Anti-Education Reformers: Make America Great Again

Anti-education reformers are some of the most interesting people I know. They often reminisce about and allude to a time when schools and systems worked for our communities. I try to follow them, but their recollections seem to escape me.

Quite often, amongst the usually entitled (and overwhelmingly white) anti-charter, anti-high standards, and anti-progress groups, education reform is assailed as one of the problems with the American education system.

According to these folks, many of whom I count as friends, everything was fine in our school system for Black, Latino, and poor kids before higher standards were common, data was disaggregated, school choice was provided, and the number of dropout factories decreased. This line of thought represents a disillusioned nostalgia for yesteryear’s “educational heyday” –one that largely ignores our youth’s actual experiences in schools. Their misguided and amnestic arguments about what American schools were is akin to Trump’s lemmings being seduced by the call for making America great again. It begs the question, “Great again for whom?”

Great again for whom?

  • When a Black grandparent can point to a school and system that failed them, their children, and, now, their grandkids, yet middle class (mostly white) folks tell them not to opt out of that school/system, something sinister is askew.
  • When in far too many places, only half of Black boys graduate high school in four years (that represents progress in a lot of cities), we are lying to ourselves. Some would say that we are lying to our youth, but they actually know better.
  • When in far too many neighborhoods school choice options are failing, crumbling, almost impossible to staff buildings, it is oppressive.
  • When Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school funding in the country, and knowingly violates the Constitution, we know that things are not just. When a suit is filed to address the massive underfunding of our educational system and the state Supreme Court dismisses it, we know that help (at least from that corner) is not on the way.
  • When systems, politicians, and sadly, some educators, put the wishes of the adults, who volunteered to serve, over those supposedly being served, it is oppressive and champions the inequitable components of the status quo-the very status quo that helped usher in the massive inequities present today.

Great again for whom?

Inequities were baked into schools serving Black students from the start

Malcom X encouraged us to study history. We know that in southern states, it was a crime to teach over 4 million enslaved Africans. In The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein, provides detailed accounts of inequities that were introduced to the very foundation of schools for Black children. You should be able to easily recognize that those foundations remain prevalent in most systems that educate Black children.

Great again for whom?

During Reconstruction, teachers were sought (and largely underfunded) to teach recently emancipated youth. Teachers like Philadelphia’s Charlotte Forten, granddaughter of the famous James Forten, signed up to do their “duty” as teachers. They persevered through constant threats, actualities of violence, and almost no funding streams. Frederick Douglass described the white supremacist violence that attempted to suppress Black liberation and educational justice. “Schoolhouses are burnt, teachers mobbed and murdered, schools broken up.”  Today, in Pennsylvania, the supposed keystone state, schools are systemically underfunded and the PA system undergirds massive inequity, mainly in schools attended by the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Great again for whom?

The issue with Reconstruction, including schooling for Black children, was not that it failed. It was engineered to go off track. The progress was dismantled. It was jettisoned. It was undermined by those who benefited from the status quo. And, it was largely ignored by those who claimed to have been invested in ensuring equity for Black communities. Today, one can’t help but to wonder why it isn’t apparent that our schools are again being undermined by those who want to return to a time when the educational system “worked for Black families.”

Fast forward to the 1960s-70s.

Black families were opting out of traditional public schools long ago

In 1967, outspoken and courageous leaders, who stayed woke, like Cecil B. Moore, engaged the community and supported students to ensure that “schooling was not interfering with their education.” Students criticized Philly schools because they consistently deprived our community of quality education. High school student leaders from throughout Philadelphia decided to rally together to denounce what they deemed the “white policy of the Board of Education.” When these student activists demanded higher standards and an expansive curriculum (particularly a Black studies course), the police chief brought his henchmen and commanded them to “get their Black asses.”

In the 1970s, nation building groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense were calling for educational reform, much to the chagrin of the defenders of the status quo. “The Intercommunal Youth Institute was established in January 1971 by the Black Panther Party. In 1974, the name was changed to Oakland Community School. The Black Panther Party’s goal was to get children to learn to their highest potential and to strengthen their minds so that one day they would be successful. The school graduated its first class in June 1974. In September 1977, California Gov. Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr. and the California Legislature gave Oakland Community School a special award for “having set the standard for the highest level of elementary education in the state.”

Great again for whom?

Malcolm X would have been a strong charter school advocate

While there is much angst amongst the “traditionalists” about progressive things like charter schools and school choice for poor families, we know that Malcolm X  called for school systems to significantly shake things up. He demanded that there be a significant number of turnaround schools-calling for 10% of their persistently failing schools to be turned over to the community.

Today, Malcolm X would strongly advocate for charter schools.

“…this city has said that even with its plan there are 10 percent of the schools …that they cannot improve. So what are we to do?…A first step in the program to end the existing system of racist education is to demand that the 10 percent of the schools …be turned over to and run by the Afro-American community itself. Since they say that they can’t improve these schools, why should you and I who live in the community, let these fools continue to run and produce this low standard of education? No, let them turn those schools over to us. Since they say they can’t handle them, nor can they correct them, let us take a whack at it.” Malcolm, as often is the case, knew the blueprint for our liberation. He knew that limiting school choice options was not in the best interest of the Black community. Still isn’t.

It is still escaping me. Please remind me again. When exactly were these schools and systems great for Black and Brown students?

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Thanks so much for this! Great read. So many Black families are even opting to homeschooling as an option for their children as a means to fight against such oppressive schooling. It is imperative that our schools work to create Anti-Racist schools that don’t oppress our kings and queens.


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