Race and Education Reformers

August 5, 2007

For most of this nation’s history, black people have had too few allies in the struggle for better schools. Brown v. Bd. of Education tried to change that by tying the fate of black students with their white classmates. Although that effort has not turned out like Thurgood Marshall had hoped, the underlying point remains true: as a minority group, African-Americans need allies.

In light of this, I welcome the various folks now demanding better schools for low-income and minority students. At the same time, it is imperative that education reformers of all colors and sizes recognize that for African-Americans, the school struggle is part of a larger demand for equality and justice.

This point, which Sara Mead made well, might seem obvious. But then education reformers start talking and I realize it is not. A jarring example is The Education Gadlfy’s recent statement about the D.C. voucher program and voting rights for District citizens. Here it is in full:

Gadfly has heretofore expressed no opinion about the District of Columbia’s lack of representation in Congress. But the latest crusade of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, makes one think that perhaps D.C. shouldn’t have a vote. Norton is trying to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which turns federal dollars into private school scholarships for 2,000 of the District’s neediest students. Her stance is, at minimum, odd, because parents whose children have received scholarships like the program (see here and here). So who is Norton representing? Evidently not her D.C. constituents. She recently said that the program “was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.” But Deborah Green, whose daughter Tanisha is thriving in her new private school, disagrees. Green said, “We’re going to have a battle. I’m ready to do that because they need to keep the program going. Without it, the students don’t have a choice, and I don’t think that’s fair.” It’s not fair. Whether or not you think Norton should win a vote in Congress, here’s hoping she loses this particular fight and that the parents prevail.

The bottom line here: Gadly thinks that the District of Columbia citizens might not deserve the vote because our elected representative disagrees with the Gadfly (and the parents receiving vouchers) about the merits of the program.

This is illogical, bizarre and offensive. The illogic begins with the premise that because the parents of the children receiving vouchers like the program (studies show they do), Norton is acting against her constituency by opposing the plan. Of course, Norton’s constituency is broader than the parents who benefit. Other constituents don’t like vouchers. This is how democracy works; it is why a representative might choose to oppose needle-exchange programs for IV drug users even though addicts like the program, or might oppose tax breaks for businesses even if the owners appreciate the rebate, etc.

The Gadfly’s post is bizarre because suggesting that Norton is not being true to her constituency ignores the particular history of the D.C. voucher program. The voucher program was passed by Congress, not by the elected representatives of the District of Columbia. Everyone knows it would not have passed if D.C.’s elected officials got to vote on it–indeed, that is why voucher advocates went to Congress in the first place.

Would the Gadfly endorse Congress denying the citizens of Dayton, Ohio the right to vote and then passing a law that applied only to Dayton and that most of Dayton’s elected officials opposed? Of course not.

The difference is that the Constitution prohibits Congress from doing this to the citizens of Dayton, or any other part of the U.S. But it allows it with D.C. But even if it is constitutional to treat D.C. this way, there is simply no moral justification for legislating on local concerns. This point was eloquently made by Republican lawyers Lee Casey and David Rifkin Jr. at the time the voucher law was passed (available behind NY Times subscription wall). In discussing pending voucher and gun control legislation, they said:

Congress has the constitutional right to impose a school voucher program on the District of Columbia. It also has the legal power to relax the district’s strict gun control laws. But that doesn’t mean it should. In fact, doing so — as some senators are now proposing — violates the basic social compact the Constitution’s framers envisioned between Congress and the district.

The issues at hand are Republican-led efforts in the Senate to establish a school voucher program in the district and to repeal its 27-year-old ban on handguns. But while the Constitution grants Congress ”exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the national capital, it lacks the moral authority to impose policy choices over purely local matters like these, matters that otherwise do not affect the federal government’s operations.

In light of this history, many District residents oppose the voucher plan on process (i.e., democracy) grounds. For many, the merits of vouchers are beside the point, because the principle (again, democracy) has been violated.

The Gadfly’s argument is offensive too, and especially so to the precise constituency that the Gadfly and other education reformers purport to defend. D.C. is a majority black city in a country that denied blacks the right to vote for centuries. Even if Norton were dead wrong on vouchers, that is irrelevant to the question of whether the franchise should be extended to this majority-black constituency. We do not have to prove our worthiness to vote. D.C. residents deserve the right to vote in Congress unconditionally, because morality, political philosophy, and basic human rights say so, not because the Gadfly likes what our rep has to say about vouchers.

