Stealing Education?

Review of : Cutting School:  Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education


Author:  Noliwe Rooks

If you care about Race and Class and their intersection with Public Education in the United States, then you won’t be the same person after reading Cutting School.

In this chronicle of the historical (and ongoing) assault on public education, Rooks introduces a brilliant concept – segrenomics (a portmanteau for which we must both thank and applaud Rooks)– as the motive force behind an invidiously race and class based system of public education.    In this assault, the aggressors are many- both the usual ones and some unusually surprising suspects.

cutting school finalThe history of public education in the United States reads like fiction of the absurd.  It is fraught with racism, corruption, and even the malevolence of liberalism.  The dividing lines remain the same:  Race and Class.  The surprising narrative-so well developed in Cutting School, is that in fact the poor and minority communities in effect subsidize education for the rich and White communities.  Further, well-heeled Entrepreneurs profit from the crime.

What crime?

In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to declare that “separate educational institutions are inherently unequal, “thereby overturning the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson that instituted the “separate but equal” charade that set back black and poor communities for decades.   Separate but equal was declared unconstitutional.   That states and communities did not comply with legally mandated integration and equalization – and still in effect haven’t- is a crime of unbelievable dimensions.

Segregation and inequality hardly ended with the abolishment of slavery.

Shortly after the Civil War, some men of means took it upon themselves to determine what the educational futures of newly liberated Southern Blacks would be.  In this endeavor, altruism was not even on the back burner.  Methods to properly employ Black labor in Capitalist enterprise and how to quell political progressivism amongst Blacks were on their collective minds.

Black communities were always deeply interested in Education.  They were more than willing to donate matching funds and offer large portions of their meager earnings to support their children’s’ right to Education.  They found themselves responsible for building their own schools and in effect subsidizing schools in areas that were off-limits- both geographically and otherwise, to them.

Such is the tyranny of geography.  Put differently, geography has “color.”  This is not simply happenstance however.  Geographical segregation is enforced in a variety of extra-legal ways such that integration of the Races, especially in public education, is an impossible task.  With this separation, equality-at-scale is nigh impossible.

Most people at this point believe that geography does not imply insuperability.  The school bus – no doubt- can cross boundaries can it not?

Enter the connivance of the power-nexus.  To delay- even permanently stave off- integration, busing was considered a separate issue, decoupled from school integration (for those Democrats who laud Joe Biden and his “humanity” a visit to his voting record on busing to end Segregation might be eye-opening.)  Even with de jure integration, segregation remained the de facto standard in both the South and North as busing was not provided and in some cases while the provision of buses was indeed mandated by law, gas and repairs were not.

Here, it is important to remember that the communities in despair are typically poor and as with most poor people, extremely busy and fatigued trying to make ends meet.  If every act of affirmation or affirmative resistance is met with legal, extra-legal, and violent measures, the chances of a fundamental change in society is massively reduced.

The story however doesn’t simply end here.  This is not just another example of the intersection of race and poverty leading to collateral damage.  No, the tale is far more sordid.

Fast forward to the Civil Rights era.  Politicians had to devise new ways to enforce their version of  segrenomics.   Instead of suggesting outright that Whites do not want to and should not want to mix with Blacks (Yes, also with other minorities but let’s be clear, the US was built on anti-Black racism), they had to devise new languages and new methods.  Old wine in new bottles no doubt.

As progressivism took root in certain circles in the 60s and 70s so too did this anti-progressive new language.  Instead of openly channeling racists like George Wallace, segregation had to be “dog-whistled.”  Here, the chimerical notion of “choice” was introduced.  Parents should have a choice where to send their kids.  Seems logical, even fair.  Right below the surface, however, it was a way to gut Public Education while using Federal funding to support private and/or charter schools in which segregation was easier to maintain.

Public education, the only hope for uplift for the underclass, was gutted by both indifference and connivance.

