Looking at the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Decision

In this month and year when many folks across our country are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Decision “Brown v. Board,” it is appropriate to look at the public charter school movement as it relates to students of African descent. While most people laud the decision for striking down legal segregation in the nation’s public schools, its biggest impact was on society in general. Discrimination in public accommodations across the board was declared illegal and unconstitutional. As a direct result, Blacks today enjoy freedom of movement to an extent unimagined by our ancestors who lived prior to the mid-20th century.

Segregated schools got a bad rap for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of education received by Black students in those environments. I like to use my “chit’lins” (‘chitterlings’ for those of you who prefer to sound ‘proper’) metaphor to illustrate the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision on our people’s education in the public sphere. Black folks didn’t start eating chit’lins and other disposable parts of the hog because we thought those were the most desirable parts of the hapless beast. We took what was left to us after the slave master had appropriated the best meat of the hog for feeding his own family, and made of it what we could. It is a reflection of the genius, and what Dr. Maulana Karenga refers to as the “adaptive vitality” of Black folk that our forebears took the ‘lemon’ leftover parts of the hog and made “lemonade-like’ feasts for nourishment of our people. They would have preferred the pork chops and hams, but those were not given to them, so they made the best and most of what was available. The same mind-set applied to the education of our children in segregated schools, especially in the South.

Black educators during segregated time would have preferred teaching in other than one-room clapboard shacks; they would love to have had a different room in which to teach each class, and for each grade to have had its own teacher. They would have preferred new books rather than hand-me-downs discarded by the white schools; and it would have been nice if Black children could have ridden to school on buses rather than have to walk miles to and from school. If they had their choice, Black students would have been able to attend school ten months a year just as White children did, rather than the cumulative two or three months when their help was not required in the fields either planting, weeding, or harvesting crops for the White landowner.

Those things were not to be however, so our Black educators had to make do with what was provisioned to them. They took ‘chit’lin’ books and plied their trade in ‘pig-foot’ facilities; yet they produced delicacy-caliber students! Many doctors, lawyers, ministers, scientists, engineers, teachers, nurses, principals, professionals, businesspersons, craftsmen, and caregivers to name just a few. The importance of education was emphasized in the home, in church, in the barbershop, the beauty parlor, as well as in school. Black children were routinely reminded that they had to do twice as well as White children, even though they could expect only half as much benefit in return for their efforts. Just as routinely, Black students rose to meet and exceed the challenges. Our emphasis then was on the quality of education achieved by Black students. Expectations and demands were high!

The “Brown” decision shifted the emphasis in public education from quality education to racial integration. Racial “balancing” of public schools became the goal to be achieved, and at whatever the cost. Schools which had served Black students well under difficult circumstances were closed, and many Black teachers and administrators became unemployed a result. Black children were assigned to previously all-white schools in white neighborhoods where they were not welcome. Racial antagonism soared to heights not seen since the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction. The resulting atmosphere in the nation’s “integrated” public schools became that of “survival-of-the-fittest.” Pursuit of education was lost for all but a few Black students. Subsequently, successive generations of our people have been born who never knew us as we once were. A people among whom education was once held in the highest esteem, have been reduced to a people who largely see education as a “white thing.” A people who once sought opportunity, have been replaced by a people who are totally at the mercy of White folks for even the barest necessities of life.

“Wherefore comest thou, Satan?” Satan came in the misguided form of integration taking the place of self-reliance and self-determination!

After fifty years of trial and error, we now see the emergence of a movement for parental choice in public education. Most people associate this movement with “vouchers,” which are a means and not ends of themselves. Charter schools are a better-known example of options available to parents for public financing of their children’s education. Charter schools were never intended to serve the interests of Black students or their families, though the deplorable condition of our children in the nation’s public schools was largely used to fuel the movement.

In the early stages, Black and other so-called “minority” students represented some 90% of students being served by charter schools throughout the nation, with Blacks representing 78% of the total. That was 12 to 15 years ago. The latest figures I have seen indicated that Black students now represent only 27% of those served by this experiment in public school reform. In other words, as more charter schools come into existence, the percentage Blacks will represent of students they serve will decrease. Charter schools will become the public school equivalent of private schools, and will increasingly “cream” the best students attending public schools. Each “exemplary” public charter school will be obliged to have a representative percentage of Black students enrolled (probably between 5% and 10%) to meet the emerging new standards for “racial diversity” (the new term for racial balancing). Most Black students will have to attend schools which will remain part of the regular public school system and suffer the predictable consequences thereof. Such schools will be neither racially ‘balanced’ nor ‘diverse.’

