History has proven there is nothing more divisive than issues regarding public education. The education of America’s children has always been fought with the goal of securing advantages for the elite. This point is overlooked in “Don’t blame charters for Durham school segregation,” Antonio Jones’ recent op-ed contribution to the Herald-Sun.
Jones, who was defeated in his bid to become a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, makes an appeal for a comprehensive study to determine why parents are opting not to enroll their children in traditional public schools.
Jones contends that declining enrollment can’t be blamed exclusively on the rise of charter schools. He suggests the criticism coming from Mayor Steve Schewel, a former member of the Durham school board, and other local elected officials, is unfounded due to a lack of credible data. Such a study would be vital in measuring the reasons that parents remove their children from traditional public schools; however, the real reason for decline may be more difficult to measure.
How do we gauge parental assumptions related to their privilege? America’s educational system has never been constructed with the mandate of offering equal education to every student. It is now, and always has been, an intentional system designed to apply advantages for the children of parents with economic and social privileges.
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This is displayed in a two-track educational system proposed by Thomas Jefferson in 1779. Jefferson conceded a system for the laboring, and another for the learned, that would allow a few in the laboring class to advance by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”
In 1790, the Pennsylvania state constitution called for the free public education of poor children. It was expected that rich parents would pay for the education of their children. After the Civil War, blacks in the South formed a coalition with Republicans to rewrite state constitutions to provide free public education for black children. Although more white children benefited from the public policy change, the intent was to create a system to educate black children at the end of slavery.
In the 1974, Milliken v. Bradley case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools aren’t obligated to desegregate schools across school districts. The ruling legally segregated black students in inner-city districts from white students living in wealthier districts. This ruling had bearing on the continued segregation of the Durham city and county school systems until their merger in 1992.
Jones is correct in advocating for more research regarding the reasons parents choose to transfer their students into alternative educational systems. Many parents will cite a rising achievement gap along with other academic performance measures. The reduction in traditional public-school enrollment coincides with mounting discontent among black parents. Beyond concerns among white parents, black parents are seeking options which provide their children a more reliable academic experience.
If a study is completed, it’s critical to consider the implications of the data. What’s being analyzed, and why, is fundamental in determining how we utilize the research. A straightforward approach is measuring findings based merely on the comments made. I suggest a strategy that considers the assumptions people make related to the merit of a system aimed at providing an equitable educational experience.
American history demonstrates a problematic conclusion. Public education isn’t designed to elevate the poor. Its design is to maintain advantages for the privileged. Movements that seek to undo the academic achievement gap fail to contemplate how disparity is constructed by design. Public education is conceived and maintained to ensure the disparity. It is, by design, constructed to secure, by the implementation of public policy, two separate and vastly unequal educational systems.
Thomas Jefferson’s two track educational system in engrained in the American mindset like the claim that all people are created equal. How do you measure that?
Carl W. Kenney II is co-producer of “God of the Oppressed,’ an independent documentary film on black liberation, womanist and LGBTQ theologies, a freelance journalist and minister. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org