“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but [rather] give us the determination to make the right things happen.” — Horace Mann, American education reformer
One of the joys of serving as pastor of a historic, national congregation is that it not only requires the pastor to serve and minister to every member of the church, but also to advocate for “the least of these” — those who are poor, live in crime infested neighborhoods, and desire a quality public education.
Being a prophetic pastor in the historic Black church tradition is who I am as a minister. It would be impossible for me to be something else. Bright Hope, you will never know how much I love you and appreciate the way you love, support and empower your pastor. There is no better feeling than to know that your congregation has your back! I am only able to speak prophetically on critical issues affecting our community because you make it possible. I love you dearly for your empowering me as your pastor and leader.
Since January 2012, the School District of Philadelphia has been undergoing radical education reform. Decisions are being made for our children’s future when there is no superintendent — “captain to steer the ship” — or permanent, experienced executive leadership. With a potential budget deficit which could top $400 million, the district is moving forward with a plan to radically decentralize the public schools with no publicly stated and clearly articulated vision, no input from taxpayers, parents, students, teachers and voters, and no explanation of how this radical education reform will benefit all children in the School District of Philadelphia.
I raise these points because the radical education reforms occurring at the district could take us back to an era before Brown vs. the Board of Education. In 1957, the reason Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston led the Supreme Court legal fight of Brown vs. the Board of Education was because of the issue of “neighborhood schools.” Those who were Black were not allowed to go to the high-performing, all-white “neighborhood schools.” African Americans had to attend their own all-Black “neighborhood schools,” which were inferior to those from affluent white neighborhoods. They were inferior because they lacked the proper resources to run them properly. Thus, children were receiving an inadequate education.
Today in Philadelphia, there is a big debate brewing over “neighborhood schools” versus “access to good schools.” Those who advocate for “neighborhood schools” want decentralization, which in turn means an emphasis on neighborhood schools, or schools located where a child lives. On the other hand, those who advocate for “access to good schools” are not concerned if the school is in the child’s neighborhood as long as the school is a “good school” and the child has “access” to it. Currently, this is not the case with lower schools in Philadelphia. Many in our communities are those who are in poor-performing schools, which means their dreams are compromised or unfortunately eternally deferred. While advocates for “neighbor schools” argue that they want to create “good schools” for all children in their neighborhood, the reality is, public education reform only lasts as long as our conscious and concerned elected officials are in office. We do not need “neighborhood schools” — that’s segregation — but rather we need “good schools” in every neighborhood and equal “access” to them — that’s real education reform!
In sum, if the School District of Philadelphia’s current radical education reform of decentralization means that good schools will be only in affluent, homogeneous communities, then we cannot support it. If decentralization means that only the haves will keep having while the have-nots keep suffering, then we cannot support it. If this is the district’s model and definition of decentralization, then this model is flawed. It is nothing more than a return to pre-Brown vs. the Board of Education and a 21st-century model of segregated schools based upon class and race.
Beloved, our children deserve a quality education. It’s time to fight for good schools and equal access to them!
The Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.