Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee
Non-profit SouthCarolinaCAN sponsored a panel discussion on the state of black education in Charleston and America Thursday at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. The forum featured former Sacramento Mayor and National Basketball Association all-star Kevin Johnson and a panel of national education leaders.
The overflow crowd of more than 350 people included many pastors and church leaders. Johnson acted as the moderator. He opened the program with some grim statistics on the educational achievement of black students in South Carolina and Charleston County. He noted a recent poll of 600 African-American registered voters in South Carolina in which 68% stated that improving schools should be the state’s top priority.
Johnson used humor throughout the three-hour program and used a personal example of how the educational system fails black youth. As a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, Johnson said he was the only student in an English class who had never heard the word “euphemism”. He wound up getting another student in his dormitory to look it up in the dictionary for him because he assumed the word began with the letter “u”. He noted that poor children at the age of four have heard 32 million fewer words than their peers. Johnson described improving educational outcomes as a civil rights issue.
Tim King, who founded the Urban Prep Academy for high school boys in inner-city Chicago in 2006, described what is possible when students are given high expectations for success. For the past seven years, the school has had 100% of its seniors get accepted into four-year colleges. The students all wear a blazer with a school crest and a uniform tie. Groups of 20 students spend 45 minutes each school day with a mentor. The school now has three campuses in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods and has had several students killed by stray gang-related gunfire.
Eric Mahmoud is a former engineer who operates the Harvest Network of charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The schools serve elementary and middle school students from low-income neighborhoods, and Mahmoud documented that his students have eclipsed the achievement gap with white students. Many of his former students are now teachers at the schools.
Another panelist was former Washington, DC Teachers’ Union President George Parker, who once opposed charter schools on the basis that they transferred power from the school system to the parents and that they result in fewer dues-paying union members. Parker confessed that he used deception as a union boss. He said, “Donald Trump didn’t invent the term ‘Fake News’. The Teachers’ Unions came up with it decades ago to discredit charter schools. We would come up with false phrases about charter schools, such as cherry-picking the best students and that charter schools take money away from public education.”
Former Washington, DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Kevin Johnson’s wife, wants to eliminate the seniority and tenure systems in public education. She wants to see a merit system in place, based on student achievement. While she supports effective charter schools, she says, “There is no reason why we can’t turn around traditional public schools.”
Michael Phillips, Pastor of the Kingdom of Life Church in Baltimore, believes that faith leaders must get involved in improving education, including encouraging people to volunteer in literacy programs and mentorship. He wants to see schools place more emphasis on college and career readiness.
CNN anchor Roland Martin closed the program. He revealed a discussion he had with President Obama onboard Air Force One in 2009 defending government vouchers for private school tuition. He spoke in favor of magnet schools (which he attended in Houston), charter schools and private school vouchers. He urged those in attendance to take action immediately. Martin said, “I don’t defend failure. If a school doesn’t work, shut it down!” Martin also called for schools to adopt best practices which have succeeded elsewhere.
SouthCarolinaCAN Executive Director Bradford Swann said the forum was an awareness opportunity. He noted that all of the students who live in the Liberty Hill neighborhood where Royal Mission Baptist Church is located are zoned for failing schools. His organization will work with members of the community to pursue improved K-12 public education opportunities.