More Black Political Power Should Mean Better Schools for Black Kids. It Hasn’t.

At times, Black people, like any group battered and oppressed by the state, may celebrate any perception of forward motion. Folks scour social media pages to see who has what appointment, what political power is being amassed, and what Black person has been newly elected.

Although, I strongly believe in the need for more representation and more political action, unfortunately, too often, having Black people in positions of power, especially politicians, does not necessarily further the educational causes of Black children in America. Last week, I wrote about a local legislator who worked to ensure other people’s children have the same opportunities as he did growing up. But, for many politicians, including Black ones, consistency about the choices that their constituents’ children and their own children have is always elusive.

Although, this article by Michael Leo Owens was written 15 long years ago, it could have been written yesterday.

Owens states that Black students’ achievement in schools should have a strong and direct positive correlation with the increase in Black political power. Although, it is remarkably clear that Black people remain under-represented in America’s legislative bodies, those who are in these positions, too often side against the most disenfranchised of their constituencies.

I believe that an increase in Black and Brown political power should usher in unprecedented levels of Black and Brown academic achievement. It hasn’t. The NAACP’s stance against charter schools and the right to school choice for millions of poor Black parents starkly symbolizes how Black political influence is too often Black political cowardice and hypocrisy. Owens remarks that:

…we are desperate for decent education for our children. And people in my generation and those younger doubt the ability of black government leaders to influence public education policies in ways that would benefit our children. Our support for vouchers is essentially a critique of politicians’ ineffectiveness.

In the post-civil rights era, the number of blacks sharing power and responsibility for urban public education has grown dramatically. From 1977 to 1999, the number of black elected officials with influence over public education in cities (mayors, council members, school board members and superintendents) more than doubled, to 5,815 from 2,724…

The educational achievement of black children and the overall quality of urban public schools have failed to improve significantly.

I predict that if vouchers are funded, Black families will flock to them. It is not that they believe that they are the cure-all, but it reflects Black communities’ desperation for better educational opportunities for their children. Those who strongly oppose vouchers—especially Black politicians and policy influencers—are usually the same people who wouldn’t sacrifice their own children for the good of the poor. It is for this reason that Black parents will typically ignore those cautioning against vouchers. Just as Black folks braved the cautions about what lied north and west when they participated in the Great Migration, Black folks know that hope is captured in moving forward, not standing still.

The truth is as much as Black families need more school options, vouchers will be harmful in some ways, especially, if the US Department of Education fails to regulate them and continues to decline its responsibility to hold all schools receiving public dollars accountable for outcomes—-especially for those who continue to suffer the greatest educational inequities.

Michael concludes with acknowledging the limitations of a voucher system in improving the overall educational justice that has been diverted from our communities.

My generation knows that vouchers have serious limitations. We recognize that no voucher program can save a failing public system. Poorly funded vouchers don’t offer much of a chance for poor children to enroll in expensive alternative schools… And vouchers can’t end the resistance of many suburban schools to black enrollment.

But they offer the only hope available to many poor students trapped in the nation’s worst schools. For a limited number of children, they may make a crucial difference. That possibility is enough for black parents to take a chance.

Owens’s reflections about poor Black people’s perspectives about vouchers reminds me of Pauli Murray’s poem about hope:

Hope is a crushed stalk

Between clenched fingers

Hope is a bird’s wing

Broken by a stone.

Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —

A word whispered with the wind,

A dream of forty acres and a mule,

A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,

A name and place for one’s children

And children’s children at last . . .

Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Read Owens’s entire article here.

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.


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