"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

‘Segregation’ Academies–Why Stigmatize The South?

For years, parents in the South have preferred to send their children to private schools to escape the miasma of failed education in the public education system.  These parents are branded racist by blacks and ‘progressive’ whites because of this preference.  This is an unwarranted criticism, for most of these liberal critics choose to send their children to elite private schools which are, for the most part, white. 

Washington, DC where I live has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.  Most of the schools ‘East of the Park’ (Rock Creek Park is the de facto dividing line between black and white Washington – a city which many have compared to Apartheid Johannesburg) are almost 100 percent black while the majority of schools in affluent Ward 3 are white.  The only reason why parents in Ward 3 even opt for public elementary schools is because they and the PTA – a Sinn Fein-style militant group of parents demanding more teachers, resources, and educational quality – have ensured that the local schools are way above DC average.  Most parents abandon public education by Middle School which, because of legal catchment areas, include students from poorer black neighborhoods; and almost all parents ditch the public education experiment by the time high school rolls around. Anyone who can afford it will send their kids to one of the many excellent private schools in the city. Only the most ‘progressive’ families, wedded to the concept of public education will send their children through failing DC high schools.

The best private schools in Washington are predominantly white. Sidwell Friends School, one of the best in the city if not the country caters to Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives and is the educational home to the children of Clinton and Obama.  Nixon also sent his daughters there, not because it was a political match – far from it – but because he was a Quaker.  St. Albans is the Republican parallel to Sidwell – Christian, athletic, proud educator of conservative Americans.  A whole raft of fair-to-middlin’ schools complement these top notch academies.

In the South, private ‘Academies’ have served the same purpose for years. They are the educational refuges for white, middle-class families whose children have nothing in common with the black, poor students from dysfunctional families as common in the South as in Washington DC, Oakland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, or New York.  Parents who send their children to these academies are opting for a private, higher quality alternative to the corrupt, inefficient, and hopelessly outclassed public schools in their communities.  Are these parents racist, reverting to their plantation roots? Or are they simply accepting the reality that public schools are educational failures, administered by corrupt city officials and venal unions? It is the latter, and the only way to provide even a modicum of education for their children is via private schools.  In an article in The Atlantic (12.13.12) Sarah Carr takes the opposite view – that private academies have always been white sanctuaries:

These schools were started to keep white children away from blacks," said Wade Overstreet, a Mississippi native and the program coordinator at the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools. "They've done an amazing job of it."

Although this may have been true in the contentious, bitter decades following the Civil Rights Act of 1965; and while there certainly are families, especially in rural areas and small towns who flee the public schools solely on the basis of race, it is less often the case.  While there is no doubt that white parents are fleeing majority-black public schools in the South, most are no different from their affluent counterparts in Washington DC – they are escaping from the discipline-less, corrupt, underfunded, mismanaged, and politically-devised public schools.

As the Atlantic reported last week, throughout the country, public schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the late 1960s when Indianola (MS) Academy opened. In many areas, they are rapidly re-segregating as federal desegregation orders end. White families continue to flee schools following large influxes of poor or minority students.

While black families may characterize the black homogenization of public schools as white racism, it is nothing of the sort.  White families – like any families with even modest means – flee incompetence and mismanagement.  The voucher program in Washington DC has far more applicants than places – i.e. black families, as tired of the bottom-feeder education provided to their children as their white counterparts, are flocking to private schools, many of them white-majority institutions. Are private schools or academies always better than public schools? Of course not, and parents who opt for voucher programs must choose carefully.

Compared to Indianola Academy [private], Gentry High School is an open book, its academic struggles exposed to the world. While there's some modest racial integration at Indianola's public elementary schools, by high school all but a few white students have departed. Ninety-eight percent of Gentry's students are black, one percent are Hispanic, and one percent are white. A plaque at the school's entrance states that Gentry was erected in 1952 as part of South Sunflower County's "special consolidated school district for colored."

The campus is made up of several worn buildings, which means that students have to walk outdoors between many of their classes. Since the outdoor drainage and sewage systems are outdated, sinkholes dot the walkways; when it rains, students and teachers can find themselves wading through foot-deep floodwaters.

Once again, this is no different from Washington, DC.  Private schools like Sidwell, St. Albans, Cathedral, Maret, and Georgetown Day spare no expense to field the best teachers, provide the best possible facilities, and offer the greatest possible academic, extra-curricular and sports opportunities. 

The implication is somehow that this public-private system needs to be re-adjusted, reformed, or rectified.  In an ideal liberal world, all students, rich or poor, black or white, should attend the same classes in the same schools.  Reality is and will always be different.  As suggested above, both white parents opting for Sidwell, and black inner-city parents opting, via a voucher program, for the parochial school at the Church of the Little Flower want better education, regardless of racial composition.

But students like Brown [public school]  believe the poor scores are at least partly because the school lacks the resources it needs to be successful. Students sometimes swelter in classrooms without working air-conditioning during the hottest months and they can shiver without enough heat during the coldest. In some classes, the teenagers cannot take textbooks home because teachers fear they will get lost. Computers crash constantly because of low bandwidth. In Wallis' first year at Gentry (2011-12), he inherited government textbooks identifying the latest U.S. president as George H.W. Bush.

This statement suggests – erroneously – that the problem with failing public schools is a function of financial support.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The public school system’s per-student expenditure in Washington DC is among the highest in the country, and the performance is at the bottom.  The problem lies squarely in the dysfunctional communities from which students come.  I once chatted with a recently retired Biology teacher at Wilson High School in Washington, considered the best secondary school in the city.  He quit because of corruption, mismanagement, and above all the unsocialized and dysfunctional background of his students.  He is not alone in his criticism.

In conclusion, the flight of white parents to Southern or Northern private schools has less to do with race and more about the search for the best education possible for their children.  The fact that students from black families in Mississippi or Washington DC do poorly in school; and that majority black schools are failing miserably is an issue for educators and community leaders.  Too much time has passed since 1965 to blame failing inner-city or rural Southern schools on racism. Parents have the right and obligation to select the best possible school for their children, irrespective of race.

2 comments:

  1. In a big city it's understandable that different communities have different schools. And in the suburbs, white communities are becoming increasingly Hispanic and Asian.

    However it is very weird for a small town to have two separate schools. The Atlantic article states that black people aren't coming to all White academies because they feel ostracized and stigmatized there. Many of the big city private schools are majority white but are having increasing minority enrollment, but the Southern academies are merely dwindling.

    Honestly though it's a good point that many of the all black schools in the south are doing terribly. It's the #1 obstacle to integration. Instead of blaming the schools and teachers for the culture, blame the students and parents and penalize them.

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  2. To add my point to the small town thing: Many small town school systems intentionally divide elementary schools into grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 etc. so there is no "wrong side of the tracks school".

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