Posted on May 4, 2022

Too Many White Parents Don’t Understand the True Purpose of Public Schools

Diana D'Amico Pawlewicz, Washington Post, May 3, 2022


School districts and states across the country, enabled by big dollars from far-right political organizations, have moved to make teaching about racism illegal.

While these stories are dominating headlines in 2022, the tactics on display are nothing new. Children of color and the families and communities that support and advocate for them have faced efforts to literally and figuratively lock them out of the nation’s schools for more than a century. In their fight for access to the same education White children receive, children of color and the adults who rally behind them have been the staunchest protectors of public education, defending a system that not only benefits Americans of all races, but our democracy itself.

Municipally-supported public school systems first emerged in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the late 1840s as a way to Americanize newly arrived Irish immigrants and offer social stability to urban areas that lacked the infrastructure to support population growth. In 1848, Horace Mann shared proponents’ vision for this schooling. “Beyond all other devices of human origin,” he explained, public education “is the equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

Yet the rise of these schools was limited to the northeast. In the South, anti-literacy laws threatened steep fines, imprisonment and even physical punishment for people of color — enslaved and free — seeking education, as well as for the people, regardless of race, offering it. {snip}

With the close of the war and the dawn of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved Black Americans led the charge for public education. {snip}


Yet even as formerly enslaved Black Americans served as the founding mothers and fathers of the modern public education movement, children of color continually found themselves pressed to the margins of school systems by White politicians and parents who wanted to claim public schools as their own.

With the end of the Reconstruction era and dawn of Jim Crow in the late-19th century, this was especially true in the South, where the disparity in the quality of school facilities for Black and White children was massive. But it was true elsewhere as well.

Black Americans refused to accept these disparities. They pushed for the development and democratization of public education. And beginning in the 1940s, they began to score historic victories, most significantly, the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that bolstered the legal framework for public schooling and mandated racial equality.

Even so, White politicians and parents continued to marginalize their Black counterparts.


In 1970, a U.S. District Court ordered Los Angeles City to integrate its schools. One White parent said to a reporter from the Los Angeles Sentinel, “I don’t like it because Negroes are Negroes and White people are White people. I don’t like my children playing with Negro children.” Other White parents were more selfish than overtly racist in their arguments. A mother who wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times claimed to want “racial justice,” but opposed busing. She said, “I cannot see how hurting one child today balances on the scale of justice the hurt of another child yesterday or today.” Her priority was clear: “I do not want my own child hurt in racial changes.”

A national Gallup Poll from 1970 found that by a margin of 8 to 1, people opposed busing plans designed to “achieve racial balance in schools,” and that 25 percent of surveyed White parents opposed “sending their children to schools where half the pupils” were children of color.


Yet White Americans have also continuously fought against equal schooling based on what they perceived to be good for their own children. Again, today some of the arguments against teaching painful chapters of the past center on the discomfort such lessons might cause White children. But the truth is that while laws banning this teaching might shield children from potential unease, they also will help to dismantle American democracy.