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Est. April 5, 2002
Feb 18, 2021 - Issue 853
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The nation’s changing demographics are at the core of the controversy concerning the reopening of schools. As people of color begin to overwhelm the longstanding White majority, swiftly reducing it to pluralistic status, there is a corresponding effort to reintroduce the earlier separate-but-equal doctrine to the education of our school children.

The reopening schools dispute at its core is predicated on the view that low-income children of color, who make up the majority of today’s public school children and are disproportionately concentrated in our urban districts, can be used as stalking horses by the corporate elite to attack teacher unions and to undermine K-12 public education.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), our country’s largest teacher unions, are deftly parrying this assault on their respective members and the children they teach. They understand that the real aim is to continue shifting public dollars into private hands and to destroy public education as the primary venue in which to educate U.S. children.

Few of us are aware that public education, as an institution, did not exist until after the abolition of slavery after America’s Civil War. Robert Smalls, a former slave, was one of the founders of the South Carolina Republican Party and was dedicated to ensuring proper educational opportunities for all children. He served in the South Carolina Legislature (and later in the U.S. Congress).

Smalls helped to draft the South Carolina Constitution of 1868 and developed the bill for the first public education system in South Carolina for all children irrespective of race. That legislation became a model for the nation. South Carolina was majority Black and African American elected officials were a powerful bloc in the state legislature.

Since that time, there have been ongoing attempts to undercut public education as students of color have become its predominant groups. These students have been championed by teacher unions and organized labor who are accused of only advocating for the benefit of their members. Reopening schools is just the latest Trojan horse used toward that end.

However, within the larger political scheme of unparalleled demographic change, there is little appetite to provide the necessary funding, during this pandemic, to support the in-person education of these students in a safe and healthy way. They are buffeted by escalating poverty, neighborhood and family trauma, and the lack of urgently needed social resources.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, “… that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality …” It ruled against Homer Plessy, of mixed-race heritage, who was considered Black, “ … who argued that the state law which required the East Louisiana Railroad to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal treatment under the law.”

Another sixty years would pass before the Supreme Court ruled (9-0) that Plessy was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in its Brown v. Board of Education judgment in 1954. The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine adopted in Plessy which was rarely, if ever, fairly implemented, had proven to be a hoax.

Since that time, 33 states have advanced 165 separate bills to impede the ability of U.S. ethnic minority voters to participate in upcoming local, state, and national elections so as to enhance Republicans’ ability to win electoral offices.

Again, the reopening schools’ disagreement is also a way to redirect financial resources in terms of funding for contact tracing when infections ensue, quarantining when exposure occurs, masking, social distancing, keeping facilities clean, and improvement in ventilation systems (which is costly in the dilapidated buildings where poor children of color are overly located in many districts) as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although President Biden has promised financial resources for these proposals, they are unlikely to be sufficient as the gravity of this situation is not entirely known and is unlikely to reach the schools in greatest distress in a quick and orderly manner. The bottom line is that reopening schools is ensnared in a political, racial, and demographic vortex that is not in the best health and safety interests of students and their teachers. Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell and BC.

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is published  Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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