SCHOOL COLORS: The Racial Politics of Public Education
For this special issue, The Nation asked a range of experts and activists to answer a series of questions on race, politics and educational inequities. The interviews, excerpts of which follow, were conducted by longtime progressive educator Herbert Kohl, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco and author of numerous books--including 36 Children, his 1967 account of teaching a Harlem classroom, and 1998's Discipline of Hope. --The Editors
How can we respond most effectively to right-wing assaults on the premises of public education?
Amy Wilkins: The way that you deal with the right is by fixing the schools. The first thing we have to do is admit the truth, that the schools are underserving important populations of kids, primarily kids of color and low-income kids. Too much of the left's rhetoric around public education has been: Everything is fine. Everything is getting better. SAT scores are going up. More people are going to college. We haven't talked about the serious problems--the problem, for example, of the wide and growing achievement gap that separates low-income students and students of color from others. And it's an utter disconnect. Parents hear our voices and then they see what's going on in their schools, and they say, These guys are on Mars. What schools are they talking about? That's not what's happening in my schools.
You see things like 94 percent of the African-American parents in LA Unified [School District] rate their schools as fair to poor. And we keep saying, No, everything's fine. So the left has to re-establish credibility with folks by saying that we recognize these schools aren't doing what they should be doing. And we should also admit that more money won't answer all the problems. That there are structural changes that have to be made.
Luis Garden Acosta: As people who care about democracy, we ought to be careful about how we look at those who seem to oppose what we stand for. My own life in the Catholic Church and growing up in Brooklyn relating to different cultures and ethnicities and classes has taught me that there is no monolithic conservative movement. Often when I sit down with parents who sound like they are are right-wing, I begin to realize that what they are really saying is, "I'm afraid for my child and I don't have respect for the system. I can't believe in it anymore because it hasn't protected my neighbor's child and maybe my child will be next." And we find that we have common ground, we share a commitment to the development of our children and to principles of democracy.
It's just that the discussion is so politicized and so polarized by opportunists, political leaders who really don't want to do much about anything besides talk about it. Of course, there are some who really believe that there ought not to be a public school system, who really believe that public money should be used for the expression of religious tenets and on and on, and we would have real difficulty creating any kind of united front with them. But I do believe that we have suffered, our movement has suffered, from not trying to reach out more effectively.
The voucher movement, in particular, has attracted support in communities of color. How do you respond to that? Amy Wilkins: I would argue that the problem with vouchers is, first, that they rely on market forces to operate. We've never seen market forces really work well when it comes to people of color and low-income people. If market forces worked well for low-income people, they wouldn't be poor. If market forces worked, rotten milk wouldn't cost twice as much in a bodega in East Harlem as fresh milk does downtown. People could get home mortgages. People wouldn't pay $1 million for car insurance. The market fails these people again and again. So why do we think the market is going to work in educating their kids?
The second piece of it is that institutions receiving public money to educate kids need to be held accountable to the public. …