices both matter—that two Americas will not be tolerated or obscured by “frivolous dispute[s … that have] nothing to do with education.”

On this there must no longer be debate.

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