Tonya Ray, center, a math teacher at the Academy of Public Leadership, talking with students in Detroit, May 11, 2016. (Joshua Lott / The New York Times)
The struggle for equitable education went to summer school, and the new school year is getting underway with leading Black organizations bolstering the movement against the central components of the corporate education reform agenda.
In an earthmoving decision for the education landscape, the NAACP — the nation’s oldest civil rights organization — voted at its July national gathering to call for “a moratorium on privately managed charter schools,” saying charter schools:
do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system…. Researchers have warned that charter school expansions in low-income communities mirror predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage disaster, putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm.
A moratorium would halt the granting of any more licenses to open new charter schools — that is, schools funded by the public but privately run and not accountable to democratically elected school boards. The NAACP announcement has corporate education reformers reeling. Rick Hess, director of education policy at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, said that if local governments adopt the NAACP’s proposed moratorium, “It would give a permanent black eye to the sector.”
If the NAACP’s stance on charters would bruise the corporate agenda, then the declaration from the Movement for Black Lives — the newest civil rights coalition, comprised of dozens of grassroots organizations around the country — would flatline it altogether. The coalition released a policy platform at the beginning of August that called for, among other things, a moratorium on all out-of-school suspensions and the removal of police from schools, replacing them with positive alternatives to discipline and safety. It also called for a moratorium on charter schools and school closures, and full funding formulas that adequately weigh the needs of all districts in the state. The Movement for Black Lives wrote:
Sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline continues to play a role in denying Black people their human right to an education, and privatization strips Black people of the right to self-determine the kind of education their children receive. This systematic attack is coordinated by an international education privatization agenda, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family, and Eli and Edythe Broad, and aided by the departments of Education at the federal, state, and local level…. Their aims are to undermine Black democracy and self-determination, destroy organized labor, and decolor education curriculum, while they simultaneously overemphasize standardized testing, and use school closures to disproportionately disrupt access to education in Black communities.
Indeed, billionaire philanthrocapitalists have upended education over the past 15 years by backing a series of major policy changes — codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top initiative and the Common Core State Standards. These policies have badly damaged education for all kids and have had particularly harmful effects on Black and Brown communities. Today, increasing numbers of people have discovered that these reforms are in reality efforts to turn the schoolhouse into an ATM for corporate America.
While their program for corporate reform is being eroded by research and rising grassroots movements, the corporate reformers are clinging to one last glossy brochure in the public relations portfolio — the one with photos of Black youth on the cover and promises that all of these reforms are really about civil rights and defending kids of color.
The president of the pro-corporate reform group Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, scolded the NAACP for its opposition to charters: “It’s a divide between families who are served by charters and see the tangible effects that high-quality charters are having, and some who don’t live in the inner-city communities, where it becomes more of an ideological question versus an urgent life-and-death issue for their kids.”
What these neoliberal reformers know, but don’t want you to know, are the findings of a recent study on charter school discipline practices. This comprehensive analysis found:
- Black students at charter schools were suspended 6.4 percent more often than white students at the primary level and an astounding 16.4 percent more at the secondary level.
- 374 charter schools suspended 25 percent of their enrolled student body at least once.
- Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended one of the 270 schools that was hyper-segregated (meaning at least 80 percent of the student body was Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25 percent.
- 235 charter schools suspended more than 50 percent of their enrolled students with disabilities.
Also of great concern for neoliberal reformers is the Movement for Black Lives’ opposition to the abuses of standardized testing. With the rise of a mass movement of teachers, parents and students opting out of standardized testing, the multibillion-dollar testing industry has been scrambling for talking points to maintain its legitimacy. The industry’s latest strategy for containing the movement against test-and-punish education policy is to pretend it is aligned with the civil rights movement. Take this sophistry on behalf of the testocracy from the Education Post, a website funded in part by the Walmart-funded Walton Foundation:
Spreading misinformation about testing threatens one of the primary data points that can be used by parents, teachers and lawyers to fight for the civil rights of children who have been under-taught…. Every time someone opts their middle-class kid out of an exam, they are impacting the validity of data that could be used in a court case to prove that students’ civil rights are being violated in their schools. Every time someone spreads the lie that teachers can’t do their jobs because of standardized testing, they give credence to forces who don’t believe that teachers should be accountable at all.
