by Citizen Stewart

On one particularly reflective night Rev. Martin Luther King reportedly told two of his parishioners, both black educators, that the black community ought not give public schools “free reign” over “the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”

He said with the public schools we are “dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual – the mind.”

If only today’s elected black leaders could have that measured clarity about protecting the development our children. Even with so many of America’s eight million black students trapped in low quality public schools none of the elected are making strong demands for the key reforms likely to improve student learning.

If the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative convention last week is any indication we are a long ways off from seeing strident no-nonsense black voices speaking truth about public education. They can fill rooms with education bureaucrats, contract-seeking consultants, self-preserving teacher unionists, and pontificating Ph.D’s, but the plain speaking champions of the underclass are absent in those rooms.

I saw this firsthand at one of the CBC education “braintrusts” that was sponsored by national teacher unions. When a low-income parent attending the session spoke about his experience with choice and charter schools he was heckled by black teachers. The next parent in line was cut off by a moderator on a tight schedule.

There had been time for endless union talking points about improving everything in the world except what happens in a classroom between a teacher and student. Just not to hear from parents suffering from ineffective teachers and schools.

After another panel discussion on testing and accountability a parent told me she felt traumatized by the hostility she encountered from teachers in the room. Her crime? Stating she thought testing was a good tool to help parents like her know if her kids are on track.

It’s time we admit there is a damaging disconnect between the educational needs of black families in poverty and black leaders – especially when it comes to education.

Privately some of those leaders and their representatives tell me to be realistic. Elections cost money. Poor people don’t have money. The black caucus will always have an easier time dialing National education unions for dollars. According to RiShawn Biddle the education unions “have poured $331,450 into the outfit’s foundation arm in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 alone.”

None of the parents who attended the conference with me could scrap together that kind of cash. Does that mean they lack value to rooms where self-important people will discuss their children?

Real people want change

Research consistently says black families support school choice, charter schools, and accountability – all issues that make black electeds, mostly Democrats, squeamish.

A recent poll of black families from Education Post found the majority of black parents support “requiring states and districts to take action in chronically low-performing schools.”

These families believe great teaching can help children escape poverty.. They are especially supportive of resourcing and respecting their teachers, but they also expect ineffective teachers to be removed.

Finally, the polling found that black families are more likely than whites to support using testing to measure how well students are learning basic skills and to identify students and schools that need help.

An upcoming report from the UNCF (and partners including Education Post) found “[n]early 90 % of Black caregivers surveyed agreed that if we do not hold schools and teachers accountable, disadvantaged students will suffer the most.”

Clearly black people want changes to how we address institutional and systemic inequity in public education.

Ostensibly, the CBC wants improvement too. They say their priorities are “closing the achievement gap and increasing achievement for all students, increasing high school graduation rates, ensuring teacher quality, improving methods for gathering and reporting data, improving community involvement, and ensuring accurate referral for discipline and special education.”

Soon CBC members will have an opportunity to demonstrate those priorities.

Rubber hits the road

Special interests on the left and right will challenge accountability in the upcoming reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They will propose changes that reduce the role of federal government to hold states and education leaders accountable for making academic progress with the most vulnerable students.

Like so many important issues, the people most affected will be none the wiser that these political shenanigans are happening. Will the leaders they trust, black leaders, take charge of the situation?

Remember, the ESEA is one pillar of King-era solutions to academic disparities. It was key policy piece to President Johnson’s 1960’s “War on Poverty.” That legislation provided additional resources to schools along with a strong expectation that those schools improve outcomes for poor children.

So far we can be proud of our civil rights organizations. They have been fully present in the debate. The Leadership Council, a coalition of thirty-six civil rights groups including the NAACP and the National Urban League penned a strong letter urging congressional leaders to stand firm on accountability.

These leaders know there are simple positions we should hold to make school systems work for our kids.

States must be accountable for transparently reporting racial inequities in their schools systems, and setting targets for improving.

When they fall short they must allocate resources to intervene in chronically troubled schools.

Chief among those resources is the staffing of every classroom where low-income children of color come to learn with a high quality teacher who is educated in the subject she teaches.

These positions are so simple even people in Congress should understand them.

Will Congressman Bobby Scott and Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge, both CBC members who sit on the House Education and Labor Committee, be leaders rather than laggards when education unions work to weaken federal accountability in education?

If not, it might be time for poor people to send them a message: either lead, or leave.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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