Are Free Schools A Little Rock In The Making?

A May 18th lawsuit organised by teaching union UFT and the NAACP against school charterisation in NYC has been likened to the battle against racial segregation in schools witnessed at Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s and seen also as symptomatic of a worrying new phase in middle class flight.

In language all too familiar to those who oppose Gove’s ‘free’ schools, UFT President Michael Mulgrew told reporters at a press conference to announce the new lawsuit. “We cannot continue with policies that allow inequality to not only exist but to flourish in our schools.”

And likewise, the regional director of the state conference of the NAACP, Ken Cohen said: “We find there has been a rush to judge and condemn schools and not enough effort to provide the quality education that the original case sought.”

Aside from the broken blackboards that existing public schools are said to have to deal with, the suit demands the end to the shared use of common spaces and facilities on the grounds that they create an unequal system where charter students get preferential use of gyms, cafeterias, libraries etc. This violates state law requiring equal access to facilities.

“A school building should not be a lesson for a child on what inequality is and that is clearly what we now have. All children should have equal access to facilities inside a school building,” Mulgrew said.

Of course, the US has its unique history – albeit with the taint
British colonialism – and Little Rock was a defining moment in American history but there are uncomfortable parallels between moves in the US to charterise schools and efforts in the UK to create ‘free’ schools and academies.

With UK free schools, parents are actively encouraged to apply for permission to set one up, and it is not inconceivable as it is in the US with charterisation that working class parents will be involved, but fearful and pushy middle-classers will undoubtedly comprise the majority of those who stand to benefit from school privatisation in the US and UK.

The UK Tory party mantra is choice and advantaged parents will quite justifiably state that they are seeking a better quality education for Little Petula and Johnny.

But, unfortunately, leaving others behind to fend for themselves is only going to deepen social divisions.

For we can’t help but wonder what happens to the kids who are left behind? Or what happens when other parents cotton on to what’s happening down the road at Gove’s school?

They can’t all join Toby Young’s Latinarium, for example. Selection processes at these new schools will be put in place, you’d imagine, and then what progress has been made? In fact, you’d be thinking that Gove’s whole school experiment will have made things worse not better. After all, who’s going to want to remain at the school that everybody has left/is leaving?

No. As the UFT, NAACP and social activists know, Gove should be improving things at existing schools not making them worse.

The UK comprehensive system bothers someone like him
because it was too successful. Too many well-educated and ambitious youngsters from the lower classes to contend with. Ideas above their station. Wot. Wot.

A true leader – say Martin Luther King – seeks to unite not divide. Only a management accountant would seek to cut costs above social justice.

So, although we hope he realises the error of his ways, Gove is on the dangerous path to a civil rights moment not seen in the UK and one uncomfortably reminiscent of the civil rights marches, protests and legislation of mid-20th century America.

But this time rather than race the inequality will be driven by choice.

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