Public schools have become the whipping horse for America’s ills, yet they educate more than 50 million students annually amidst violence, insufficient funding and a culture of disrespect in which standardized testing falsely mischaracterizes all their work as ineffective.
Ill-informed commentators make unsubstantiated statements against public education while ignoring the plight of the schools. We give more attention to arming teachers than correcting the inequities in educational opportunity that Jonathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities) and other champions of education have delineated. It is morally wrong and statistically impractical to compare these schools to private or charter schools.
Public schools produce some of our best professionals. In my graduating class of 1979 from Miami Northwestern High School in Miami’s Liberty City community, the top five graduates include Hazel Dean, who has a Ph.D. and works at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; Joycelyn Lawrence, a pediatrician in Miami; Darlene Goring, a law professor at Louisiana State University; and yours truly, director of Academic Support Services at Florida Memorial University and teaching criminal and constitutional law. For added measure, Lorenzo Jackson, an attorney in South Florida, is also a stellar graduate.
I am certain the above list can be repeated across the country for other public schools.
How could Miami Northwestern produce graduates who can compete anywhere with anyone? Whatever we are, we owe it to public schools and public school teachers, one in particular, the late Ellen Heidt.
Teachers in public schools rarely get public credit for the tens of thousands of lives they impact during their careers and I have never heard one public school instructor say he or she cared more about tenure than children – not ever. I worked for Miami-Dade schools for 12 years.
Public schools take all students and cannot question citizenship, cannot turn down students who are not proficient in English and must accept and teach students with varying disabilities and exceptionalities.
Many charter schools take in none of these groups. The documentary Waiting for Superman shows parents agonizing over getting their children into coveted charter school slots through lottery.
School funding usually has three levels: 70 percent from the state, 23 percent from local taxes and about 7 percent from the federal government. It was when local tax bases were decimated after integration that city schools began to suffer.
After Orchard Villa Elementary School, also in Liberty City, was integrated around 1959 by the late community activist
and businesswoman M. Athalie Range and other black parents, whites abandoned the neighborhood and land values fell drastically, hindering funding of public schools.
That was repeated in many urban centers.
Perhaps Detroit’s collapse is the most notable modern example of an education system’s decline after businesses and whites left town, sapping the economic life out of the tax base and the overall economy.
“Pathetic” does not describe what was left behind.
Urban blight is really racial, economic and social isolation that leaves inner city schools with brilliant students who must go into prison-like environments surrounded by poverty. However, that is not a reason to fail.
Finally, 50 million children cannot just opt out of public schools.
We must not let the detractors broadly paint all of the schools and educators negatively. Teachers were producing brilliant graduates long before standardized testing stole the spotlight and claimed false victories.
Tests don’t make successful students; teachers and principals do. Public school teachers are not lax. “Everyone,” says Dean Mildred Berry of Florida Memorial University, “owes his career to a teacher.”
Dr. Jeffrey Dean Swain is vice-president of the International Black Doctorates Association Inc., an administrator/instructor of law at Florida Memorial University, author and minister. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College and he holds juris doctor and Ph.D. degrees.