You would think Georgia State Sen. Emanuel Jones and his fellow legislators in the legislature’s Black Caucus, would want to do all they can to expand high-quality school opportunities for young black men and women who look just like them — and all children in the Peach State. Sixty-eight percent of black high school students, 57 percent of their Latino peers, and 37 percent of white students are stuck attending the state’s dropout factories (and the failure mills that feed into them). The opportunities for all students in the Peach State to get strong, comprehensive college-preparatory education is especially bleak: In the traditional district serving Jones’ home base of Henry County, just 20 percent of black middle-schoolers, along with 29 percent of their white peers and a mere 8 percent of Latino students took Algebra 1 during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education; not one black, white or Latino middle-schooler attending Atlanta’s woeful district took algebra during that same period.
Such woeful statistics, along with the fact that just 67 percent of ninth-graders (and 54 percent of young black men) in Georgia’s original Class of 2010 graduated, and that 40 percent of young black men in fourth-grade not eligible for free lunch (along with 61 percent of those who are) are functionally illiterate, should be enough for Jones and his colleagues to applaud the move last week by voters to approve Amendment 1, the constitutional change that expands school choice essentially putting state government in charge of authorizing charters (and using state pressure to force traditional districts, which can still authorize charters, to do so). Easing traditional districts out of the business of deciding whether competing charters can open next door simply makes sense.
Unfortunately for black children in the state, Jones and his pals have decided that they are more-intererested in defending failed schools than helping black children get the high-quality education they need and deserve. And sadly, such thinking is far too typical of black politicians throughout this country.
This week, Jones and his fellow black legislators have become co-plaintiffs with an Atlanta-based pastor on a lawsuit to invalidate the constitutional amendment, on the rather specious grounds that the amendment’s language doesn’t specifically mention that it would lead the state government to take over charter authorizing (and in the process, arguing that voters, in spite of nearly a year of news coverage and public debate, were too dumb to know what they were approving). Looking to rally the support of old-school civil rights groups — and tar school reformers altogether — Jones has also taken the step of accusing Peach State Gov. Nathan Deal and charter school supporters who backed the bill of committing “voter fraud”, and has appealed to attorneys general throughout the country to back his cause.
Considering that the debate over the state overseeing charters has been happening for two years — including a state Supreme Court ruling that put the kibosh on state legislation creating a charter school authorizing commission, as well as the fracas over the Fulton County district’s move last year to end the charter school status of rival Fulton Science Academy — the argument advanced by Jones and his fellow black legislators is absolutely ridiculous. The amendment’s language, which simply states that the state shall have the ability to launch charters and other “special schools” is hardly vague at all; it didn’t need to specifically note that a state charter school body would be formed, especially since the legislature could easily hand that job over to the state education bureaucracy. And if vagueness of language in legislation and constitutional amendments was such a big issue to Jones and his colleagues, they would be have to stop being legislators in the first place; rarely do politicos bother spelling out every detail because that is what they charge bureaucrats in executive branches to do. The lawsuit, in short, hardly has much chance of getting more than a perfunctory hearing from a state lower court judge.
It isn’t surprising that Jones and his colleagues are wasting their time opposing the expansion of charters. After all, they have steadfastly opposed Amendment since it was brought to the Gold Dome earlier this year — and Jones himself has been particularly nasty throughout the election battle over the amendment. The fact that Jones and his colleagues have been beneficiaries of the largess of the National Education Association’s Peach state affiliate also factors into their decisions. Seven black legislators received more than $7,300 during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of state campaign finance data culled from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, small dollars that add up for state legislators running campaigns that, on average, cost only $24,000 or so to run; for state Sen. Gloria Butler, the $2.500 the NEA gave to her 2012 campaign was the second-largest donation after the $4,000 handed to her by the state’s trial lawyers’ lobby, while state Rep. Quincy Murphy, who is as outspoken against Amendment 1 as Jones, counts the NEA as one of his 20-largest donors. These politicians also received NEA dollars through the state Democratic Party, which received $65,000 from the union during that same period. And given that black teachers and district employees most-likely to lose jobs as a result of the expansion of charters make up the base of support for these politicians, it is little surprising that Jones and his colleagues are more-concerned with keeping power than helping black children get schools they deserve.
But it is more than just about money. As with so many of their fellow black politicians elsewhere, Jones and his crew are stuck fighting the battles of the 1960s and 1970s. From where they sit, charters and other forms of school choice will lead back to the kind of segregation that earlier generations of civil rights leaders so successfully opposed. This was particularly clear earlier this year when Jones declared that charters would “reinstate segregation academies” of the Jim Crow era. From where Jones and his colleagues sit, the solution to the education crisis that traps so many black children in economic and social despair is the same formula touted by earlier generations of black politicians: Integrating schools, pouring more money into urban districts, and launching a new round of anti-poverty programs; all of which, by the way, also benefit the pockets of Jones’ backers (and that of his colleagues) in the NEA and traditional district bureaucracies.
Yet what Jones and his fellow black legislators fail to realize is that integration was embraced by an earlier generation of civil rights leaders because it was the only way to get what they thought was high-quality education to black children of that time; they figured correctly that segregationist-dominated school boards would never pour resources into schools serving black neighborhoods. What that generation didn’t fully understand — and what Jones and his colleagues fail to accept — is that integration and spending more money on schools do not substitute for systemic reforms that address the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis. This includes ending Zip Code Education policies which restrict children and families from accessing high-quality school options inside and outside of their neighborhoods, and school funding systems that restrict families from sending their kids to high quality public- and private school options even within blocks of their home.
Black families, especially those in urban communities served by dropout factories and failure mills, long ago figured out, as Harvard professor Charles Ogletree did, that integration was little more than a “false promise. They have also figured out that integration did little to end Zip Code Education policies, and in fact, exacerbated the pernicious consequences of those policies (along with that of suburban flight, poor school district leadership and the economic malaise that took hold after the Great Society era) by letting the schools in their own communities fall into questionable status as educational going concerns (when they weren’t shut down altogether), leading to poor and minority neighborhoods fall into wretched disrepair.
It is why black families in Georgia, to the dismay of Jones and his colleagues, voted overwhelmingly for Amendment 1. They certainly understand that charters are just one part of the solution for transforming American public education, and know that not every charter will offer high-quality education for their kids. But they also realize that expanding charters and other forms of choice will not only help improve the quality of education, it can even break down systemic barriers to integration (if not the self-selected segregation even students practice in school). More importantly, by sending their kids to high-quality charters with peers who look like them, these families also realize that their kids can also gain the self-pride needed in order to succeed in an economic and social landscape that, though better than the Jim Crow era, is hardly post-racial.
By continuing to oppose the expansion of charters and other forms of choice, Jones and his colleagues are merely supporting the condemnation of black children and their communities to the economic and social abyss in an age in which knowledge equals survival. In doing the bidding of NEA affiliates and traditional district bureaucracies, Jones and his fellow black politicians are maintaining alliances that perpetuate the very failed policies that damage the lives of the children they are supposed to represent. And in accusing school reformers — including black politicians who support expanding charters — of perpetuating “voter fraud” Jones and his allies are engaging in unacceptable demagoguery.
It is time for Jones and his fellow caucus members to end their opposition to school reforms that will help black children. What they need to do instead is become warriors for overhauling American public education, following the example of colleagues such as Jason Fields in Wisconsin, Gary Holder-Winfield in Connecticut, and even fellow Georgia state legislator Alisha Morgan And if Jones and his fellow black politicians won’t do the job, then black voters should toss them out of office.