Black People Have Tried the 'Trust Me' Relationship With Public Education for 150 Years, It’s Time For Something New

Nov 1, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Let’s suppose there are two sides of the education debate that use similar tactics to discredit their opponents, and to acquire Black voices that give credibility to their agendas. On one side there is a national network of Black spokespeople funded by unions and leftist White billionaires like George Soros (and foundations like Ford, Annenberg, Tides, Kellogg, and Schott). Contrasting them is another network of Black school reformers funded by Walton, Broad, Bloomberg, and Gates. Will we have to admit that there is White money and power on both sides of the issue, then call it a draw? I don’t think so.

A Fool's Proposition

For every second we waste positioning opposing Black education activists as Mandingo fighters, we should spend at very least as much time assessing their competing proposals. Overly simplified, here they are: On one side of this debate there is a group telling us traditional public schools are a superior vehicle for educating Black children. We only need to double their funding, reduce accountability, support their workers, and never measure their results because all instruments for doing so are too flawed. That to me sounds like a fool’s proposition that prioritizes preservation of a system more than demanding justice for our youngest citizens who face predictably bleak futures. We’ve tried the “trust me” relationship with education systems for 150 years. [pullquote]All we got for it was under-educated and under-prepared graduates who feed the social service sector and prisons.[/pullquote] On the other side there are reformers who are building new schools with new designs created specifically for the task of succeeding where traditional schools have not. They say [pullquote position="right"]there is no one-best-system to serve our kids.[/pullquote] We need multiple educational options for families who want to find the right fit for each child. However nostalgic or affectionate we feel about public education as the “cornerstone of democracy,” the truth is public education has been one of the most efficient methods for sorting people into unfavorable social categories that have lifelong consequences in terms of income, wealth and privilege. Like reformers, I think it’s well past time to take a knee on that one.

When Will We Admit the System Is Broken?

Considering these two education proposals (doubling down on the traditional system versus creating alternatives to it) one strikes me as better for families who don’t have the luxury of waiting for the traditional system to fix itself. They have kids now and they need solutions when the system doesn’t work for them, not platitudes. It’s sad to me that we can’t even admit the system is broken for them and too often our debate descends into claims and counter claims of scandalous motivations on both sides. Those of us who support new schools are accused of being in it for the money. We’re greedy privatizers set upon the destruction of the common school. I usually bristle at the charge, but given my penchant for pointing out the financial interests driving narratives that oppose school choice and reform, I admit it wouldn’t be unkind for readers to say “hey Chris, you do the same thing.” Perhaps.

The Gross Hypocrisy

I’ve pointed out that nearly all Black resistance to education reform comes from employees of traditional public education institutions, their unions, and moneyed interests intent on a single purpose of defending their educational plantation. I’ve also pointed out more than once that some of the most prominent Black voices opposing school choice are themselves graduates of private schools. This includes Julian Vasquez Heilig who produces nothing but strategic “scholarship” with the transparent goal of protecting traditional public schools. He’s joined by prolific New York educator Jose Vilson who writes thoughtful and meaningful pieces about race and education, but mostly does it without addressing the incredible insufficiency of the system to teach children who are not White or products of college educated parents. Add to them Yohuru Williams who litters the internet with weird perversions of civil rights theory in support of policies that limit the educational options of Black people to the same schools he avoided by going to a private school. I’ll concede that it could appear I’m dis-authenticating Black people in the same way that White unionist and their Twitter allies do to new schoolers. In my defense, I’m not challenging the authenticity of voices like Heilig, Vilson, or Williams. [pullquote]I’m challenging the gross hypocrisy of benefiting from choice in education, but then turning their backs on those choices for other Black people.[/pullquote]For becoming college-educated Black people who fight reform's focus of getting more Black people to and through college. For using their platforms to assail the cause of reform rather than using their considerable intellectual gifts to light a path toward something far more transformative than the stale and hostile system currently trapping our kids in cycles of academic poverty.

The Research Says It All

In the end we know research, not mysticism, tells us traditional public schools are old and insufficient. They are staffed by teachers who are not properly trained, assessed or evaluated specifically for the purpose of making academic gains with Black and Brown children. Studies repeatedly tell us our kids are  seen as less capable, disciplined more harshly, and they get the worst teachers. We know that race negatively affects how schools are funded, and how high expectations are for their success. The results of these combined problems contribute to the fact that most states have Black fourth grade reading proficiency wallowing below 20 percent. That’s a problem in relatively rich states like Minnesota and poor states like Mississippi. In my mind that translates into a lot of wasted potential, community strife and needless suffering. We can continue to fight about who is being funded by who, and who believes in the noble institution of public education, but practical, sober, and thinking people must be willing to admit we aren’t talking about a few aberrant side effects of an otherwise beautiful system. All things considered, we are seeing the systemic foreclosure on the Black mind, and thus, the Black life.
An original version of this post appeared on Citizen Ed as How Can We Improve Our Schools If We Can't Admit They Seriously Need Improving?.

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...