Public education and Black empowerment

By Dr. Manning Marable, People’s Weekly World, 13 April 2001

A vigorous defense of public education is directly connected with the struggle for Black community empowerment. Despite the many arguments now circulating in favor of privatization and school choice in many African-American neighborhoods, only a strong public school system will produce real results for our children.

There is a widely held belief that students generally do better in private schools, but the evidence for this is, at best, mixed. One 1992 study, assessing the results of private vs. public schools with statistical evidence taken from the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress, actually found that the longer students stay in private schools, the worse they do; and the longer students stay in public schools, the better they do. What is clear is that public schools have the greater potential for creating culturally diverse environments, which measurably enhance the critical intellectual skills of young people. One 2000 survey, sponsored by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, in partnership with the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education, found that strong educational benefits were observable in three key categories: critical thinking skills, future educational goals and principles of citizenship. About 90 percent of more than 1,100 students surveyed reported that exposure in the curriculum to different cultures and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups has helped them to better understand points of view different from their own.

The advocates of school choice fail to comprehend that the purposes and functions of profit-making businesses and public schools are fundamentally different. What happens when a particular public school becomes very popular or successful in the market for students? It doesn't increase its enrollment to accommodate demand. Instead, it becomes selective. This process of selectivity concentrates the best students—those who are highest achieving and highly motivated—in the elite schools. These are also usually the children of the wealthiest and best educated households. The net effect of this selectivity is to stratify schools by socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Vouchers will only be financial incentives for more middle-class families to take their children out of public schools; many private schools will simply respond to this increased demand by becoming even more selective, by raising their tuitions, or both.

I believe that real academic excellence can exist only in a democracy, within the framework of multicultural diversity. Indeed, our public school systems, despite their serious problems, represent one of the most important institutional safeguards for defending the principles of democracy and equality under the law.

There is, in effect, a dual function of public education. As Diane Ketelle, a professor of education at St. Mary's College of California, recently wrote: A public school has both internal public purposes and external public purposes. The internal purpose is learning, but the external purpose is to build community.

Only public education has the potential for building pluralistic communities, and creating a lively civic culture that can promote participation of all members of society. In this sense, the public school is a true laboratory for democracy.

More than a century ago, African Americans understood this. The newly freed men, after Emancipation and the celebration of Jubilee, desired two things: land and education. The formerly enslaved African Americans were absolutely clear that knowledge was power and that the resources of the government were essential to provide the educational context and social space for their collective advancement. It is for this reason that so many of the decisive struggles against Jim Crow segregation in the 20th century focused around our access to quality public education.

It makes absolutely no sense to divert billions of dollars away from struggling public institutions to finance privately-owned corporations that consider education merely as a profit-making venture. The fight to preserve and enhance public education is inseparable from the struggle for Black empowerment and Black freedom.