Forget the fact that the nation’s largest public school systems have more cops than counselors. Forget the criminal underfunding of our schools. Forget the racist corporate textbooks rampant in our schools. The testocracy would have you believe that the primary problem in education — indeed the real obstacle to civil rights — is the parent who opts their kids out of a standardized test, or the teacher who explains how the curriculum is being warped by having to teach to the test.
What the testocracy doesn’t want you to know is that standardized testing is a multibillion dollar industry, with the average student in the American public school system taking an outlandish 112 standardized tests during their k-12 career. They don’t want you to know that many schools that serve Black and Brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking, with testing saturating education at even higher concentrations in schools serving low-income students and students of color. They don’t want you to understand the way high-stakes tests are being used around the country in service of the school-to-prison-pipeline. A review by the National Research Council concluded that high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. When one test score can deny students graduation — even when they have met every other graduation requirement — it can have devastating consequences. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.
While it may be true that the students opting out today are disproportionately white, to portray the movement against standardized testing as a white movement is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a Black woman, is one of the most important leaders in the national movement against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt-out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones. This past school year in Baltimore, the predominantly Black students in the Baltimore Algebra Project produced a brilliant music video against standardized testing — and then led a walkout during the PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] test, coinciding with the anniversary of the murder of Freddie Gray by the police, in an effort to highlight the school-to-prison-pipeline. And some of the biggest student walkouts in US history against standardized testing occurred in New Mexico at schools serving a student population that is roughly 90 percent Latino and Latina.
Nationally, the NAACP has yet to join the opt-out movement and advocate for civil disobedience in the struggle for authentic assessment and education justice. However, an increasing number of local NAACP chapters are raising opposition to the punitive nature of high-stakes testing and preparing for a struggle at the national level. In Seattle, the local NAACP hosted a press conference to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “The opt-out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”
The increasing involvement of the Black Lives Matter movement in struggles to democratize education may come as a surprise to the obscenely wealthy, who are using their money to control public education and often fancy themselves civil rights crusaders. But it shouldn’t surprise the rest of us.
The struggle for education has been a part of every major uprising for racial justice that Black people have engaged in throughout US history. This includes resistance to the “compulsory ignorance” laws during slavery, the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau and public schools during Reconstruction, the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois on the purpose of education during Jim Crow, the Brown V. Board Supreme Court lawsuit, the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement, and the fight for Black studies programs during the Black Power era. The struggle for Black education has always been central to the fight for Black liberation.
Today, a new Black rebellion has erupted — from the sit-down protests on NFL fields, to the urban rebellions in the streets — galvanized by extrajudicial executions of Black people by the police and racist vigilantes. While the movement to defend Black folks from unaccountable, racist police has been the most prominent aspect this new movement, Black Lives Matter doesn’t end with the demand that Black people not be shot down in the streets. While there are certainly many prerequisites to achieving a society where Black lives truly matter, one of them, certainly, is confronting the long legacy of racist schooling and replacing it with an a consciously anti-racist education system.
A world where Black lives matter and Black education is empowering will not come easily. It won’t be funded by benevolent philanthropists. It won’t be promoted by corporate lobbyists or legislated by the politicians they own. It will only happen with an uprising beyond even the scale and militancy of the last century’s civil rights and Black Power movements. The contradictions of unhinged police murder of Black people in the “land of the free,” coupled with corporate education reformers’ racist schooling policies enacted in the name of “closing the achievement gap,” are already producing large-scale, renewed social unrest. The question of how powerful this movement grows is up to us.
Time to hit the books and take our struggle for public education Black to school.
Jesse Hagopian is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.