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. Recently I wrote about a local legislator who works to ensure that other people’s children have the same opportunities he did growing up. But for many politicians, including black ones, parity between the choices their constituents’ children have and the choices their own children have is always elusive.
In a 2002 New York Times article, “Why Blacks Support Vouchers,” Michael Leo Owens stated 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 underrepresented in America’s legislative bodies, those who are in these positions too often side against the most disenfranchised of their constituencies.
An increase in black and brown political power should have ushered in unprecedented levels of black and brown academic achievement, but 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.
[W]e 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 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 lay 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 that as much as black families need more school options, vouchers will be harmful in some ways, especially if the U.S. 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.
Owens concluded by 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.
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.
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 to 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. El-Mekki holds a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and gained his master’s degree and principal certification from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. El-Mekki blogs at Philly’s 7th Ward.