Charter schools offer us a glimpse of what public education will be in the near future. Rather than continue our self-destructive quest for integration with White folks at any and all costs, whether in the name of ‘balancing’ or ‘diversity,’ Black folks had better pursue more charters to operate public schools of our own choosing. Contrary to what has been said and written elsewhere, this would not constitute “re-segregation.” Separation by one’s own choice is not segregation. The distinguishing feature is “power!” When White folks IMPOSE separate facilities or accommodations on Black people from the former’s vantage point of power, and the latter have no say in the matter, that is “segregation.” When Blacks choose to congregate among themselves, but have no power to exclude Whites, that is merely a reflection of “birds-of-a-feather-flocking-together,” and should not be denigrated as something sinister.

To suggest that Black students cannot learn in an all or predominantly Black setting is the most onerous expression of racism. Whites don’t claim they can’t get a quality education without Black children sitting next to them; Jewish children attending their own exclusive schools are not accused of getting an inferior education because they have few or no Blacks or Gentiles sitting next to them. The same can be said for Orientals in their own neighborhood schools. Why then is it deemed necessary for Blacks to sit among Whites in order to get a quality education? Is it the “osmosis effect;” that Whites have so much more intelligence than Blacks, that merely by being in the same room with them, Blacks will absorb the excess intellect exuded by Whites into the atmosphere? The inference itself is insidious, and anyone suggesting this absurdity, be they Black or White, should be ashamed of themselves!

At the Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA Charter School (JL-NSCS) we emphasize character building as the proper foundation for all learning. We want our students to become the very best human beings and citizens they are individually capable of becoming. After that, all other things would come easier to them. While I do not object to testing children as a means of assessing their progress with academics, I object to the heavy stresses and anxieties that are caused by the way FCAT results are used in Florida. However, challenging the FCAT is like challenging the war in Iraq: You risk being accused of being a traitor to the nation if you challenge the latter; and you risk being accused of being a “defender of mediocrity” if you challenge the former. This is especially so with regard to Black students who routinely do not do well on standardized and other tests, which are in fact racially biased and culturally insensitive.

This year (2004) our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders underperformed on the FCAT. I say “underperformed” because we who provided their instruction during the year know they could and should have done better. Testing itself is a “boogey-man” for most Black children, and they lack self-confidence in academics anyway. There are no standardized or other test instruments which measure what Black students do well and/or excel in. White children learn best “cognitively,” while Black children learn best “affectively.” All instruction and testing in public education is based on cognitive learning styles! Where do you expect that to leave Black children? Before Brown vs. Board Black children were taught affectively and they learned affectively. Since ‘Brown,’ our children have been made into the proverbial “round-pegs-in-square-holes.”

While our lower grades underachieved, our 6th graders equaled the State’s and School District’s FCAT pass rate of 74% in reading. Our 7th graders achieved a 90% pass rate in reading compared to 74% for both the State and District! Neither the School District or Palm Beach Post Newspaper is likely to mention these facts because they reflect favorably on our work with their “cast-off” students. They will however, point to the underachievement by our lower grades. It is unfortunate that we do not have an effective media outlet through which to report on positive occurrences in the Black community and by Black people in Palm Beach County.

The significance of our 6th and 7th graders’ efforts is that they are the students who have been with us the longest. Many of them have attended our school since we opened or soon thereafter. We have had sufficient time and opportunity to modify their behavior, “smooth their rough edges,” and re-direct their focus toward academic achievement. At most schools Black children attend in this district it is considered “square” or “not cool” for them to be ‘smart’ academically. At our school academic high-achievers are the “big-students-on-campus.” As these facts become better known to the public, more parents whose children are capable of doing well academically will bring them to JL-NSCS because our atmosphere is conducive to learning, and academic excellence is the expected thing. Our goal for next year is that ALL of our 8th graders will pass the FCAT with no less than a score of “3.”

At JL-NSCS we are determined to disprove the onerous theory that Black children are incapable of learning academically in an all or predominantly Black setting. The biggest obstacle to achieving that result is the degree to which charter schools are under-funded. We receive approximately 40% of the per-capita funding that the school district has for each student. In fact, when a parent transfers their child to a charter school, upwards of $11,000.00 of that child’s value remains with the school district even though a charter school is serving the student! Only about $6,000.00 of the student’s value follows the child to the charter school selected by the parent. This is why most charter schools exist in “store-front” facilities rather than ‘real’ school buildings.

Our State Legislature needs to change this disparity in its very next session. It is this disparity, which harkens back to the days before Brown vs. Board when Black students were valued so far below their White counterparts. Now days the disparity is not directly or openly black and white, but disguised as between charter and regular public schools. The effect is the same however; charter schools are obliged to make do with substantially less than ‘regular’ public schools, yet we are held to the same standard as far as what is expected of our students on standardized tests. Let the reader judge the fairness-quotient (FQ) of this practice.

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