Fast forward again to the Digital Age.  Greedy entrepreneurs saw this crime as one from which to benefit.  If indeed Blacks (and others) were offered shoddy schools infested with rodents and bereft of even basic amenities and if in addition Black parents were willing to spend resources on Education then why not profit from their despair?  Alternatives to solid public education were offered, channeled through expensive technologies.  Throwing all notions of pedagogy and justice to the wind, these Entrepreneurs profited from exigency and via the modality of “virtuality” kept the Races physically segregated.

Any sensible study of Educational performance indicates that poverty is the leading cause of what is deemed underperformance.  With the institutional linkage between race and poverty, it does not require too complex an imagination to understand the corollaries here, so incredibly devastating to minority communities.

Rooks knows better than anyone, however, that where there is institutional crime, there is resistance and justice-seeking.  Cutting School is not just a history of nullification but also one of affirmation and beauty.  She describes at length the incredible efforts of Educators like Marva Collins and Liller Green who opposed not only segregation but also the technocratic approach to Education; these amazing women showed what young people can achieve when given support, resources, and encouragement.

Education is a complex subject, best understood by people who have devoted their lives to the children they support and by the communities who literally slave so that they can give hope to these children via education.  This is where, blithely dismissing this elemental notion and armed with the arrogance of wealth, technocratic liberals (and their TED talk watching acolytes) unwittingly throw in their lot with racists and segregationists.  When power is invoked and retained through the clear and conniving use of metrics, it is almost always in the service of the status quo; the segregationist and racist status quo.

Education is a Human Right.  When Human Rights are subject to the same methodologies and tests as Businesses, society suffers.  Businesses are closed hierarchies with the motive of profit.  Education is a universal need the goals of which are citizenship, happiness, and knowledge.

Humans are not commodities; nor are they chattel.

Education, therefore, should not be thought of as an industry nor should its benefactions be considered property.

But what should be and what is diverge in ways that will soon be impossible to reconcile if we don’t act now.

We’ll end with perhaps the most shocking part of the whole story.  To do so, we’ll return to the notion of crime.

In this case the crime is, mind-blowingly, “stealing education.”  Rooks illustrates this several chilling stories.  A long quote from one of these:

“…in ….2014…a judge in Connecticut sentenced a Black mother, Tanya McDowell, to twelve years in prison for ‘stealing an education’ for her kindergarten-age son.  Education officials in Connecticut said that her son should have enrolled in the city of Bridgeport, not the wealthy town of Norwalk. McDowell and her son were homeless when she was arrested for educational theft.  They split their time between a homeless shelter in Norwalk, the home of her babysitter -Ana Marquez- in Norwalk, and sometimes, if there was no room elsewhere, in the backseat of her minivan.  In order to even enroll her son in school, she used her babysitter’s Norwalk address, which was in a public housing complex.  When school officials discovered that the kindergartner was not what they considered a legal resident of Norwalk…[they] decided to prosecute this Black, single, homeless parent in first degree larceny charges…  Tanya McDowell was charged with ‘stealing’ $15,685 of educational services for her son.”

To make matters worse,

“…Ana Marquez..signed a notarized statement saying that the child lives in her public housing unit. In their quest to establish the inviolate boundaries of their schools, school officials passed that statement to the Norwalk Housing Authority officials, who then began eviction proceedings against Marquez for fraud.”

And, now for some context,

“An average Black student in Bridgeport attends a school with five times the poverty rate of a school attended by the average white student in Connecticut.”

As for McDowell, the mother,

“While she serves her time, her son lives with his grandmother in Bridgeport…he is said to suffer from frequent nightmares.”

This nightmare has been visited for scores of years on Black and poor communities in the United States.  With privatization, “choice,” and a clear re-segregation of the country, there is no dawn in the offing.

It is time for responsible citizens to stand up and say enough is enough.  Time’s up.  Ensuring that Public Education is not only excellent but equally available to all is a matter of Human Rights.  Staying silent during this nightmare is to be asleep morally; In Cutting School, Noliwe Rooks has given us the gift of a wake-up call.


 Romi Mahajan is a writer from USA



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Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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