Thursday, December 09, 2004

Having such a long view on history makes for some disturbing conclusions.

Been thinking a lot about the state of the system of public education over the past 24 hours, and what comes up for me is discouraging, indeed.

Wonder if anyone else sees the complete time line -- from Brown vs. the Board of Education to today? When integration was forced by the courts in the southern states by the Brown decision, public schools were quickly abandoned by white parents and a system of academies were created into which those children were enrolled. The public school system in the south was left largely to black children. The academies were funded largely with public funds and the re-segregation of the schools was well on its way within a few short years.

Meanwhile, the education of black children had been judged to be substandard with teaching often in the hands of caring but inadequately-trained African Americans teachers (in comparison to whites) and -- where they existed -- nuns from teaching orders in parochial schools. With school integration, a good many of those hardworking African American teachers were displaced as not qualified to teach in schools other than those created for black children, and with no way to follow their students into newly-desegregated schools. Chaos reigned in black educational institutions. Little was made of the value added by having people who looked like themselves guiding their lives in settings where families could be easily integrated into the learning process with them. Much of value was lost to black kids since the culture that had been transmitted -- generation to generation -- and learning became more generic and standardized with few recognizable clues as to how one lives a life or navigates the pathways to jobs and economic stability. Role models were gone now, and with them any glimpse of what a future might look like except for those images available from endless hours on television that held their attention and created their wish list.

After 60 years, those "academies" have spread nationwide -- and are now called charter schools. The move to vouchers was the first volley in the battle to replace public education as we know it. Many are publicly funded and corporately run. A lot of good people without links to the recent past have embraced this deceptively attractive alternative and in many instances have used the model well. But if it were possible to emulate in the public schools what is being afforded in the charters, similar successes would ensue. Smaller class sizes and specialized learning opportunities in magnet programs would enrich any child; a no brainer.

The innercities have been abandoned to the poor, largely minority, and re-segregated by virtue of persistent and more subtle forms of discrimination in housing patterns. Many public schools are a disaster with high drop out rates and metal detectors at every entrance. Instead of an on-site counseling staff, there are on-site policemen standing guard. I've visited schools where all of the windows have been painted over in order to shut out distractions so that children can be better "controlled." I cannot imagine what is would be like to be a child and not be able to see the sky ... .

However, a trip to the nearby suburbs -- to visit the public schools in Lafayette, Orinda, Walnut Creek, or Danville (all in the same county but in affluent school districts), and the differences would astound you. Those programs and services stripped from urban schools are largely financed in the suburban districts by parent groups who've set up foundations to supplement the state ADA allotments. A choice not available to low income communities. By the way, California's once excellent school system now ranks 48th in the nation, behind Guam and Mississippi, in resources expended per child.

In Richmond teachers are unable to assign homework without copying pages for kids to take home because there are few textbooks (at $75-$85 each, small wonder). And many of those textbooks are so old that the USSR is still united and the moon-landing still somewhere in the future. One might wonder why an ordinary bestseller can sell from $25-$35 in any bookstore, but the texts used by children cost 3-4 times that price. School textbook publishers have some of the most powerful lobbies in the state and the nation, and little is done to rein them in.

In two such elementary schools in the district where I live, there have been 4 principals in 5 years. In one, the first year that I was assigned to observe (ever watchful for possible new legislation) -- of a teaching staff of 13, 9 were new that semester. Many were conditionally credentialed, and most were marking time until they could move into better schools where the problems appeared more manageable and parent participation more available. All were white. Only one was male. There were no operable drinking fountains and the only grassy area lay behind a tall fence and locked gate. The children were forced to play on hot asphalt day after day, except for the brief periods when one imaginative and caring young teacher conducted a gardening program on a borrowed strip of land adjacent to the classrooms. Ninety-eight percent of the students qualified for the free lunch program. A great many of the kids were from undocumented immigrant families. Many were Southeast Asian refugees (from 5 different language groups). Perhaps 70% percent were African American children from very low income families. The profile of this school is more or less typical of what what one finds in West County -- and all of the West Counties across the nation.

When all of this is considered, it isn't hard to see that many of our public schools have become predicters of the numbers we see in the statistics of prison populations. At their worst they've become the breeding ground for hopelessness, crime, and desolation. It isn't too much of a leap to the assumption that -- after a long and steady campaign, the gains made by the Brown decision have been negated, overturned, and defeated by the likes of those throngs of angry stone throwers who guarded the gates of Central High in the turbulent Sixties.

It's ironic to sit with groups of those blessed with short memories who haven't had the longevity or the experience to connect the dots -- and who innocently join the forces now moving to dismantle our system of public education and unwittingly opt to accept the privatization under corporations with an allegience to no one but their stockholders.

Around the turn of the century (1900) the goal of public education was to educate the upperclasses to colleges and universities and the lower and middle classes into the crafts and vocations. It worked well as the separator of the social system. The goal of present day education is still to act as a separator -- but now that consists of universities for the upper classes (leadership) and the armed forces and the service sector for everyone else. Dropping out of inadequate and dangerous schools and into the underground economy fueled by the drug trade has offered yet another alternative; one that tragically makes sense to those with little chance of making it anywhere else. There is then the direct line into the prison system. One might think it was planned that way, right?

The corporate model for public education will secure those goals and guarantee the survival of white supremacy.

The schools haven't failed; WE have.

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