St. Louis Beacon Writer Misses the Point
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Democrats for Education Reform meeting held at Harris Stowe University. The event featured a panel discussion that included a number of distinguished guests, ranging from elected officials to clergymen to union representatives to school choice advocates to journalists. The panel’s discussion was wide-ranging, although it (naturally) revolved around the question of what can be done to give children in St. Louis the educational opportunities they are currently being denied.
I was intrigued when I read the St. Louis Beacon‘s story on this event, because the reporter ignored the vast majority of the discussion in order to focus on what Ray Cummings, the panelist representing St. Louis Teachers Union Local 420, had to say, as well as one union member’s suggestion that many people in the room had adopted their education policies in order to secure donations from Rex Sinquefield. Nearly one third of the Beacon article is dedicated to the ideas expressed by advocates for the teachers union, and the remainder is, in my opinion, not particularly representative of the discussion.
The recurring theme of the panelists’ comments was that efforts to reform urban education must focus on the children, not the institutions. Kevin Chavous, cofounder of Democrats for Education Reform, passionately insisted that while for years we’ve been waiting for the public schools to come up with a solution, millions of African-American children have been passing through those buildings without being equipped to succeed in life. He invoked Malcolm X, saying that elected officials and parents have to be committed to getting their kids educated “by any means necessary,” whether or not it fits comfortably with the party line. Regarding the common argument that the problems of urban education cannot be solved with programs that help individual students, Chavous invoked Harriet Tubman’s perspective: When similar doubts were raised about the abolition of slavery, and the politicians kept talking about the big picture, she said she’d be out there bringing slaves to freedom, one at a time.
The Beacon article also neglected to describe Rep. T.D. El-Amin’s response when the questioner suggested that campaign donations were driving his interest in education reform. He pointed out that he’s been advocating school choice since long before Rex Sinquefield offered his support. Rep. El-Amin said that “selling-out” is when you adopt an opinion so you can get money, and that there is nothing wrong or questionable about accepting money because the donor agrees with an opinion that you have previously expressed.
All in all, Saturday’s panel generally agreed that urban communities — and particularly black communities — have to marshal the courage to speak out in favor of reforms that focus on the children. Several of the panel members said that they frequently hear people (especially black elected officials) say, “I understand and agree with what you’re saying, but I can’t say it myself.” The panelists said that school choice is this century’s frontier for civil rights, and that people have to have the strength of their convictions, to go out and make sure that their communities’ children don’t become part of the number that have been allowed to pass through the public schools without learning. That is the story that the Beacon‘s reporter should have told.