Kids Left Far Behind


Thirty-five years ago, I went, for the first time, to a meeting of the New York City Board of Education. A black father got up to speak. He had dropped out of school in the South and wound up here in a dead-end factory job that paid him some $90 a week.

His hope was his child, and he had watched her fall further and further behind each year of school. That night, he was very angry. He stood before the august members of the Board of Education and indicted them:

“My child is not learning. Damn it, that’s your responsibility. It’s the principal’s responsibility. It’s the teacher’s responsibility—that she’s not learning.”

The members of the Board of Education tried not to appear too bored. How often must they endure these whining parents?

“When you fail,” the girl’s father went on, “when everybody fails my child”—his voice was thick with rage and grief—”what happens? Nothing. How come nobody gets fired? Nothing happens to nobody except my child.”

I’ve heard similar desperation expressed in a number of cities. And the rage still reverberates in Giuliani’s New York—while Chancellor Rudy Crew gets a hefty raise.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton—passing the champagne bucket at a Hollywood fundraiser attended by film stars who have no worries about their kids’ education—tells the nation that her husband has done so much for education.

Like what? Let’s look at the state of schooling for “disadvantaged kids”—a euphemism for children who are being discriminated against—after six years of Bill Clinton’s reign.

This information comes from Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, who is bringing back the passion and efficiency that organization had when Whitney Young was its leader in the 1960s.

In August, in his keynote address to the 88th Annual National Urban League conference, Price pointed out that “in predominantly middle class Prince Georges County, just outside of Washington, D.C., 71 percent of our kids [black kids] flunked the eighth-grade math exam.”

As for black kids in urban schools, Price adds, “How can our children in those schools possibly meet high standards when half of their teachers have little background in subjects like math and science?

“To illustrate how scandalous the situation is,” Price continued, “do you realize that the average A student in an inner-city school knows about as much and tests about as well as the typical C student in the suburbs?”

I have always been for teachers’ unions. I used to organize shops in other fields, and I belong to two unions now. But how can the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association answer this basic question from Hugh Price:

“What chance do our children have of meeting high standards when, according to one study I read, only one out of five urban teachers even believes that our youngsters can do well in college? Our kids will never be challenged academically if their own teachers think so little of them in the first place.” And that applies to certain teachers of black kids in the suburbs.

This devaluation of so many black kids goes on and on. Hugh Price: “Let me share an absolutely outrageous statistic. The Education Trust tells us that high-scoring white and Asian students are twice as likely as high-scoring black and Latino youngsters to be assigned to college prep courses. If that doesn’t fit Webster’s definition of ‘institutional racism,’ then I don’t know what does.”

Meanwhile, in Peter Noel’s illuminating piece in the October 6 Voice, we are told of the city’s new wave of uncompromising black leaders—with Conrad Muhammad, formerly Farrakhan’s man in New York, in the foreground.

Some of these proposed leaders would like to knock over David Paterson, Bill Perkins, and Charlie Rangel. But does anyone in this new wave have anything to say—or do—about the schools in Harlem and elsewhere in the city? Aside, that is, from telling the kids to watch out for hook-nosed Jews and what Khallid Muhammad describes as:

“bootlickin’, butt-naked, buck-dancin’, bamboozled, half-baked, half-fried, sissified, punkified, pasteurized, homogenized niggaz!”

In contrast with this empty posturing, Hugh Price—though hardly as well known as Khallid Muhammad—is showing what actual leadership is all about. In his speech, he noted:

“At last year’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., the Urban League movement launched the Campaign for African-American Achievement in partnership with the Congress of National Black Churches, the Pan Hellenic Council, and nearly 20 other black groups.”

One goal of this coalition “is to spread the gospel among our children and parents that ‘Achievement Matters.’ The second goal is to generate a customer demand for better schools that educators and politicians dare not ignore any longer.

“Barely six weeks after last year’s conference, our affiliates joined with other campaign partners to stage block parties, street festivals, and parades to celebrate youngsters who are ‘Doing the Right Thing.’ That day last fall, September 20 to be exact, we drew 38,000 youngsters and parents to our events nationwide.”

It’s a modest beginning, but knowing Hugh Price, I’m aware that he’s not a summer soldier. It’s not just rhetoric when he says, “We will go to war politically with any educators, school boards, unions, and politicians who stand in our way.”

In the September 30 Education Week, Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips say: “Closing the black-white test-score gap would probably do more to promote racial equality in the United States than any other strategy now under serious discussion…. It would sharply increase black college-graduation rates…and would also reduce racial disparities in…earnings.

What are Conrad Muhammad, Al Sharpton, and the blustering Khallid Muhammad doing to bring that about—except talking? And what is Rudolph Giuliani doing—except for putting cops in schools? He kicked Ramon Cortines, the most qualified educator I know, out of the city so that he could control the schools, as he does the police. And look at the police.