The Racists Roots and Racist Indoctrination of School Choice

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“Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”
-President John F. Kennedy

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Billionaires and far right policymakers are pushing for school choice.

I say they’re pushing for it because voters always turn it down.

Every single referendum held on school choice in the United States has been defeated despite billions of dollars in spending to convince people to vote for it.

But advocates aren’t discouraged that the public isn’t on their side. They have money, and in America that translates to speech.

The Donald Trump administration is dedicated to making our public schools accept this policy whether people want it or not.

But don’t think that’s some huge change in policy. The previous administration championed a lighter version of these market-driven plans. The main difference goes like this: Democrats are for charter schools and tax credits for private and parochial schools. Republicans are for anything that calls itself a school getting your tax dollars – charter schools, private schools, religious schools – if some charlatan opens a stand on the side of the road with the word “school”in the title, they get tax dollars.

In all this rush to give away federal and state money, no political party really champions traditional public schools. Ninety percent of children attend them. In opinion polls, a majority of Americans like their local community schools. But like most things Americans want, politics goes the other way. Universal healthcare? Have Romneycare. Universal background checks on all gun sales? Nah. That sort of thing.

However, what often gets lost in the rush of politicians cashing in on this policy is its racist roots.

You read that right. School choice was invented as a mechanism of white flight. Before the federal government forced schools to desegregate, no one was all that interested in having an alternative to traditional public schools. But once whites got wind that the Supreme Court might make their kids go to school with black kids, lots of white parents started clamoring for “choice.”

It was intended as a way to get around Brown vs. Board. In 1953, a year before that landmark decision, many white southerners felt it was vitally important to continue a segregated education. They deeply desired to continue having “separate but equal” schools for the races, yet the US Supreme Court seemed ready to strike that down.

Enter Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge who created what became known as the “private-school plan.” Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision,” Talmadge said.

The plan goes like this. If the Supreme Court mandates desegregation (as it did), the state would close the schools and issue vouchers allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.

Fortunately, Talmadge’s plan was never implemented in Georgia. But it became the model for segregationists everywhere.

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the plan actually came to fruition – sort of.

Two years before the 1959 federal desegregation deadline, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall explained what county leaders were planning:

“We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with ’em.”

Ultimately the county refused to sell the public school buildings. However, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years, from 1959 to 1964. During that time, taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge.

The federal government struck down the program as a misuse of taxpayer funds after only a year, but even so whites benefited and blacks lost. Since there were no local taxes collected to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county were left to fend for themselves. Since they were unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools, many black children were simply shut out of school for multiple years.

In other states, segregationists enacted “freedom of choice” plans that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Any black students that tried to do the same had to clear numerous administrative hurdles. Moreover, entering formerly all-white schools would subject them to harassment from teachers and students. Anything to keep the races apart in the classroom – and usually the entire building.

Eventually, segregationists began to realize that separate black and white schools would no longer be tolerated by the courts, so they had to devise other means to eliminate these “undesirables.”

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned:

“Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.”

Mays turned out to be somewhat prescient. Though desegregation efforts largely succeeded at first, in the last 20-30 years whites accomplished through housing and neighborhood segregation what they couldn’t legally enforce through outright school segregation. District lines were drawn to minimize the number of blacks at predominantly white schools and vice versa. Moreover, since funding was often tied to local property taxes, whites could legally ensure black schools got less resources than white schools. And with standardized tests constantly showing students at these schools as failing, policymakers could just blame the school instead of what they’d done to set the school up for failure.

Today racist policies undermine much of the structure of our public schools. We should acknowledge this and work to peel it back. We need to ensure all schools are equitably funded, that class sizes are under control, that all students get a broad curriculum and the services they need. But in the absence of a new, robust desegregation policy, our schools will always be in danger of racist programs that can easily select which students to benefit and which to ignore.

Instead of doing this hard work, we’re engaged in resurrecting the school choice policies of the deep South and universalizing them across the country. School vouchers are extremely similar to Talmadge’s private school plan. The main difference is that vouchers don’t close public schools outright, they simply allow them to be defunded and ignored. With universal school vouchers, public schools often become the de facto holding area for whichever group of children the private schools refuse to accept or who can’t afford private school tuition even with the vouchers.

Charter schools are built on the Prince Edward County model. They’re administered as private institutions yet claim to be somehow public. As a result, they’re allowed to bypass many of the rules that protect students at public schools from discrimination and fraud. In effect, they’re largely unregulated. In the modern age, that means they can be incredibly substandard for long periods of time and no one knows or intervenes. The kinds of scandals perpetrated at some charter schools are simply not possible at traditional public schools. Some charters close without notice, have facilities used as nightclubs, involve taxpayer funds used for non-school purposes such as apartments for mistresses, the purchase of yachts, etc.

In both cases, charters and voucher schools often cater to mostly one race rather than another. That increases segregation at both these facilities and traditional public schools. But voucher schools can go a step further. They can even put racism on the curriculum.

Supporting the racial order is often what’s actually being taught at private and religious schools. They are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

The American Christian Education (ACE) group provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks.  A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

These books include the following gobsmackers:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

“God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.”
—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994

“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”
—United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 1991

“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise.  Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin. By first giving them their spiritual freedom, God prepared the slaves for their coming physical freedom. ”
-Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History:  Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1996), p. 219.

“Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel…Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write. In some areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have taken over the government.”
—Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed., A Beka Book, 2004

Gay people “have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.”
—Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

Brown v. Board of Education is described as social activism by the Supreme Court: “While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome… liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”
-Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998 – 1999 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 34

These are claims that are uncritically being taught to children at many voucher schools. If this were happening only at private schools, it would be troubling that racists were indoctrinating their children in the same hatred and bigotry of their parents. However, that we’re actually using public money – and planning to expand the amount of public money – to increase the racism and prejudice of the next generation is beyond troubling! It’s infuriating!