In fact, the Gadfly has it exactly backwards. Voting rights and democracy matter more than a single issue. The fact that the Gadfly reverses the order and privileges vouchers over equal citizenship buttresses the oft-made claim that, despite the racial justice rhetoric, the education reform community has concerns other than the health of the black community.

And at the end of the day, that’s why this is so important. I care about the education reform movement. A lot of African-Americans distrust education reformers like those at the Gadfly. Many believe they want to privatize the schools, they want free-markets to rule, and they use black families and children as pawns. I don’t know the folks behind the Gadfly, but I know many of their fellow travelers, and I don’t believe this is the case in general.

I think most ed reformers are well-meaning people who have, for a variety of reasons, been drawn to an issue that is unquestionably urgent–the quality of schools in low-income communities. It is hard enough to convince people of this as is. Posts like the Gadfly’s make it much harder.


4 Responses to “Race and Education Reformers”

  1. […] Extra Credit, James Forman Jr. takes apart the Fordham position. For anyone concerned with the intersection of race and education, this is a must […]

  2. Phyllis Murray Says:

    By Phyllis C. Murray

    “We are told of one stunning educational success after another with ever more children passing the standardized tests. But in reality, the city’s public school students, particularly those students of color in inner city neighborhoods, are receiving a less than quality education.’ EDUCATION PLANNING COUNCIL OF HARLEM/NY July 2006

    “The system still fails to educate its African American and Latino students – to the degree that they are ill-equipped to compete, academically and intellectually, with children of other racial and ethnic groups, attending schools in other neighborhoods. Our children are graduating – at too low a percentage, we can also say – poorly prepared for the challenges of higher education and fulfilling, lucrative new millennium careers.”EDUCATION PLANNING COUNCIL OF HARLEM/NY July 2006

    “Twenty-three schools in Westchester and Rockland counties have not met the federal standard for placing highly qualified teachers in their classrooms, according to a state report provided yesterday to The Journal News.” By DAVID NOVICH July 28, 2006

    The No Child Left Behind Legislation of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), has been a wake up call for many. This United States federal law is the key to a reauthorization of a number of federal programs that aim to improve the performance of America’s primary and secondary schools by increasing the standards of accountability for states, school districts and schools, as well as providing parents more flexibility in choosing which schools their children will attend. Thus, throughout New York City, parents are now given opportunities to decide where to send Johnny. Throughout the nation many parents are turning their backs on the public school system because they feel the city, state and federal governments have also turned their backs on inner-city public schools.

    These parents are looking for VOUCHERS, scholarships, charter schools, private and religious institutions to meet their needs. Far too often this pattern is repeated nationwide. We can even say that the public schools throughout the nation have been pauperized as one hears the cries of overcrowded classrooms, crumbling school buildings, out-of-date libraries, lack of textbooks, low academic standards, student violence, inadequate school safety, and failure to have highly qualified teachers i.e. one who has fulfilled the state’s certification and licensure requirements in every classroom.

    When education is not a priority, the funding educators seek to implement the NCLB Law is never adequate. What we see is the fact that European and Asian nations are outdistancing the U.S. in the competitive world job market. These nations have reached the goal of educational excellence in their schools. These nations are investing in their greatest resource: their children.

    Martin Luther King was able to forecast this phenomenon in a speech he made to the UFT in 1964. “Education for all Americans has always been inadequate,” King said. “The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools to compensate adequately its teachers. We squander funds on highways and the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armaments but we pauperize education.”

    It was Dr. King who reminded us that” we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Collaboration is the key in all successful negotiations. But that collaboration must embody mutual trust and mutual respect.
    Dr. King spoke, but apparently those in positions of leadership and power in government were not listening. King was assassinated in 1968. His legacy lives on today in those who wish to join teachers and concerned parents in a quest to provide the best education possible for all Americans. Yes, teachers and parents must continue to be the best advocates for children and education in America.

    The New York City Public School System was once a viable force for its earliest immigrants, like Henry Kissinger, who attended George Washington High School at night and worked in a shaving-brush factory during the day. Today, our nation’s public schools must work for all of its citizens, again. Arthur Eisenberg is right: “The state must seek to break the cycle of discrimination and disadvantage”. Certainly, the future of America,as a strong nation, depends on it.

    Phyllis C. Murray, UFT Chapter Leader

  3. […] Edwize, James Forman Jr. rightly takes the Gadfly to task for the “illogical, bizzare, and offensive” notion that District of Columbia residents […]

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