Earlier this month, NBC’s Today Show aired a segment titled “Inside the school hoping to end self-segregation in Alabama County.” It featured the newly created University Charter School (UCS) in Livingston, which is the county seat of Sumter County in west Alabama near the Mississippi line. I was pleased to see that Weekend Today co-anchor Sheinelle Jones showed integrated classrooms that were active, clean, and well-lit, as well as the school’s white leader, a black teacher, and one set of white parents, all of whom were locals and all of whom praised the school as a move in the right direction. As a feature, it cast light on one improvement being made in the Black Belt of Alabama.
But the nearly four-minute segment featured no opponents, despite Jones alluding to there being opponents. The segment did share the dismal fact that, in 2014–2015, only 3% of eighth graders in Alabama’s public schools met national benchmarks in math and only 17% in reading. It did share that UCS is a long-overdue opportunity for greater racial integration and academic improvement in a rural Southern locale. So why would anyone be against it?
One of the conundrums of educating all children in the Deep South is the divide over whether and how public schools should be funded and utilized. On the one hand, there is the idea that well-funded, well-resourced, well-staffed public schools for all are the answer to problems ranging from economic development to racial inequality. The idea here is that public schools should truly be public— a place where a community’s children grow up and learn together. By contrast, and largely in response to long-standing inadequacies in public schools, there is another idea that its proponents call “choice.” This approach prefers that multiple educational options exist – public, private, magnet, charter, home-school, online – so that each family can place their children in the environment best suited for them. This also sounds good in theory.
But opponents of “choice” claim that having these multiple options creates two circumstances that hurt public schools: an unwillingness to raise taxes for public education (especially by parents who are paying for private school), and the siphoning-off of existing public-education resources (by publicly funded charter schools and by reduced head-counts in traditional public schools). Opponents of “choice” are not against choices per se. They’re typically pro-public education and against the re-segregation that can occur socially and economically as a result of “choice,” yielding similar results to when schools were segregated legally. By contrast, proponents of “choice” regard it as exercising the freedom to educate their children in the way they see fit— a freedom they don’t want taken away.
The reason that I wish Sheinelle Jones’ story on UCS had featured some of the opponents is: if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that the so-called opponents of UCS were against integration and against improvement. And that’s not accurate. In Alabama, many (but not all) opponents of charter schools see them as anti-public education, as an effort to further denigrate already struggling school systems. Others (but not all) in the private-school community regard charter schools as cutting into an already small pie. In Alabama, we all agree about wanting good schools for our children. What we don’t agree about is how to achieve it.
Personally, I see both sides, and my middle ground comes from personal experience. As a boy, I attended a YMCA kindergarten after being denied a spot in public-school kindergarten by the lottery system that was then employed. After that came traditional public school for grades one through four, where in third and fourth grades I was the only child in my grade in the pull-out gifted program. My parents moved me to a private school in fifth grade for academic reasons, and I stayed there through high school graduation, though I also attended a part-day public-school arts program during eleventh and twelfth grades. For college, I’ve attended one private and two public institutions. Now, as a teacher, I work at a magnet school. With all that experience under my belt, what I know is: both sides have a good argument. As a student, traditional public schools did not serve my academic needs so my hard-working parents made sacrifices for me to attend a private school, which cost them a substantial amount of money. As a teacher, I see every day that public education needs to be adequately funded and resourced so that we do educate all children.
If the problems in Alabama’s education system were easily solved, they would have been by now. I don’t have the answers, but what I do know is this: as long as the two opposing perspectives remain at odds, we’ll stay on our current path. Compromise, cooperation, and compassion are needed badly, and that will only come if we acknowledge our interdependence, stop seeking to demonize the Other, and make plans based on one factor alone: educating children, nothing more and definitely nothing less.
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