By Barney Blakeney
Over the past week, a couple of things have gone down that illustrates how the political agenda of adults continues to stifle our children and their futures.
I got the call as I left Wesley UMC Sunday where young Rev. Sh’Kur Francis had given a dynamic message telling our young people to go into the world and make a positive difference. I don’t fool with the telephone while driving – don’t have hands-free capabilities – so I pulled over to answer the call. Usually I just let it go to voice mail, but something told me to answer. The call was from a Charleston County School Board member.
My friend was lit! He was going on about an upcoming vote to elect the chair of the board. Apparently some backroom deals had been ongoing for the past week or so. My friend was telling me deals had been cut and votes among the nine-member board committed, but some of those voters were either sitting on the fence or waffling about their commitment.
I’d heard it all before. As a reporter I’ve come to learn how the chairmen of various decision-making bodies impacts what gets done. Chairmen set agendas and make appointments to sub-committees. It’s how people like former Charleston Representative Bobby Harrell and Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman become so powerful in the state’s legislature. I didn’t think chairman of Charleston County School Board made that much difference. But apparently, I was wrong.
The battle for Charleston County School Board chair had been going on for weeks as members positioned themselves to wrest power. From what I was being told as I sat in the parking lot of Church’s Fried Chicken on Meeting Street, a tug of war had developed that created a struggle between factions aligned based on race. As I listened to my friend I thought, “Well, that ain’t gonna work in our favor since there are four Blacks and five whites on the board.” Ultimately that’s how the vote ended. I was listening, but wasn’t really interested. The importance of insuring a Black person be elected chair of the board was lost on me. Okay, I get that the chairman sets the agenda. But you first must have an agenda! And Black folks ain’t got no agenda! Certainly not a collective agenda.
So I’m listening to this guy rattle off the names of some of the most common household names among “Black community leaders” who were pushing for a Black school board chair. I was intrigued. Apparently some political heavy-hitters were pushing for a Black chair. For the next two days I got calls about the school board chair election. It brewed a storm of which most people were unaware.
I asked myself why all these heavy-hitters were focused on the school board chair. A few years ago in Charleston County only some 25 percent of Black students were going to ninth grade reading on grade level. That statistic has improved only slightly. Only about 75 percent of Black students graduate high school and even fewer are ready for college or the work world. So why is all this interest generated over the school board chair? Could it be because Charleston County School District has an annual budget of about $1 billion?
Last week the S.C. Supreme Court backed off judicial oversight of the state legislature’s efforts to provide quality education for school districts that are a part of the 24-year-old “Corridor of Shame” lawsuit. Again, a tug of war among adults catastrophically is impacting our children and their futures. Politics in education pit the court against the legislature. Just as in Charleston County, the losers in that struggle are our children.
If the consequences were not so dire, the conduct of grown folks at the county and state levels would be almost laughable. I ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you don’t have to be real smart to figure out that when children are denied a quality education it becomes much more difficult for them to develop into progressive, productive adults. Racism plays a significant role in how quality education is provided in our community. I think that’s asinine and ignorant, but that’s the reality. Still even ignorant and/or asinine people want their children to be prosperous. As our state transitions to a more modern industrial economy, quality education becomes an integral part of that equation.
Ultimately progress, productivity and prosperity transcend racism. In Charleston County, the issue is no longer is about Black students or white students. Most of our students, Black or white, don’t get the opportunity to obtain a quality education. Ours is an elitist public education system. And what I saw in the recent struggle to elect a county school board chair was an effort to challenge a status quo that places some students at the top of the ladder. But I didn’t see that challenge project an agenda which is more inclusive.
I had a conversation with a state legislator the other day, a good friend who I respect tremendously. We fell out when our conversation turned to leadership with vision. It’s not good enough to elect people just because they look like us. Unless we elect people who have the ability to look down the road and see where we need to be, and then develop strategies to get us there, we’re always going to have adults playing political games that stymie our children’s futures.