The case for shadow schools

Maybe the time has come to give up on public education. The hell with it.

The old saying goes that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke, and can’t be fixed, replace it with something that works.

During a barely publicized conference last month at the University of Georgia in Atlanta, roughly 150, mostly African-American, very concerned educators met to discuss how education could be improved for African-American children, most of whom are in public schools. The title, "Education for Liberation Conference,’’ capsulizes the conference philosophy: Education is a political force simply by virtue of what is taught – and by virtue of who makes those decisions and why.

Likewise, miseducation is a blatantly harmful political act with consequences that can be seen in economically and socially brutalized African-American communities throughout the country. Furthermore, education can and should be the foundation of mental, social, spiritual and political liberation.

That the nation’s public school system is on life support was a given for most attendees. Whether or not that means public schools should be dismantled, abandoned, supplemented or even replaced became the basis for much of the talk over three days.

The model for alternative education most often referred to was that of the 1960s freedom schools of civil rights and radical groups such as SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and the Black Panthers; leaders of those groups realized that the schools were simply not providing African-American children with the intellectual tools for survival. Freedom schools taught not only reading, writing and ’rithmetic, but pride in one’s self, community and history.

"The only goal is liberation through education. If we’re not talking about that, then what are we talking about?" asked conference speaker Elaine Brown, a former Panther leader.

Certain of those schools, most notably the former Oakland Community School founded by the Panthers, received widespread praise, not to mention state funding, because of their successes; in some cases, freedom school students tested several grade levels ahead of their peers.

The question before conferees was whether such schools could replace public schools, or whether to employ them as after-school alternatives, weekend alternatives, or in some other complementary role to public schools. Rather than abandon existing schools, alternatives would provide crucial support for students and afford parents and other concerned community members more effective control over what their children learn.

After all, if inner-city public schools are truly coming apart at the seams, then the most obvious victims of that catastrophe are millions of African-American children who are the least able to afford the loss of benefits that a suitable education can provide.

At the root of all the current turmoil surrounding the Detroit public school system is a worried preoccupation with what to do about all these young victims. As politicians, teachers, pundits and school administrators debate what to do, the body count of African-American children churned out of the public education factory into a world for which they are scarcely prepared continues to mount.

So has the time come to abandon public schools? Let’s hope not. It is hard to imagine a shadow educational system of freedom schools able to absorb even a significant percentage of the students in public schools, and yet still be able to provide a strong education.

But the time has definitely come to explore some supportive alternatives.

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