Black leadership is missing from education reform

OPINION - My advice to the National Association of Black Journalists: Cover the stories of black educators, change agents, families and students who are the principle actors and consumers of education reform...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

My advice to the National Association of Black Journalists: Cover the stories of black educators, change agents, families and students who are the principle actors and consumers of education reform.

Likewise, avoid the trite narrative that blacks are categorically against progress. Whether pro-voucher, pro-union, anti-charter or pro-choice, blacks have always sought a better delivery system for our children.

This was one of the topics discussed at the National Association of Black Journalists’ Annual Convention on a panel titled “The Role of Black Media in the Education Reform Movement in America.” The Black Alliance of Educational Options hosted the panel and one of the organization’s most ardent supporters, Roland Martin, served as moderator. Along with myself, the panel included esteemed, educator and founder of BAEO, Howard Fuller as well as Tim King, Founder and CEO of highly successful Urban Prep Academies.

As on the panel, I begrudge racialized, rigid arguments of pro- vs. anti-charter and/or pro- vs. anti-union that have fit too conveniently into a narrative that casts blacks as the antagonists of change – largely white. How many times have we’ve seen coverage of the angry public school board meeting or town hall that transmitted a message that blacks are against innovation and positive change? Consequently in news reports on education, there has been an under-representation of blacks who are innovators. In addition, the lack of coverage obscures the range of approaches blacks have always used to initiate positive change.

The profile of the recalcitrant black community ignores the innovative history, spirit and drive of black educators. From W.E.B. Du Bois, Marva Collins to Howard Fuller, the necessity of building great schools for strong communities has always been the mother of invention.

Take for instance charter schools. The idea of school- or site-based autonomy is nothing new. It’s certainly not a “white” idea. In fact, charter schooling returns to core principles of black education – self-reliance. It’s impossible to frame black education or charter schools in the United States without discussing former African slaves’ struggles for education in the South.

The seminal historiography of this story comes from James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935. During Reconstruction, philanthropic activity among missionaries and industrialists led to the opening of hundreds of schools in a post-Civil War South. Republicans, Northern missionary associations and the Freedmen’s Bureau, created, through their post-war influence, a system of schools led by a superintendent. Government-sponsored schools with the aim of instructing former slaves sprouted up in Southern states.

However, upon the Freedmen’s survey of the educational terrain, officials found “native schools,” schools taught by ex-slaves, already in existence. The ex-slave’s thirst for education illustrates an essential principle in black education. Private and religious schools should always have a place in our quest for universal education because they exemplify some of the highest forms of self-reliance and determination. Evidence of self-reliance manifested in the establishment of schools reminds us that charter schools or vouchers are nothing new and they have a deep connection to black history.

In addition, the American Missionary Association (AMA) placed normal schools and colleges in the center of their strategy to uplift blacks in the South. The AMA explicitly sought to provide training to blacks who would in turn help other blacks. It was assumed that black teachers could promulgate and reproduce the values and skills needed for their students’ social advancement. In 1869 through the financial support of the Congregational Church, the AMA opened the doors of Straight University. Initially named after the wealthy cheese manufacturer from Ohio, Seymour Straight, who provided the initial endowment, Straight University is now Dillard University.

Faced with black flight to Northern cities, industrialists sought education, which supported the economic goals of the region. Industrialists aimed to educate blacks so they could adapt to their “natural environment.” Black civil rights activists’ desire for racial equality contrasted with certain industrialists’ desire to maintain a racial hierarchy and political structure as well as the Northern paternalistic ideals concerning education.

The history is clear, black recipients of the various educational movements wanted the freedom to create their own pedagogies, rules and schools. However, W.E.B. Du Bois noted certain cautions about the Freedmen’s Bureau. He believed that the bureau certainly proposed a system of free labor, free public schools and black businesses. However, “it failed…to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods that discouraged self-reliance.”

Today, we should avoid non-inclusive organizations that claim to uplift the educational destinies of black and brown children. These organizations will only support an already stratified educational system. From a framework of black education, decentralization, charter schools, vouchers and site-based autonomy can all be inherent goods.

But remember Du Bois’ warning; we should carefully examine organization’s processes and procedures which can limit self-reliance at student, school and community levels. A non-inclusive reform movement is not a healthy one. The same way we recruit, train and hire “new human capital” we can recruit, train and hire people from the community.

My greatest fear is that both the activist community and reform community limits reform as a white device for control or as a simple market-based panacea for educational reform. These uncomplicated arguments suppress the innovation and self-reliance that is present (and has always existed) in our black communities and is supported by inclusive movements. If news reporting and more importantly the number of black educational leaders and teachers don’t reflect our actual presence, those reforms will crumble by the inconsistencies they refuse to correct.

Andre Perry, Ph.D.,  is the Dean of Urban Education at Devenport University in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @andreperryedu.