Calling school choice “the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” W. Willard Fair issued a call to action for blacks to demand change. Blacks “must lead the charge,” he said, “because it is in our interest” to do so.
Fair, vice chairman of the Florida State Board of Education and president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, spoke recently to a meeting of the Urban League of North Carolina. But despite some challenging questions and testy comments from a Charlotte activist in attendance, the racially mixed audience gave a respectful hearing to its controversial guest.
Fair has spent a lifetime working for the betterment of his fellow blacks. A political independent and maverick, Fair’s support of school choice, his willingness to work with Republicans, and his candid public criticism of other black leaders often put him at odds with many other leaders in the black community. Fair is chairman of the board of directors and cofounder (along with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) of the Liberty City Charter School, the first charter school organized in Florida.
Fair began by explaining why he is considered controversial by many in the black community. “People who say they care about what you’re doing sometimes get upset if you don’t do it their way,” he said. Dismissing the traditional reluctance of the black community to criticize its leaders, he said that blacks should protest when it becomes apparent that the policies their leaders support are hurting, rather than helping, black children.
Fair was particularly critical of black leaders who think that school choice and reform “must be part of some evil, white, Republican conspiracy” because the ideas are popular with Republicans. He said that kind of thinking was preventing blacks from finding solutions to their problems. The education system is always promising “fixes,” but failing to deliver. “Many of those who claim they want to fix the system are those who broke it in the first place,” he said.
Citing the availability of good public schools in affluent suburbs, Fair pointed out that choice already exists in America for those who can afford it. He argued that those who have the resources may choose to live in an area that already has good schools, while people of more modest means have no option but to remain where they are and accept whatever the public school system offers them.
“People who run for office must know that those who do not support school choice will not get our votes,” he said. He also warned that blacks would have to buck some powerful interests if they want to make progress. He specifically cited the teachers’ union as one of the powerful interests and called it a dangerous obstacle to school reform.
As an example of the kind of action needed, Fair pointed out that there are 80,000 families in the Miami-Dade County area eligible for tuition assistance vouchers worth $1,500 apiece, which could be used to help students from low-income families escape failing schools. Yet, most of the vouchers go unused because the system has no interest in promoting them. Fair called for an organized effort to show parents that the vouchers are a viable option for their children.
In a question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, an attendee complained about corporations getting into the business of managing charter schools. She said there were “people who don’t know what they’re doing” running schools to make a profit, and this is having a bad effect on children’s education.
Fair explained that if parents aren’t satisfied with the education their children are receiving at charter schools, the solution is to demand changes. However, charter schools are ultimately schools of choice; no parents have to send their children to a charter school if they don’t want to or are dissatisfied with the way the school is being run.
A Charlotte-area activist, Dr. Gyasi A. Foluke, challenged Fair’s claim that school choice would be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Dr. Foluke cited recent studies, which purported to show that students in charters schools fared no better in standardized testing than did their counterparts in regular public schools. He said that since other studies showed that economic factors had the greatest impact on student achievement, the focus for black leaders and activists should be on economic issues, such as reparations.
The session became tense when Dr. Foluke quoted the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Mohammed, to the effect that “those who mistreat you, cannot teach you,” in reference to the biases that white teachers supposedly bring to the classroom.
After noting that Elijah Mohammed was himself a racist, Fair dismissed the idea that white teachers could not teach black children. In a tense, but not un-civil exchange, Fair argued that white bias in the teaching profession cannot explain the poor academic achievement record of blacks relative to other ethnic groups and should not be used as an excuse. He pointed out that there were plenty of poor-performing schools in which nearly all the staff and students are black, as well as many examples of black students who received an excellent education from white teachers.
The forum was sponsored by the North Carolina Education Alliance, a project of the John Locke Foundation. NCEA Director Lindalyn Kakadelis said that she thought it was important for her organization to reach out to groups such as the Urban League to forge a working alliance on issues of mutual concern, such as school choice.
Jim Stegall is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.