SACKS: Conservatives Get It Wrong On Black Poverty And The Public School System — Here’s Why

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Glenn Sacks Contributor
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In his recent Daily Caller column on Democrats and reparations, Bishop Aubrey Shines correctly blames Democrats for their substantial role in black oppression: it was the Democratic Party which perpetuated and defended both slavery and Jim Crow, and prominent Democrats like Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have helped enact laws which have fueled mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

However, Shines’ claim that “Democratic mayors and city officials” are to blame for black poverty betrays a common yet crucial misunderstanding of the root causes of blacks’ economic condition. Inner cities aren’t poor because they are run by Democrats — they’re run by Democrats because they are poor. The big business elites who economically and politically dominate the US realized long ago it was preferable to have Democrats — particularly black ones — keeping a lid on the low-income minority populations of major cities. This job of promising and pacifying is one which Democrats, with varying degrees of idealism, cynicism and effectiveness, have been willing and able to do.

The real causes of inner-city poverty lay in the de-industrialization of the United States. During the 2016 presidential election, it was President Trump who highlighted this problem, while Democrats have often ignored it.

De-industrialization (and the concomitant decimation of the labor unions) has left blacks in some ways worse off than before the Civil Rights movement. Yes, the black middle class has grown, and individual blacks have risen far, even to the White House. But the average wealth of a black family is a mere 1/10th that of the average white family, and blacks continue to disproportionately endure unemployment, underemployment, low wage employment and incarceration.

The decimation of Detroit and Flint — once strongholds of the auto industry, union power and African American power — is exemplary. The population of Detroit dropped from 1.8 million in 1950 to just 700,000 in 2010 — a loss of 61%. The city, 84% white in 1950, was 83% black by 2010, and had the highest unemployment rate, poverty rate, child poverty rate and crime rate of any major US city.

A black industrial worker in the 1950s — despite the racist outrages he and his people endured — could support his family, buy a house and get medical care for his kids based on his unionized industrial job. He also had power as a member of a strong labor institution. Such jobs are largely gone.

In the wake of plant closures and jobs losses, blacks are often left poor and comparatively dependent on government social programs. At the same time, immigrants have taken over many of the lower-wage service jobs traditionally taken by blacks — maids, gardeners, valets, caregivers for children and the elderly, etc. In previous generations, as badly as blacks suffered, they had some leverage because businesses needed their labor. This is no longer the case — from the vantage point of America’s business leaders, blacks today are largely a surplus population.

Shines is even more misguided when he blames teachers unions for black Americans’ lack of educational opportunities, alleging that “corrupt teachers unions” have “forced poor blacks to remain locked in the failing public school system for generations.” It’s a common conservative theme, one that Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution propounds in his highly-publicized new book Charter Schools and Their Enemies. In inner cities devastated by de-industrialization and the unemployment, poverty, crime, violence, drug abuse and overall desperation it brings, the resulting low academic performance is somehow teachers unions’ fault.

The solution Shines, Sowell and other conservatives put forward — charter schools (aka “school choice”) — hurts African American children by draining critical funds from public education, and teachers unions are correct to oppose it.

Sowell and charter supporters cite what they claim are charters’ higher test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions. Yet Charters’ “success” — limited and questionable though it is — is actually due to two factors:

  • As schools of choice they enjoy a superior, self-selected and sometimes hand-selected cohort of students.
  • They employ a young, underpaid, overworked workforce that allows them to save money on salaries, healthcare and pensions — money they can use to fund smaller class sizes and extracurricular programs that traditional public schools can’t afford.

Even if these practices were ethical, they could not be replicated on a large scale.

University of Colorado education professor Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, explains “the greatest determinants of [a school’s] success are the raw materials — the students who enroll.” Welner has identified a dozen methods charter schools use to get the “raw material” they want — and avoid or discard the students they don’t.

Charters’ harsh discipline policies help in this sifting process. One recent study found Los Angeles Unified School District charters suspend students at twice the rate — and black students at almost three times the rate—that traditional schools do. Suspensions often lead to the exit of already struggling students from charters, which serves to artificially inflate charters’ test scores.

Charters also gain by taking advantage of young teachers’ idealism and willingness to sacrifice. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, nationwide only 11% of charters are unionized. Unlike union teachers, most charter-school teachers work on one-year contracts with little or no job protection.

According to a new study, faculty turnover at charter schools is significantly higher than in traditional schools. The study, conducted by University of California, Berkeley researchers, examined the turnover rates among 13,000 LAUSD elementary and secondary teachers. The study’s authors explain:

“[R]esearch shows that charter school teaching context is demanding (e.g., longer hours, more responsibilities, fewer resources, and more administrative chores)…evidence suggests that most teachers in charter schools leave because of a lack of satisfaction with certain aspects of the teaching conditions…It is well documented in the literature that charter schools have higher teacher turnover.”

UC Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller, co-author of the LA study, explains:

“The conventional wisdom, which our study backs up, is that charters recruit very young teachers…[charter managers] will say this in small groups but not to reporters — that they want younger teachers because it saves on wages and benefits.”

Thus the charter path can only function on a small level, and is incompatible with running a large school system. Moreover, non-union schools hurt black students because they deprive them of the stability of the teachers they’ve bonded with by creating unnecessary turnover and teacher burnout, and pushing talented individuals into other, better-paid professions. In my years teaching in non-union schools, I saw many of my talented young colleagues leave the teaching profession because of the low pay and lack of job security.

Rather than promoting charters or other educational fads, teachers unions have consistently fought to help black students by advocating proper funding and staffing for all schools. This would allow students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy small class sizes and access to individual help. Union proposals would provide students the opportunity to interact and bond with teachers and counselors who actually have time to help them, and activities and special programs that would make students want to come to school. Currently, African American students are among those least likely to enjoy these benefits.

It is true, as conservatives say, that many African Americans support “school choice.” Given their often difficult or even desperate situations, this is understandable. But lifeboats for a small, elite group of black students are not the solution. What we need instead are quality, well-funded public schools for all.

Glenn Sacks teaches at LAUSD’s James Monroe High School and is co-chair of United Teachers Los Angeles at Monroe High.