"Utter foolishness," or why you can't be squeamish about equal education, the Rev. Barber and HK on J this Saturday

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(Update: This was written yesterday. The Stevens bill on charter schools, SB-8, was amended in committee this morning to weaken somewhat the independent governing commission referred to below and add some language about diversity — while not exactly requiring it. I'll have more on the charter school bill in coming posts.)

At a Super Bowl party Sunday I was introduced to a white liberal minister (our mutual friend said he’s as liberal as anyone can be, to which he nodded) and we got to talking about the Wake schools imbroglio. He’s pro-diversity, no surprise there. He did make a point of saying, however, that the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, has been unnecessarily confrontational in taking on the anti-diversity Wake school board majority. Barber’s tactics are repellant to folks who are on the fence about the school board’s actions, the minister said.

“That’s utter foolishness,” Walter Farrell exclaimed when I related the conversation to him. Farrell, who is black and a Raleigh native, is professor of management and community practice in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work. He was giving a talk at the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh Tuesday night—after our press time—entitled “Inching Toward Resegregation.” So I called him in advance.

Inching, I asked?

Inching, Farrell answered, in the sense that Raleigh—as the county seat and the state capital—is the latest battleground in a determined but so far largely unsuccessful right-wing push for the privatization of American school systems that dates back 40 years.

Inching, he added, in the sense that even in Raleigh the battle for equal education is far from over and remains winnable despite the fact that the right-wing appears on the verge of breaking through.

But the battle can’t be won, Farrell said, if white liberals like my new acquaintance persist in thinking that they’re engaged in a debate over education policy—and will be listened to if they just make better arguments. “We’re in the political fight of our lives,” Farrell insisted. “You can’t settle a political argument with reason. You settle it with votes.”

Barber will lead the 5th annual HK on J march in Raleigh this Saturday, joined by national NAACP President Ben Jealous. HK on J (Historic Thousands on Jones Street, where the General Assembly is located) is aimed at a 14-point “people’s agenda” about equal housing, health care, environmental justice and labor issues.

But number one on the list, and the reason Jealous is coming, is the fight for “high-quality, well-funded, diverse public schools for all children,” a goal that gets lip service from the right (except for the diversity part) even as they work to deny it to the children of low-income families.

Barber is eloquent, passionate and correct to take his issues to the streets, Farrell said, just as Dr. Martin Luther King did in Birmingham, when he, too, was warned not to upset the local gentry and responded with his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”

The criticism is “understandable,” Farrell went on, “because if you’ve never been under the heel of the boot, you think, well, can’t we all just sit down and reason together?”

White liberals don’t get it, he said, that “you don’t get change without conflict, you don’t get crops without plowing the field.” Sure, be reasonable. But if that’s all you are, “the other side will just roll right over you.”

So yes, Farrell said, Barber’s been confrontational, but he hasn’t lost his temper or struck out at anybody—quite the opposite. If he’s missed the mark, it’s only in not balancing his on-the-ground leadership with an equally effective political organizing job.

***

Farrell’s been in Chapel Hill for the last 12 years. But for two decades prior, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he watched the nation’s first major experiment with privatizing the public schools take shape led by a black conservative, Howard Fuller, who was installed as Milwaukee’s superintendent of schools in 1991.

Taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and parochial schools were the conservatives’ answer to Milwaukee’s failing schools. Initially, Farrell said, Milwaukee’s vouchers were just $2,500 per student. Now, they’re $6,700, not counting some additional, direct public aid that the private schools collect.

Twenty years later, Farrell says, data from the 125 voucher schools in Milwaukee willing to supply it (some aren’t, presumably because it’s not good) shows their results to be no better, and in some cases worse, than traditional public schools.

Regardless, Milwaukee "was the Trojan Horse” for a political movement that repeats itself periodically in other places, Farrell argues. The movement always takes the same form. A “billionaires cartel” of white philanthropists (e.g., Bill Gates, Michael Dell, the Walton Family, Eli Broad) funnels money from foundations to local advocacy groups. The advocacy groups promise that vouchers or charters will afford low-income families and their kids “the same educational choices that rich kids have.”

At the same time, sympathetic black political figures (Newark Mayor Cory Booker, ex-Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty) are elected with campaign funds from conservative backers. They’re presented as if they represent a majority or at least a growing view in the black community about schools, Farrell says. But they don’t.

In fact, Fenty was just voted out decisively in Washington because his controversial schools chancellor, conservative Michelle Rhee, was so unpopular with black voters.

One of Rhee’s underlings, ex-Army brigadier general Tony Tata, took office last week as Wake County’s superintendent of schools, installed by the school board’s conservative majority. Tata’s education training consisted of attending the Broad Academy—named for Eli Broad.

It’s a myth that the black community is divided on vouchers and charters, Farrell says. Since 1972, five states (California, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan and Washington State) have put the voucher issue to voter referendums. All five failed, with minority-voter opposition ranging from 70-85 percent.

The voucher programs that do exist, in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Milwaukee and Washington, DC, were enacted by legislative action over black opposition, he added.

The Republican landslide in North Carolina last fall put right-wing conservatives in power in the General Assembly and, of course, Republicans control the Wake school board by a 5-4 majority. The winners all benefitted from the “billionaires cartel” plus contributions from Raleigh millionaires like Art Pope and Bob Luddy, longtime voucher and charter advocates.

Thus, Republicans like House Majority Leader Paul Stam and Sen. Richard Stevens, both of Wake County, are the prime sponsors of legislation to create a $2,500 voucher program in North Carolina (Stam) and to allow an unlimited number of charter schools with no requirement whatsoever that they have any demographic diversity at all (Stevens).

The Stevens bill, in fact, would set up an independent commission, separate from the State Board of Education, to oversee charter schools. It’s not hard to foresee the outcome of that, Farrell said: Separate school systems were never equal before, and they won’t be again if the conservatives get away with setting them up.

Nor do blacks believe it when conservatives like John Tedesco of the Wake school board promise that foundation funds will flow to high-poverty public schools, whether charters or traditional. “We know that more money is not going to flow, because there’s a long historical record of it not flowing,” Farrell said.

Farrell is acerbic about the conservatives’ motives, but he’s the careful academic when he talks about the research. Some charter schools are excellent. Most aren’t. The bottom line for him is that the charter-voucher movement will inevitably drain resources from a public school system that was never well-funded, especially in high-poverty inner cities, and is less so now than ever.

By fortuitous circumstances—for them—Raleigh seems for the moment to have everything the conservatives need to topple one of the nation’s best urban school systems. “If they can destroy a successful system, if they can make that domino fall,” Farrell says, “it’s just that much easier to take down New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.”

So the money will come pouring in.

But the one thing they don’t have, Farrell said, is public opinion on their side. Farrell is convinced the voters will reject the right-wing ideologues if Gov. Bev Perdue stands her ground and vetoes the voucher-charter bills and if progressives get organized to produce the votes that are there for the taking in Wake County.

“There’s still time to stop it,” Farrell said. “They have the money on their side, but they don’t have the collective public will.”

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