Progressives shouldn’t talk so lovingly about the history of public education

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As discussed in a recent Citizen Ed column, American public schools were built from the late 1800s through early 1900s on a foundation of racism. During this period, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants used political muscle to create segregated, compulsory local schools. In these factory-style schools, kids were processed according to race, class, and intended societal role. Although the system was built during Jim Crow, it appeared first in the North, championed by Progressives who believed in racial eugenics. Two white Protestant lobbies, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Education Association, backed the system’s national expansion. This period of time was the first and largest part of what commentator Diane Ravitch has called “the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years.”   

Sixty years ago, we could have shed this racist legacy. In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision launched the civil rights movement by declaring that “segregation with the sanction of law” was impermissibly “denoting the inferiority” of black students.

Briefly, our nation seemed to be on the brink of empowering black families to attend any schools they wished. On September 24, 1957, President Eisenhower deployed federal troops to protect the ability of the Little Rock Nine to attend classes in a previously all-white public school.  The logical extension of this approach would have been to require all education dollars to pass through the oversight of black families as vouchers to attend schools of their choice. Additionally, our nation could have prohibited “zip code laws” that blocked students from attending schools in different neighborhoods. If backed by prohibitions on race-based admissions criteria, black parents would have had economic power vis-à-vis local schools, and legal power vis-à-vis private schools and wealthy public schools.  

Sadly, this liberty-enhancing choice was never taken.  Instead, as has been well documented in housing markets of the same period, power brokers adopted progressive rhetoric to undercut actual choice by black families. As described by Brooklyn-based black activist Viola Plummer at a Black History Month event last year, “Somehow, Brown’s very fundamental and basic demand for equality was calculatedly translated in a U.S. Supreme Court hoodwink as ‘integration,’ after which we witnessed our children … bused to white neighborhoods, isolated and alone in hostile and dangerous territories.” The idea of integration and busing created the notion that all blacks needed to succeed was physical proximity to white students.  Even that was short-lived: a mere 20 years after Brown, the Supreme Court clarified that even segregation was permissible so long as there was no proof it had been “deliberate.”   

In addition to shutting down individual black choices, political leaders even went so far as to prevent black communities from exerting group control in districts where they held a local majority. This struggle took place decisively in Brooklyn from 1965 through 1968, involving a set of facts that resonate today, almost 50 years later.  In that case, the African-American Teachers Association (“ATA”, originally founded as the Negro Teachers Association) worked with black parents to seek changes in how local schools educated black students. The ATA had support from many black and Puerto Rican teachers, as well as many white teachers of black children, within the larger citywide United Federation of Teachers (or “UFT,” which then as now was the mostly-white teachers’ union of New York City.) The ATA sought to eliminate a “disruptive child clause” in the union contract, which the ATA claimed was used by white teachers to disproportionately punish and segregate black students. The ATA also sought to incentivize or compel experienced teachers to work in low-income schools. Eventually, the local school board with ATA support dismissed a number of white teachers and administrators.  In response, the UFT used its massive political muscle, including citywide strikes that disrupted classes for roughly two months. During the strikes, pro-ATA protesters were charged with “harassing” the UFT strikers; several of the protesters later counter-sued claiming that law enforcement had been discriminatory and excessive. In November 1968, the strikes ended with a state takeover of the local school district; the state Education Commissioner reinstated all of the dismissed teachers and transferred the locally appointed principals.  The force of the strikes, and the reaction, intentionally set a national precedent against local black control.

Reviewing these events from the perspective of America’s long-term racial history, it’s hard to miss the disturbing parallels. The specifics changed, from “slavery is good for blacks” prior to the Civil War, to “white owners are merely holding black sharecroppers’ income” during the Jim Crow era, to “blacks cannot be trusted with either vouchers or with control of local schools.” The parallels, however, included white control of financial resources that should have been controlled by black families; freedom of choice for black families subjugated to the economic interests of whites; and a rationale that invoked vague notions of the dangerous consequences of black agency.

Roughly thirty years after Brown, and fifteen years after the Brooklyn strike, the state of American education was reviewed in a 1983 report from the United States Department of Education.  This report, called A Nation at Risk, concluded: “functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.” Numerous contemporary reports from the time showed that black, Hispanic, and Native American students continued to fail in traditional public schools.  The only surprise was that white liberals expressed surprise. As a left-of-center author recently noted, this “classic white liberal” approach of allowed whites “to feel compassionate and superior at the same time,” without having to actual give quality choices to black families.