Parents, Not Schools, Failed These Children

Who’s responsible for educating a child?

On its face, this is a simple question. But when we factor in the race of the child, the question becomes one mired in, among other forces, blame, anger, recrimination, self-aggrandizement, history, myth, politics and, of course, litigation.

All of these forces are converging in Pinellas County as the School Board and its attorneys prepare to do battle with Guy Burns, the attorney representing a plaintiff class composed of 20, 000 black children currently attending and who will attend Pinellas schools.

The plaintiffs claim the schools failed to adequately educate black students in violation of Florida law and the state Constitution. Indeed, black students in Pinellas schools consistently score below all other groups on all standardized measures, dubbed the achievement gap, and they have the highest suspension and expulsion rates.

Popularly known as the “Crowley case, “ this class-action lawsuit is named for black parent William Crowley. It was filed in August 2000 by Crowley on behalf of his son, Akwete Osoka, then a 7-year-old student at Sawgrass Elementary School in St. Petersburg.

According to the lawsuit, the boy faced academic problems “typical of those difficulties commonly faced by students of African descent.” The lawsuit was filed during the time the People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement faced obstacles in trying to establish its all-black Marcus Garvey Academy charter school. Crowley had enrolled his son in the Uhuru afterschool tutoring program, and he claimed the boy had begun reading above grade level as a result.

I have no doubt that this is a bogus lawsuit, and the judges who have permitted the case to go forward are patronizing and wrongheaded. They are blaming the wrong side for black children’s failure to get a “high-quality” education.

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Michael W. Kirk, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney for Pinellas schools, summarizes the study’s major finding: “Whatever is causing the gap, it, by definition, is something that happened to these children before they set foot in a Pinellas County school.”

Everything I know as a teacher and as a parent forces me to agree. Every classroom teacher I know agrees, and every mature, responsible parent I know agrees.

Too many blacks have relinquished their parental duties, a shameful neglect that forces public school teachers and administrators to become surrogate parents to children who have full-blown lives beyond the schoolhouse door.

A few days ago, a white middle school teacher told me that when she tried to speak with black parents about their children’s unruly behavior, she faced hostility.

“I can’t get through to the kids, and I can’t get through to the parents,” she said. “What am I supposed to do?”

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