The Chicago Public Schools system and basically the inner-city has taken center stage in the media again with reports that students continue to receive passing grades while flunking tests and their futures. Recently, droves of angry parents and community leaders descended on City Hall to protest the closing of failing neighborhood schools.
Parents and community leaders are right to be angry – but their anger is misplaced. They shouldn’t complain about reform, they should demand more of it! They should worry less about the closing of buildings, and more about the shamefully poor education their children are receiving in those buildings.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2005, an astounding 70 percent of Illinois fourth graders can’t read at levels the government considers proficient, and 68 percent aren’t proficient in math. And the problem doesn’t affect poor kids only. In Chicago, 32 percent of students who are not eligible for the school lunch program, which targets needy families, still fail to read at basic levels.
So why aren’t parents protesting that their children aren’t being taught to read? In many cases, it’s because they don’t know that the institutions they are marching to defend have failed their children so badly. To distract parents from this real problem, our politicians and the education establishment complain about money. Most of the Black Caucus in Springfield, the Teachers Union, and other civil rights organizations are demanding that Gov. Rod Blagojevich rescind his pledge of no tax increases, or come up with another plan to boost funding for schools. State Sen. James Meeks (I-15th) is threatening to run against him if he doesn’t offer a comprehensive education plan.
I hope the parents’ justifiable anger is not making them pawns for the election-year war being waged against the governor by the teachers union and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. I’ve said it before: Unions are for teachers and schools are for students. The closing of failing schools is reform.
Parents’ highest priority should be education reform. Where is the uproar over the failure of schools to educate our students? We talk about how many Blacks are in jails and the cost to keep them there. Quality education is what’s needed to improve that situation.
The legacy of education in the Black community is a long one. When Blacks came to this country as free men or slaves, they quickly realized that education represented, among many things, freedom and access to the American dream. Although the education made available to them was unequal, Blacks still managed to make progress. Yet, 110 years after Plessy v. Ferguson [separate but equal] and 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Blacks are still tragically behind in terms of a quality education that would enable them to be culturally competent.
Let me be clear about one thing: I don’t have the magic bullet that will fix all these problems, but I do know that the results won’t change if you keep doing the same old thing. Mark Twain once said something to the effect that “it is not so much what you don’t know that will hurt you, as it is what you do know, that’s not true.”
What’s at stake is our liberty and freedom, and I am optimistic that Black Americans will go back to the core values which produced the 1950s and 1960s. Is it the government’s business? Are we promoting self-reliance? Does it unify us? These questions remind me of the days during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Lee Walker ([email protected]) is a member of the Chicago Defender editorial board. He is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.