congressional black caucus

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) remembers the days of desegregated schools. She knows how separate was not equal and the importance of the Brown v. Board of Education decision 60 years ago. That’s why she recently convened policymakers and activists for a panel to assess the educational achievements of Black boys 60 years after the Brown Supreme Court decision. The numbers are staggering particularly when looking at the disparity between Black and White students.

Responding to critics weary of repeated panels, event co-sponsor Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) stated in an email to EBONY, “issue raising is an integral and effective part of problem-solving.  This panel [raises] important issues which hopefully help us to more directly focus on the needs of Black Men and Boys.” Dr. Ivory Toldson, Deputy Director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, was the highlight of the panel impressing the audience with a host of poignant quips and one-liners. He even referenced a tweet of his about wanting Black people to believe in Black people despite what others say. A major assertion of his, regarding improving education among Black boys, is that we must ignore false or poor comparisons.

Dr. Toldson suggested instead of measuring Black student achievement against White student achievement, the comparison should be high achieving Blacks, to middle achieving Blacks, to lower achieving Blacks. He told the audience “we can’t look outside our culture or race for solutions.”

Court precedent was an important theme for the discussion, led by moderator Angela Rye. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer spoke of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney and his opinion in the infamous Dred Scott decision. Rye, Principal at Impact Strategies, followed up by mentioning the precedent set by Justice Brown in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Both were asking how to create a place of equality for African-Americans, in the field of education and in life, when the legal precedents for so long have worked against providing equality. Rye, told EBONY “We have historically relied on the Judicial branch, the Executive branch and the Legislative branch to address our woes, sometimes that backfires, sometimes it’s good but not great, and sometimes there’s a total reversal of everything we’ve relied upon; we saw that with the Supreme Court decision in the voting rights case last summer…We need to really start thinking about how will we ensure that our needs are always met with or without a court on our side, a legislature on our side and an Executive branch on our side.”

Some argue the problem of educational achievement is best solved on the local level with charter schools. Panelists, including the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis discussed the faults of charter schools highlighting how difficult it is to get into a charter school, but how easy it is to get kicked out. She also pointed out that educators and educational advocates are watching the charter school movement to see what will develop yet Black children are being used as the guinea pigs. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) another co-sponsor of the panel dismissed the ideas of vouchers as a solution saying it’s only beneficial “if you win the lottery.”

Congresswoman Wilson, a former principal and school board member herself, pointed to the success her school found using community investment. She pointed her practice of hiring teachers who would send their children to the school they worked at. This ensured the teachers investment in the welfare of the school. Legislatively she has been pushing for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a bill originally passed by Lyndon B. Johnson during his great society program. The current reauthorization is from President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act.

Although much of the panel was spent diagnosing the problems facing Black boys in education, there was also talk of solutions. Browne Dianis highlighted the importance of local activism, telling EBONY “People need to be involved in grassroots movements, that’s how we’ve changed this country over time…we got all those civil rights laws passed because of community activism.” NAACP’s Leticia Smith-Evans suggests the community can work to eliminate the educational achievement gap by being empowered to help advocate for students and that empowering meant gathering data from the schools and determining how the data breaks down along racial and gender lines. Smith-Evans says when there are problems, advocates should tell school systems “This is a problem we see, what can we do to help?”