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Public education won’t ‘fail,’ unless America abandons the idea and the ideal

Are laws that subsidize even the wealthy a return to the past?

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has said "public education in North Carolina is facing a state of emergency."
North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has said "public education in North Carolina is facing a state of emergency." (Getty Images)

While many on the right decry the lack of respect Americans now bestow on the U.S. Supreme Court and its 6-to-3 conservative majority — denouncing the shift in public opinion, a low 18 percent vote of confidence, as sour grapes from liberals who can’t get their way — it wasn’t always so.

In 1954, after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Constitution in Brown v. Board of Education, it was many who called themselves conservatives who expressed outrage and did something about it, ignoring the decision in order to maintain the segregated status quo. In a 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” a long list of lawmakers vowed to “pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution.”

What was deemed “lawful” by them often included actual violence inflicted on African-Americans who dared follow the court and the law toward an education that was their right as citizens. After all, they and their families had been paying taxes to support a system closed to them, as well as paying again for schools where they could learn.

To maintain a worldview of white supremacy built on lies of Black inferiority, some states and counties defied Brown with  “massive resistance,” closing entire public-school systems — as Prince Edward County, Virginia did for five years — rather than tolerate Black and white learning side by side. Private, all-white “segregation academies” sprung up to educate a portion of the populace, with publicly funded vouchers enabling parents to escape integration until such evasions were ruled unconstitutional.

North Carolina’s Pearsall Plan was enacted with the same intent, to circumvent the Brown decision.

And though the South was the face of this “resistance,” some of the most rage-filled images of white resistance originated from Northern cities.

Schools have always been a battleground. And while race is not always the primary catalyst for the fight, to deny that it’s often in the mix is to ignore history and reality. For instance, the race-neutral insistence on the value of students attending neighborhood schools rings a bit hollow when redlining and housing discrimination have left a legacy visible on the streets where Americans have lived for generations. Schools across America have remained unequal, depending on ZIP code, when it comes to available educational options. In cities such as Chicago, majority-Black schools are also the first tagged for closure when budgets tighten.

It’s ironic, considering it was African American voters and legislators who were key in creating public schools for Blacks and whites in the South in the late 1800s.

The tactics and rhetoric of today prove that the conflict over the duty of the government to prepare every student for the future by providing a solid education has never really gone away.

Unfortunately, the belief that a quality public education is a right, one worthy of support from the entire community whether or not a parent and child choose to partake, is being not only questioned, but also rejected, mainly by those who never much cared for the notion in the first place.

Now, any discussion of “public schools” routinely adds the adjective “failing” before the phrase. It’s a rationale for taxpayer-funded escape routes taking shape in legislatures across the country.

During the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touted religious and private schools as desirable alternatives. She argued that Congress should reduce funding for her agency, and was a big fan of providing parents with public money to spend where they like.

Sounds a lot like legislation signed by Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, making private school vouchers available to all, regardless of income, in his state. And just this week, Oklahoma approved the first religious charter school, to be run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, with funding from taxpayers.

In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said recently that “public education in North Carolina is facing a state of emergency.” He said, “It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” referring to the legislature’s veto-proof GOP majority taking the lead on proposals to increase the amount of public money for private school vouchers while cutting taxes.

Political opponents called Cooper’s plan for public events to spread his dire message a “stunt.” And it is.

His words also contained truth.

On its face, who could be against the optimistically named “opportunity” scholarships, bolstering a philosophy that money should be attached to the child not the system, with parents and children the final arbiters of what is best?

But what originally was intended to give a boost to those with the most financial need would, in the revamped North Carolina program, remove those limits and offer subsidies to everyone, including those who could well afford to write a check without help from tax money.

In North Carolina, low-income parents would still receive more, though the gap between stipend and tuition might keep private schools out of reach, especially when considering transportation and other fees.

Might the bill siphon money away from enrichment programs in public schools? Yes.

Would the religious and private schools that benefit be free from oversight and unaccountable to regulations? Yes, at the same time more restrictions are being placed on how public-school teachers teach.

It’s true that religious and private schools are no longer the segregation academies of old, and most fund scholarships to make student bodies more broadly reflect America as it is. But they are not and were never intended to be public schools, which serve and accommodate everyone.

In fact, religious schools can and do discriminate, and in North Carolina have done exactly that when it comes to admitting children who are gay or who have gay parents, parents who would be expected to pay taxes that would flow to schools that shut their doors in their faces.

Now, here is where I transparently state that my parents’ grade school “choice” for me was a Catholic school in lieu of the Baltimore public school system. We were Catholic, so it made sense, and rigor also was part of the equation. And while two of my siblings chose the public-school route for high school, I stayed with the nuns for 12 long years.

But my working-class parents paid tuition, which is how they wanted it, and they were happy to support public schools, which they believed in. When I moved to North Carolina, with a variety of public-school choices, our family was able to find one that offered quality preparation for college and graduate school  for our child.

Does work need to be done to make sure every public school works well for every student’s needs? Definitely.

But first, Americans must believe that’s a worthy goal, one that fulfills America’s promise and guarantees its future.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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