Adam Laats: Will fewer Black students come back to school this fall?
Education historian Adam Laats in the Washington Post looked at some of the many factors that come to play on one of the big questions of the new school year.
And many Black parents plan to keep their children at home this fall, not only to keep them safe from the coronavirus, but because staying home offers a way to navigate the systemic racism in schools that is traumatic and may impede their children’s learning.
This isn’t the first time Black parents have opted to exit the existing school system rather than accept an inadequate education. Black parents faced similar questions two centuries ago — and their answers led to the creation of urban public-school systems in the United States. Today once again, we have a rare chance to step back and look at schooling as it could be, not only as it has been.
In the late 18th- and early-19th centuries, cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York had a patchwork of school options. Most schools ran on tuition dollars, with families paying directly for the kind of schools they wanted. For poorer White families and for all non-White children, there were few options. Churches ran tuition-free schools for some children, but there were not nearly enough of these schools and they tended only to teach children of their own denominations. Children with no church connections were out of luck.
White elites saw this as problematic because they feared that illiterate children would grow into criminal adults. So they founded philanthropic organizations to provide segregated, tuition-free schools for Black families. In New York, the Manumission Society opened its first free school for Black children in 1787. In 1799, elite Philadelphians organized the “Philadelphia Society for the Free Instruction of Indigent Boys.”
Pennsylvania’s state government recognized the need for tuition-free education for low-income families, organizing its first “Public School” district for Philadelphia in 1818. As in New York, Philadelphia’s schools expressly mandated that African American children be included in the new tuition-free schools, though in Philadelphia it took four years for city leaders to open a segregated school for Black children.
There’s a lot of solid history here, leading to this conclusion:
The lesson for today’s school leaders is clear: The only surefire way to guarantee school enrollment is to offer high-quality schools with welcoming, nurturing environments. In 2021, as in 1821, parents will not send their children to be insulted or to have their time wasted. Instead of blaming parents for inadequate enthusiasm, school leaders need to invest resources to fix inadequate schools.