Tina Flournoy, Office of the President, and Randi Weingarten, president of AFT (Photo by Brian Carter)
Over 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court Decision, “Brown v Board of Education” and the Black community nationwide is separate and still not equal.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
Last week, distinguished panel of educators including Larry Aubry (former board member, Inglewood Unified School District) Arnold Butler (president of the board, Inglewood Unified School District), Dr. Owen Knox (former Los Angeles area school superintendent), Marguerite La Motte (board member, Los Angeles Unified School District) and Samuel Richard (associate editor, New L.A. Watt Times) met with Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) and her assistant, Tina Flournoy at the Los Angeles Sentinel. The meeting lasted over an hour and a half and at times the debate between the panel and the AFT president was caustic but passionate. The main issue was the status of public education as it relates to Black children.
There is no doubt that Black children receive sub standard education in the nation’s public school. There are many organizations, elected officials, educators and parents who see the problem but are unable to come together to render meaningful solution(s). Many laws have been passed–some well-meaning and some cosmetic–but without the human will to tackle the education crisis facing Black children, no amount of law can undo centuries of mis-education.
But there may be hope. The fact that the president of 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was willing to meet with a group of Black educators to discuss the problem is a good start. However, this cannot be just one feel-good session; it has to be continuous, honest and totally open-minded. When Weingarten came to meet with the panel, there were no parameters, pre-conditions or sacred cows.
In her opening statement, Weingarten started off by acknowledging that it will be a tough conversation, and she was right–tough, heated and passionate. She said, “I went to public schools and I always saw public schools as a great opportunity agent and I saw the labor movement as a great opportunity agent for kids.” She said that after law school, she taught for awhile went to work for the union and then worked her way up to become the president. Everybody talk about how important education is but when it comes to the dollars and cents, to help kids particularly poor kids and kids of color, talk and action are totally and completely different. So that’s the lens with which I started to work in the labor movement.” Then she mentioned that from her vantage point, her efforts at promoting quality education for all children, that as the tide rises, it will lift all boats equally.
At that point, several things she expressed were off base as it pertains to Black children. And members of the panel were eager to jump into the fray to correct her way of thinking as it related to the education of Black children. First and foremost, as Butler stated, “We need a Black agenda to promote and pursue the education of Black children.” That was non-negotiable; referring to “kids of color” was a non-starter. Any solution had to be for Black children.
As the president of a major union, Weingarten was asked how does she reckon with the traditional notion that unions exist for the benefit of their members, and they (the members) come first before the children, who seem to play second fiddle in the scheme of union operations, and most times and not even part of the discussion–54th on the list of priorities.
“Most of the times,” she replied, “the union is supposed to fight for the tools and conditions that teachers need to do a good job for the kids. And most times those two things are parallel and compatible with each other.”
Knox then chimed in, “Teachers have the ability to move about–to make choices of where they teach. And those choices led to the schools in South Los Angeles having the newest teachers because the teachers come first.” He was speaking from firsthand knowledge and practical experience. “But since they have this mobility, they move out,” he continued, “and the only teachers they send there are the newest and the youngest who haven’t yet achieved enough experience. So the parents know–they don’t have a feeling–they know that we have inferior teachers.”
In response to those accusations about teachers in South Los Angeles, Weingarten referred to New York since she claimed that’s the district she knows best. However, in trying to explain that she did not know the L.A. school system like Knox did, was a specious claim since the overall proposition of the panel was that Black children all over the country are the victims of inferior public education system–and that included New York. Knox reinforced that notion saying, “New York City has the same problems with African American education that we have. The statistics show that in New York City, Black children learn least well of any ethnic group.”
Flournoy then came in, “First of all I do not have intimate knowledge of the UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles) contract, but the problem you’ve just identified, is a big problem; not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the country. One of the problems we often have is the newest, youngest, least experienced teachers in the schools where it (experience) is needed most.
“With all due respect, the issue is really that nobody wants to acknowledge the fact that we do have to have an African American agenda,” Butler started off. “That’s a fact. I come from forty years plus in education. It has nothing to do with the color of the teacher; it has nothing to do with the curriculum; it has nothing to do with the facilities and all these other things. We do not have an agenda for African American children.” That got to the core of the discussion.
In referring to a recent meeting, Flournoy said, “Some civil rights groups but together an agenda for Black children in public schools–a legislative agenda, a community agenda–and it was the Schott Foundation, Urban League, PUSH, NAN and NAACP, and it came out at the beginning of the Urban League’s convention. It was a brilliant piece … well done … and it talks about all the things you’re talking about. They were brutally and immediately attacked by the administration, by the Department of Education saying this just isn’t true.”
Aubry was the most passionate member of the panel. He spoke with a conviction that showed years of frustration of having to re-hash some of the same issues on behalf of Black children. “Until we make the African American child’s education an agenda item, we will still have these splintered organizations and cosmetic approach.” Referring to the Secretary of Education, Aubry went on, “Here is a man who is the titular head of education in this country and all he can talk about is more Black teachers in front of my children–that does not answer the primary issues that a child faces on a day-to-day basis, as he walks from that house in Nickerson Gardens to Markham Junior High School or to Jordan High School.
Then it was La Motte’s turn; she said, “We just got things from the federal government and African American children are not listed. We have written to that effect. I just sent a letter to (Secretary) Duncan about the four statistically low-achieving groups–we have four, and I represent them all: African Americans, Mexican Americans, Hawaiian Americans and Native Americans. Statistically, we have shown that these are the kids who bring our schools down and nobody listens. It’s as if they don’t exist.”
“At the end of the day, what seems to work for children, all children,” Weingarten stated, “is if we create an environment that is respectful of the kids that we teach, the parents we must embrace, and the teachers and the administrators that teach in the schools. We need to make sure we deal with the whole child with a sense of shared responsibility and mutual responsibility.” Followed by, ” How do we make sure that public education is what it ought to be, not what it is today for all kids.”
It is instructive to note that the same agenda that Flournoy mentioned when she spoke about the recent meeting and “some civil rights groups” which she e-mailed to the group days later, highlighted some of the same concerns that Aubry mentioned in his recent Sentinel column including referencing the same meeting.
Aubry wrote in part: “Many Blacks remain reluctant to identify a request or program as explicitly Black, fearing not receiving (or losing) funding or political favor. But downplaying the primacy of a Black agenda is needlessly squeamish and actually lessens the likelihood of success…”
Flournoy’s e-mail of the meeting of the civil rights groups takes it a step further stating in part: “A tragic crisis of enormous magnitude is facing black boys and men in America.
Parental neglect, racial discrimination and an orgy of self-destructive behavior have left an extraordinary portion of the black male population in an ever-deepening pit of social and economic degradation …”
The end of the e-mail may have summed it up appropriately: “…Terrible injustices have been visited on Black people in the United States, but there is never a good reason to collaborate in one’s own destruction. Blacks in America have a long and proud history of overcoming hardship and injustice. It’s time to do it again.”
The push for a Black agenda must continue!