National Public Education

James Meredith and Education Reform

James Meredith, the first Black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi, and someone who was shot and wounded while demonstrating for civil rights, is one of the heroes of our modern age.  I have nothing but respect for his courage and grit.  That said, I have to speak up about his views on how to improve our public schools, as they are expressed in a recent blog by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.  Mr Meredith is precisely the kind of man we need to influence if we ever want to fix our school system.  He has all the right ideas, but does not clearly see, I think, how to implement them.

Mr Meredith is totally against President Trump's views on public education, and is particularly annoyed that Trump has called his brand of education reform, "the civil rights issue of our time."  Mr Meredith points out that the policies the President favors actually harm most low-income people and so can hardly be called a "civil rights" issue. He says that what we need is a way to educate well all the people in this country, and that this can only be done with an all-embracing public school system, not these one-shot special programs that the President favors.  With all this I agree whole-heartedly.

Where I differ with Mr Meredith is his insistence that this can only be done through a locally-based effort; that the bureaucrats and politicians who are outside the local community are anathema.  He wants a system that is "driven by parents and teachers." At one point he says that he wants "well resourced and locally governed neighborhood public schools."  This is the problem.

You can't have both "well-resourced" and "locally governed" schools.  The two don't go together.  Of course there are some wealthy suburbs that are both, but that's the problem.  They're the only ones this works for.  For the rest of us it doesn't make sense. Almost all local district are not "well-resourced" and never can be if they rely totally on themselves.  They need outside money.  If you just rely on local funds you will always end up with the the kind of wide differences in the quality of the schools that we see today.  Isn't that obvious?

Local control works on an educational level, but it doesn't work financially.  You need outside money if you want all the schools for all the children to be excellent.  But you can't rely on that outside help and then tell them that they have no say in how it is used. If you do that they will stop helping you.  The "governing" part of the plan has to include the "resource" part if you want a long-term solution.

People say, "Well, they should just give us the money to make our local schools better." So, you want charity?  You think that will help you create excellent schools?  I've worked in church schools that were mostly supported just by local charitable contributions. They were nice, pleasant places, but they didn't teach any calculus, or anything else at that level.  People don't just give away something that valuable.

Mr Meredith knows this from his own work on civil rights.  He didn't march in order to create a local way to solve civil rights problems; the whole point was to influence the rest of the country; to draw distant supporters into the struggle so that together they could fight for justice.  The only people who were against outsiders were the local bigots. They're the ones who wanted a "local only" approach to these issues.  The marchers looked beyond the local situation and appealed to the general public, who then agreed with them and set about to change the laws for the entire country.  Then things changed for the better.

That's the kind of solution we need for public education.  We need to influence the entire population to get on board with support for the schools.  I, for one, believe that this population is in fact fully in favor of better schools for every child, just as they were for equal justice for minorities, and would be willing to change our laws to help bring this about.  But we can't do this if we keep saying that this is a "local only" problem.  We need to make it a national problem, with a national solution.

But, you will say, you just said that local control does work on an educational level. Won't we be harming the schools, then, if we make national laws to run them?  The answer is to emphasize both the local aspect of the schools and their national aspects.  This is, in fact, the way the rest of the world works.  Every other country has a strong emphasis on the local control of their schools as well as a national way to raise money and fund them well.  There is no reason we could not do this as well.

Mr Meredith, then, does know how to solve our educational problems; he has seen how to do it in his own lifetime.  The civil rights movement showed us.  As Dr. King said, it's a matter of improving conditions for "all God's children;" not just the one's in our own local school.  I know this is a difficult concept for many, but it is the only way to make all the public schools better.

Peter Dodington

April 29, 2017