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Blacks in power too often misuse it

Students in Atlanta suburb used as pawns

by Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of The Atlanta Constitution, published August 17, 2003.

Just once, I'd like to see black civil rights activists take to the streets to protest schools that miseducate black children. Just once, I'd like to see so-called black leaders up in arms about popular culture's casual acceptance of mediocrity (and worse) in black students.

But that's not the typical story line of black protest in matters related to education. The plot, ever so predictable, usually goes like this:

A black teacher or principal is fired. Black activists call a press conference to denounce the alleged racism of white school officials.

Or, school officials propose that new teachers be required to pass a standardized test. Black activists immediately declare the requirement racist.

Or, blacks win a majority of seats on a school board. They immediately institute a purge, eliminating whites from top administrative spots.

So it goes in Clayton County, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson met recently with a handful of black school board members, including the chairwoman, Nedra Ware. The antics of the black faction she leads have cast a pall over the entire school system and invited the unfortunate attentions of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has threatened to strip the school system of its accreditation.

The meeting suggests that Jackson is ready to encourage the board's foolish race-baiting. That's the last thing Clayton's schools need.

In the last decade, Clayton County has undergone a rapid demographic transformation from a majority white population to majority black; blacks now hold five of the nine seats on the school board. Given that power, you'd think that the board's black majority would devote its time and energy to raising test scores, lowering the drop-out rate or increasing the rate of college attendance. Oh, no-o-o.

Instead, in a clumsy coup attempt, they moved in secret to try to fire the white superintendent, though they never publicly disclosed his shortcomings, if any. He left after they agreed to buy out his contract, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Board member Ericka Davis, who is black, has resisted Ware's folly.)

The Ware junta then hastily appointed a lower-ranking black administrator, William Chavis, as interim superintendent. Chavis admits he was just a "figurehead," hired to harass or fire the junta's enemies.

The board's foolishness has rocked the suburban county, prompting teachers to flee, business leaders to fret about the bad publicity and parents (black and white) to threaten a recall vote. Ware et al. have responded predictably: Any criticism is just another example of white racism.

Never mind that the population of Clayton schools is now 72 percent black. Never mind that black children constitute the majority of the victims of this petty power trip.

The politics of black protest too seldom seem aimed at improving the scholarship of black children. Those students are treated as just pawns in a game whose goals are preserving the positions of black politicians and the jobs of black teachers and principals.

There are, of course, countless black teachers and principals dedicated to educating all children: black, white and brown. They toil endlessly; they fret over failures; they applaud successes. They believe all children can learn, and they work hard to make sure they do. I know because I am the child of two such teachers.

But the public face of black activism in education is concerned more narrowly -- with jobs and titles, not children. The voices of public protest are more likely to demand an incompetent black teacher be rehired than to insist that no incompetent teachers, black or white, be allowed to cripple black children.

Jackson claims his educational advocacy emphasizes parental responsibility; he has developed a seven-point plan that includes urging parents to turn off the TV for several hours in the evenings and read to their children. But he acknowledged that he discussed hiring and promotion of black administrators with Ware and her cohorts.

Unfortunately, Jackson is more readily associated with racial divisiveness than parental responsibility. If he injects himself further into the Clayton County schools debacle, the children will be shortchanged, again.

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