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Glen Ford: The corporate education reform movement has exacerbated inequities in public schools in the name of civil rights

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to the latest edition of .

We’re now joined by Glen Ford, who’s cofounder and executive director of Black Agenda Report and author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Glen.

GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the invitation.

NOOR: So, Glen, we’re at the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ruled that separate is not equal and that public schools need to be desegregated, especially in the U.S. South. Now, you know, 60 years later, corporate education reformers, those that advocate charter schools, such as Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools, has said that education reform is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. But now we have an increasing amount of data which indicates that segregation is at the same or even worse than it was 60 years ago in public schools, and also that, you know, one of the favorite tools of corporate education reform, charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, that they actually make segregation worse. And this is, of course, a policy that was first really expanded under No Child Left Behind under President Bush but has been expanded dramatically with Race to the Top under President Obama. So talk about where we are 60 years later as far as segregation goes in public schools.

FORD: Well, the charter school proponents never talk about the most fundamental issue in society, and that is democracy. And we see a total lack of democracy in their approach to privatization of education.

Back in 1954, the rationale for the destruction of school segregation, the rationale that was best understood and most accepted among black people, was that segregation had to be destroyed because as long as blacks were racially isolated, they could be discriminated against in education or anywhere else, that there was never such a thing as separate but equal educational systems, and that in a racist society, separate systems would always result in blacks being mistreated. The idea was that, especially in the South, if the schools were somehow integrated, then whites could not educationally deprive black kids without depriving their own kids at the same time. That was the idea.

What we saw was massive resistance by white people. You know, segregation academies sprung up everywhere. Whole school districts, which were left with only blacks, were shut down. That was massive resistance in the South. But what is not really well understood is that the resistance in the North was at least as fierce and massive as in the South. In the South, black folks were everywhere and whites could not simply move to another jurisdiction and therefore withdraw themselves from the black presence in the schools. Black kids, black people were in rural areas, in metropolitan areas, and of course in the inner cities. But in the North, whites could just move a block or two sometimes or two or three miles into the suburbs and racially isolate black folks that way.

And this massive resistance was so fierce that it actually changed the demographics of American cities, especially in the North. In ’54 there were virtually no major cities that were majority black. Even Washington, D.C., hadn’t reached that. And yet ten, 15 years later there were lots of places that were majority black or getting there. So the resistance, by the numbers, was quite fierce.

In the South we saw more effective school desegregation, largely because white people couldn’t just move away from black folks, although suburbanization has increased in the South, and lots of that is part of continuing resistance to integration.

In the North, black racial isolation in the schools is now city-wide. That is, oh, 40 years ago, blacks would be isolated in a de facto segregated high school. Now the whole city is overwhelmingly black and brown.

And so the struggle then becomes: how do communities take control of these schools in which they are the majority? And in that sense they have met a kind of corporate and racial massive resistance, from not only Republicans but from Democrats, with the school charterization movement, which wants to totally remove all discussion of democracy and accountability to communities of the public schools.

NOOR: Now, Glen, you know, you had the battles in northern cities, like, for example, New York City, back in the Ocean Hill-Browsville incident, where you had mostly white teachers kind of battling with the, you know, black community over who gets a say in how the schools are run.

FORD: That’s right. And we had other battles which were more successful than Ocean Hill-Brownsville in New York, most notably in Chicago, where a system of community control, a large measure of community control was established in the Chicago schools. And that system, in which parents and community members methodically have an import into which teachers are hired and how budgets are spent. And that has been just as methodically dismantled under the charterization schemes that were put forward, especially by Arne Duncan, who’s now Obama’s education secretary, when Duncan was CEO of the Chicago schools.

The other big victim in desegregation has been black teachers. Certainly when we had total de jure segregation, for every class of black children, there was a black teacher. But with desegregation we find situations in which there were massive, massive firings of black teachers in the South in the desegregation process. But also we see that happening now in the current regime of privatization, and especially in Chicago, which has lost about half of its black teachers in the last 15 years or so. And the Teachers Union has gone to court and won twice with a racial discrimination suit because black teachers who had earned great seniority–teaching used to be one of the few professions that black folks with education could aspire to, and so it was heavily populated with black aspiring professionals–that class is being wiped out. And it’s not by Southern Bilbo senators; it’s by people like Arne Duncan.

NOOR: Now, Glen, you know, one of the appeals to charter schools–and you can’t–you know, no one can deny that charter schools do have some popular support, especially in the inner city black community–the appeal is that, look, the status quo is failing. You know, there’s bad teachers in these schools. And, you know, they argue that these teachers need to go and that charter schools can–you know, they’re–most of them are nonunion, so the bad teachers can be fired. And there’s–and, you know, it’s like the original conception of charter schools was to allow more innovation within–inside the public school sphere and, you know, high-needs children, different services and the things they needed to get.

Now, what explains the fact that charter schools still have this, you know, significant–I’d say significant support, especially in places like Harlem, when, you know, like we mentioned earlier, a lot of studies indicate that charter schools have not lived up to their promise?

FORD: Two things to explain it. Number one, black folks are hungry for quality education, which black folks have not gotten anywhere in this country. And so there is this great hunger. The other factor is the money is on the charter schools side. The hedge fund investors, the whole corporate class is for charterization. And they have bought their way into the Democratic Party so that the Democrats are just as much privatizers as anybody else. And, of course, everything political in black America goes through the Democratic Party.

But it is a vain hope. There cannot be black power, there cannot be democracy in a charterized system. Charter schools are run privately. They are not, by law, accountable to communities. They are private institutions.

In terms of community power–and I’m talking about the larger community and not just parents who might send their kids to a school–they divorce the hole educational process from the community, except for the fact that the public pays the bill.

NOOR: Well, this is certainly a conversation that we will continue to have. Glen Ford, thank you so much for joining us.

FORD: Thanks so much for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America's Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.