The Supreme Court Agrees: A Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Waste, by Diann Kelly

When the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of school vouchers, I believe the High Court understood that many poor children in America are not receiving their fair share in public education. Too many impoverished children, especially black and Latino children, are mired in public education systems that are separate, unequal and not competitive enough to provide them with real world experiences.

For years, I’ve found the argument against school vouchers and parental choice astonishing. The primary concern guiding this opposition is that providing vouchers to parents to move their children to schools other than their local public schools would inappropriately use public funds to support religious education. Little attention, however, is paid to the way poor children and minorities are educated in America.

Opponents seem to ignore the fact that many public schools in poor or urban neighborhoods are often nothing more than negligent warehouses, stunting our children’s emotional and cognitive development. Their parents are left with feelings of anger – anger at feeling abandoned, ignored, and from knowing that the education of their child would be competitive and rigorous if they had money or social status.

For several years, I’ve worked at providing underprivileged children and their families with access to private school education in the face of a lack of school vouchers or government funding. It has been my experience as a school social worker that the tenor of our public schools in poor, urban communities can be best described by the students themselves. Whenever I had to notify a student that they could no longer attend their private school, my declaration was often met with the face of pain and desperation. The child’s response was often “Oh my God….” In my line of work, public schools soon became classified as “You’ll be fine…” or “Oh my God….” There was never a choice available.

What the Supreme Court did was acknowledge what parents and many of us in education have known for some time – public education in urban communities is a system that has routinely failed its members. While the conventional curricula of the “3R’s” is comprehensive reading, critical “‘riting” and rigorous “‘rithmetic,” they often represent rote, rudimentary and remedial education for poor, urban students. This type of education – checklists instead of extensive writing assignments or fundamental computations instead of higher forms of Algebra – does not inspire, engender or facilitate readiness for the current employment needs of the U.S. labor market. As Justice Clarence Thomas emphasized, “poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society.”

Currently, there are nearly 11 million young adults between 16 and 24 years who are either high school dropouts or high school graduates without any other formal education or training. Unfortunately, for the urban poor, today’s economy dictates that the labor force has reading and writing skills and sufficient computational abilities to provide services and manage productivity stemming from the growth of the technological and Internet industries. Many of these at-risk youth are lost in the pipeline before gaining access to employment because of the failure of public education in urban communities.

Educational achievement is the best equalizer in society, as emphasized by the values of the Supreme Court’s famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. Children have a right to a respectable public education. However, when public education compromises a child’s right to future employment and full engagement in society, then parents have a right to divert previously misused public dollars to those avenues that would provide a worthy return.

Public schools must begin to compete with other educational institutions for access to America’s children, particularly black and Latino children. The minds of all our children are significant investments in our future labor force, national security, economy and the continued existence of our national community. Public education must contribute to that investment, because the minds to our children are a terrible thing to waste.

(Diann Kelly, PhD, is a former clinical social worker in New York City public and private schools, and currently serves as a National Service Fellow with the Corporation for National Service. She can be reached at [email protected].)

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