Ethnic Cleansing of the Nation’s Teaching Staffs: A Civil Rights Tragedy Done in the Name of Civil Rights

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, and Mark Zuckerberg, center, founder and CEO of Facebook listen as N.J. Gov. Chris Christie talks about the states schools, during a press conference at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, N.J., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010. Zuckerberg is there to talk about his donation of $100 million to help Newark public schools (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, and Mark Zuckerberg, center, founder and CEO of Facebook listen as N.J. Gov. Chris Christie talks about the states schools, during a press conference at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, N.J., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010. Zuckerberg is there to talk about his donation of $100 million to help Newark public schools (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

By Mark Naison

During the last fifteen years, tens of thousands of Black teachers lost their positions on the staffs of the nation’s public schools. This unacknowledged ethnic cleansing, which devastated the nation’s Black middle class, took place all over the nation, from Chicago, to New Orleans, to San Francisco, to Washington, DC. Compounding the tragedy, lifetime educators lost their jobs and were replaced by White, short timers from programs like Teach for America.

The luxury of distance brings a clear focus to a disaster of epic proportions, destabilizing communities and leaving our most vulnerable young people without mentors in their schools. Self-proclaimed liberals authored many of these policies under the guise of slogans like “School Reform is Civil Rights for the 21st Century” to justify school closings and mass firings of teachers in the nation’s urban centers.

The misguided notion that public-school “failure” accounted for the rapid growth in racial and economic inequality in the United States over the last 40 years, and that “bad teachers” caused “failing” schools, provided fertile soil for wrong-headed policies. Billionaire “philanthropists” like Eli Broad and Bill Gates, spread these notions throughout the foundation world, influencing a generation of up-and-coming progressive politicians like Barack Obama and Corey Booker.

If you accepted this analysis, you took it as an article of faith that the fastest path to greater equality was to close failing schools (with “failure” defined exclusively by test scores), fire their teachers, and start over again with new schools—charter schools—staffed by young people from the nation’s top universities. While no economist of note endorsed this dubious hypothesis, it spread with the fervor of religion throughout the highest levels of the national and statewide Democratic and Republican Parties. States passed accountability laws that mandated school closing where test scores failed to meet arbitrary standards. In New Orleans, the entire public-school system was replaced by charters and thousands of teachers were fired—a “model” for the entire nation.

Hindsight provides a clear picture of what transpired: thousands of Black teachers fired, communities destabilized—in many cases gentrified—and students left without mentors who understand them and believe in them.

Stop the madness. Stop closing schools. Stop opening charters. Stop supporting alternative certification programs. Make cultural competence a higher priority than test scores. Start identifying and recruiting teachers of color to work in the nation’s public schools. And begin rehiring the great teachers pushed out by the travesty known as “School Reform.”

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