From the sky it looked like a sea of parked cars below. As the plane descended it became clear that the cars were actually a sea of colorfully dressed people. On the ground, the details became more specific: the village floor was carpeted with lifeless bodies, mothers and fathers hugging their babies in frozen poses.

This was late November 1978, a year when television ownership reached 98% of households, and escapist fantasies like Happy Days and Love Boat.

Time magazine explained it this way:

In an appalling demonstration of the way in which a charismatic leader can bend the minds of his followers with a devilish blend of professed altruism and psychological tyranny, some 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple died in a self-imposed ritual of mass suicide and murder…Not since hundreds of Japanese civilians leaped to their deaths off the cliffs of Saipan as American forces approached the Pacific island in World War II had there been a comparable act of collective self-destruction.

That last phrase clarifies everything. Collective self-destruction. It’s that thing that happens when you lose reason and logic on your way to some hot death that has been meticulously packaged as utopia.

As a kid, I saw Jonestown on the cover of Time magazine and wondered how so many black people believed in Jim Jones. How did one white man convince them to give up everything they held sacred?

Today’s Jonestown

You might not forgive me for this brutal equivalency, but it’s Jones that I think of when I see teacher unionists present black people with an impossibly naive vision to “reclaim the promise” of public education.

They are selling us a disingenuous Guyana where all schools have endless resources; every classroom is perfectly integrated by race, class, and gender; all anti-black prejudice has been addressed in the majority white teaching force; every teacher is equally talented, caring, and effective; and the United States’ institutions love black people as if they are white.

My sour prediction is none of that is happening any time soon. The trends that stratify races and classes will continue. Poor people, especially the black and brown, will continue catching hell. The problem will continue being driven by income, which is driven by employment, which is driven by education. If schools and school staff fail, America fails. Utopia remains afar.

Only Jonestown logic would have us place our hopes in a system proven to miseducate our kids, incarcerate them once the miseducation is complete, and then blame them for their captivity while profiting from it.

My message to poor people is this: only middle-class people with gainful employment can afford the glittery belief in “reclaiming” the system. After 400 years of inedible wooden nickels only a fool yearns for a “promise” in place of a solid plan. That plan must include a militant focus on literacy, numeracy, and self-affirmation; strong teachers and curriculum; expanded options for schooling; and schools or systems that are accountable for real results.

Everything else is fog.

Escape from Jonestown

Here’s my plea (and it’s a desperate one). We can’t move forward until we see our current Jonestown for what it is and start rejecting the Koolaid. We must reclaim the black mind. We must prevent our youth from becoming intellectual wards of the state.

I’m mindful here of the Harriet Tubman quote:

I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

We must think critically about the nature of our oppression. We must ask what is our evidence that public education, as traditionally conceived, can get us to a place of black independence?

To answer that question we will be tempted to turn to our educated people for answers. But education as an issue presents a confounding irony. The people we expect to fight poorly performing education systems are actually products of that system. They’re not revolutionaries. They are system enthusiasts, which makes sense if you consider they are prepared, promoted, paid and peer reviewed by that system.

Our would-be Paulo Freire’s are tenured overseers for Jonestown. They produce and promote “scholarship” that reinforces the basic faulty premises of public education. As educated gatekeepers they seem chronically and tragically fascinated with the wrong problem statement.

Reform isn’t the enemy. The issue isn’t about people attempting to radically change how schools operate; it isn’t that there are efforts to liberalize how we find, prepared, evaluate, and place teachers; it isn’t that a select few billionaires are investing their wealth in a dogged pursuit of better educational outcomes.

Teach For America isn’t our problem either. The fact that 1,400 colleges of education draw “teachers” from below the average of the collegiate cognitive pool, then send them poorly trained to 14,000 school districts and 98,000 schools where the worst of them end up before children of color who need strong instruction more than anyone.

It isn’t the existence of charter schools or school choice.

And, it isn’t the “privatization” of education either.

Our problem is how badly state-run, bureacratized, industrialized, unionized schooling works for children of color in poverty. It isn’t working.

No, it’s all so much simpler than that.

Our problem is that every morning millions of black children enter expensive and decaying buildings full of people fortunate enough to have a college education, and middle-class job benefits, but lacking in demonstrable capacity to educate marginalized children even to the abysmally low bar of reading and math “proficiency.” The problem is systemic, old, and we should see it clearly by now. It’s the public-ization, stupid.

Because of Michele Alexander we have done a good job of understanding right-wing attempts to perpetuate a new Jim Crow.

But we’ll never be truly free unless we have open throats and straight backs when it comes to calling out the left-wing counterpart, the new Jim Jones.

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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