Howard Charter Firings: Racist Error or Business as Usual

By Wayne Jebian

It quacks like racism, at least in the short version.

Three social studies teachers, who are black, were planning lessons for Black History Month at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a predominantly black charter school on a Historically black college campus in Washington, D.C. Given pink slips in front of their students, these teachers’ sudden dismissal upset parents and moved the students to stage a demonstration of their displeasure. According to news reports, the students stood on the lawn of the main quad of Howard University. Blogs reported the students chanting:

“We Want a School, Not a Business.”

The NAACP has launched an investigation of the incident, but paying attention to the students’ words, the important question about the event is not “did a black school make a racist call?” but rather, “can a charter school not make a racist call?”

The problem is the business model. The kids nailed it.

In the business model of education, you might be working with a particular supplier of a curriculum, and therefore be reluctant to go off menu to teach about Marion Barry, for instance. Howard Charter made a point of defending its curriculum in a statement paraphrased by the Washington Post. In a business model, competing lesson content will always be just that, competition, and will be received hostilely.

The crush of competition and all of its unforeseen consequences may be close to the top of the “Stupid Business Tricks” list, but it has company. At-will termination and lack of free speech protections are bad enough separately, while the combination becomes combustible when racial content is involved. That certainly was the case at Howard this year, and it has been for years.

In 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times, charter school administrators in that city stopped students from reciting the poem “A Wreath for Emmett Till” during a Black History Month program. The students circulated a letter of protest, and two teachers, Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss, were fired for signing it. The Times described a school administrator explaining that Emmett Till was inappropriate subject matter to celebrate because he had whistled at a woman.

After Emmett Till, a young black teenager visiting the south in 1955, allegedly whistled at a white woman, he was murdered and his body mutilated. His mother’s decision – to have an open coffin and put the full horrors of lynching on display — is credited with jumpstarting the Civil Rights movement. The lesson of Emmett Till to school administrators is that social studies and history aren’t pretty, but they have a value greater than the white-washed curriculum being peddled by the next corporate officer in the chain of command.

Marion Barry may not be pretty, but for the middle school students of Washington D.C., there could be a significance that an outsider has no business judging (and no curriculum publisher thinks of including). So until charter operators find better ways than off-the-shelf answers and corporate compliance to grapple with the issues on the ground that matter to their students and their communities, charters will continue to be viewed as racist institutions that fail to deliver the variety and quality of education our teachers of color an dour students of color deserve.

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