School choice does not enhance civil rights. It is inimical to them. It is part of a blatant policy to make America racist again. We cannot allow the Trump administration and any neoliberal Democrats who quietly support his ends to undo all the progress we’ve made in the last 60 years.

The bottom line is this – voters don’t want school choice. It does nothing to better childrens’ educations. It is a product of segregation and racism and even in its modern guise it continues to foster segregation and racism.

If we care about civil rights, social equality and democratic rule, school choice is something that should be relegated to the dust heap of history. It’s time to move forward, not look back fondly on the Confederacy, Jim Crow and segregationism.

High Stakes Testing Doesn’t Protect Civil Rights – It Violates Them

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“Daddy, I know who that is!”

“Who is it?”

“That’s Martin Luther King.”

“That’s right, Baby! Who was he?”

“We saw a movie about him today in school. He had a dream.”

Thus began a fascinating conversation I had with my seven-year-old daughter a few days ago.

I had been going through her book bag and found a picture of Dr. King blazoned above an article about his life.

“He wanted everyone to be nice to each other,” she said.

I laughed. My first grade scholar isn’t that far off.

“He’s one of my heroes,” I said. “He means a lot to me.”

“That’s silly,” she said. “He doesn’t have any super powers.”

Before I could reply, her attention shifted to her stuffed Yoshi doll. She began to play.

One of the best things about being a parent is getting to see the world anew through the eyes of your children. My little girl offers me this vantage point everyday.

Dr. King can’t be a hero. He had no super powers.

Or did he?

“I have a dream,” he famously said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s a simple wish. A simple insight.

Or is it?

Do we do that today? Do our schools?

As a middle school teacher, I’m well aware how our public schools judge our children, and it’s not by the content of their character. It’s by their standardized test scores.

High scores mean you’re learning. Low scores mean you’re not. And if you’re not learning, that’s your teachers fault and we’re going to close your school or turn it into a charter.

What’s worse, we’re going to do it because that ensures your civil rights.

That’s the story anyway.

Ever since rewriting the federal law governing K-12 schools began to be debated in earnest by Congress, the tale was told that high stakes testing is good for minorities. It makes sure schools aren’t neglecting them.

And now that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has been passed, well-meaning people everywhere are wondering if we’re looking out for our black and brown brothers and sister enough – do we have enough federally mandated high stakes tests? Is there enough accountability?

After all, the new law potentially returns much of the power for education policy to the states. What if states don’t give as many tests? How will state legislatures ensure black students aren’t being neglected? Why would schools actually teach black kids if we don’t threaten to close them based on test scores?

These would be laughable questions if they weren’t asked in earnest. With such frequency. Even from some civil rights organizations.

Some things to consider:

1) The ESSA does absolutely nothing to limit standardized testing.

When Congress was rewriting federal education policy, parents, educators, students and experts of every stripe asked for a reduction in testing. It didn’t happen. Exactly the same number of tests are required under the ESSA as there were before it was passed – once a year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

2) Punishing schools doesn’t help kids learn.

Once upon a time, it was the government’s job to provide schools with adequate resources to help kids master their lessons. Now it has become the government’s job to raise an arbitrary standard and shutter or privatize schools that fall below that mark.

This may come as a surprise, but no school has ever been improved by being closed. Students who are forced to relocate don’t suddenly do better. In fact, they usually do worse academically. Moreover, there is exactly zero evidence that charter schools do better than traditional public schools. In fact, the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction.

3) Standardized tests are poor assessments to judge learning.

Standardized testing has never been shown to adequately gauge what students know, especially if the skills being assessed are complex. The only correlation that has been demonstrated consistently is between high test scores and parental wealth. In general, rich kids score well on standardized tests. Poor kids do not.

Therefore, it is absurd to demand high stakes standardized testing as a means of ensuring students’ civil rights.

Judging kids based on these sorts of assessments is not the utopia of which Dr. King dreamed. We are not judging them by the content of their character. We’re judging them by the contents of their parents bank accounts.

There are real things we could be doing to realize racial and economic equality. We could do something about crippling generational poverty that grips more than half of public school students throughout the country. We could be taking steps to stop the worsening segregation of our schools that allows the effects of test-based accountability to disproportionately strike schools serving mostly students of color. We could invest in our neediest children (many of whom are minorities) to provide nutrition, tutoring, counseling, wrap around services, smaller class sizes, and a diverse curriculum including arts and humanities.

But we’re not doing any of that.

Why?

Because we’re too concerned about continuing the policies of test and punish. We’re too concerned about making sure huge corporations continue to profit off creating, grading and providing materials to prepare for annual standardized testing.

Dr. King may not have had super powers. But from his vantage point almost 50 years in the past, he saw through the lies of today’s education reform movement.

Standardized testing doesn’t protect civil rights. It violates them.

Our school policies for the past few decades have been about denying the right to an equitable education to our poor and minority students. Though the ESSA holds promise to limit federal meddling, it does nothing to change that. And all these people who cry foul at a potential loss of federal power are either ignorant or crying crocodile tears.

It’s no wonder that hundreds of civil rights organizations oppose high stakes testing. Nor is it surprising that the media rarely reports it. And it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that the overwhelming majority of civil rights organizations who have suddenly began championing testing are those who get big donations from the philanthro-capitalists pushing this agenda.

High stakes testing is a racist and classist policy. Period.


NOTE: This article was given a shout out on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in the Badass Teachers blog.