In an exclusive interview for the Wisconsin Black Press, Benjamin Jealous, current president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sat down with Wendell J Harris, Chair of the Education Committee of the Wisconsin State NAACP Conference of Branches.
Jealous was in sessions and addressed the membership at the Freedom Fund Dinner during the NAACP Region #3 Advocacy Training on April 14-16, 2011 in Hammond, Indiana. Jealous expressed his first-hand appreciation for the involvement of Black Press in the civil rights movement.
Harris: President Jealous, thank you for this interview. The Conference is the perfect backdrop, so to speak, to our upcoming Education Summit in Wisconsin. The sessions reiterate that we are not isolated in our fights in Wisconsin; these topics are clearly affecting African Americans from all walks of life throughout our Region #3.
As you know, I chair the Education Committee for the Wisconsin NAACP State Conference of Branches.
The Committee has continued the tradition of an annual education forum to inform and solicit the support of our members on cutting-edge issues that affect our children and their ability to receive a quality education. In more recent years, we have found much success in accomplishing these goals through an Education Summit.
Again, this year the Wisconsin State Conference of Branches NAACP Education Committee is going to use that same format. In doing so, the Committee has narrowed the focus to what we believe are the more relevant topics for the Summit’s workshops, panel discussion and keynote speaker. We would be remiss if we did not discuss the NAACP’s position on issues like budget cuts, open access or choice, and even collective bargaining and their potential ramifications for the youth—particularly our African American youth, and other minorities.
As Chair, I have been given the privilege of requesting an interview with you to hear your position on these issues as they directly impact the equity and adequacy of our educational system. With that said, I will go right to our questions.
Wisconsin’s Budget Plan. Wisconsin has become ground zero with our Governor’s new budget plan.
Will you share with the Milwaukee Community the NAACP’s position?
Jealous: Nationally and in Wisconsin, the poor did not create the recession and we cannot balance these recession budgets on their backs. We have a responsibility to be sure that those with the least have the opportunity to rebuild their lives and to help in rebuilding our economy. State budgets should help to make that possible. We are seeing a trend from the U.S. House and throughout these State budgets—even in Wisconsin—where we seem to reward corporations in these tough times with even lower taxes and sometimes with proposals coming out of the U.S. House that seem to heap the responsibility for balancing the budget on the old and the infirmed. The attempts are misguided, misdirected and a mistake.
You can look no further than across the pond to England to see what happens when you take a reactionary approach to our budget woes. The result is that you end up short-circuiting the economy even further.
HARRIS: Education and Open Access. In Wisconsin, we have School Choice options for low-income families. We have long led the Nation in this option of Choice. Our Governor ‘s budget plans also call for Universal Choice—statewide—with no income caps. For instance, families with an annual income of $1 million would become eligible for the same dollar allotment for education as families with an annual income of $10,000. These public school dollars would then be used to send their children to private—not public—schools.
JEALOUS: In Wisconsin, are school vouchers called Choice? This form of voucher system ends up becoming a subsidy for the rich to pay for their kids going to private school. And it pulls money out of the system on which the rest of us rely.
Theoretically, there is a lot more to discuss and if the vouchers were large enough, a child could attend roughly any school that the family chooses.
But that is not what we see. For the most part, what happens with the voucher approach is that the vouchers are too small to open the doors of the more elite schools for all of our children and yet large enough to poke a serious hole in the school system’s budget.
At the end of the day, we at the NAACP are opposed to vouchers. What we believe is that every child should be allowed to go to a good school and that a public school should be a great school.
We believe that our nation should be intently focused on doing that which the countries that lead the World (and even the counties that lead within a given state) do well.
And the three key things that seem to characterize those types of school districts are 1) universal Pre-K Programs where every child is truly ready to read when he or she shows up to kindergarten.
Secondly, an independent school day that provides for creating more ways to learn. We have taken shop out of schools and closed down technical schools.
In do so, we ensure that out of the five main learning styles of children, we only focus on one—the auditory. That leaves us with a large number of children who show up for school and have no courses that speak to their individual learning style.
And thirdly, we need high quality teachers. Over half of the so-called achievement gap would disappear overnight if we had a fair distribution of high-quality teachers in this country.
HARRIS: Attacks on Collective Bargaining for Public Sector Employees. I am interested in hearing your views on the attacks against collective bargaining in Wisconsin, throughout our NAACP Region and across the Country.
JEALOUS: For many of us, when we look back there was a generation in the family when the parents had a fourth grade education and the child had a college education. What often happened in between was the parent became a member of a union. You can look back and whether it was a steel workers or autoworkers or public service employees union, what transitioned many of our people from the financial prisons of poverty and opened up the doors of higher education to our children was the union movement. Dr. King was very clear that when the union movement bleeds, the civil rights movement bleeds—because we are all one movement to open up the great dream of this Country to all families—including working families.
HARRIS: Voting Rights. The issues of voting rights and social security are also key issues for the NAACP. An education piece was introduced into the schools systems around the Country by the NAACP addressing the importance of social security. More recently, Wisconsin has entertained legislation to require voter identification as another mechanism to take away voting rights in Wisconsin. Do you have a comment that you would like to share on either issue?
JEALOUS: This is a cynical and misguided attempt to restrict access to the disenfranchised. No doubt those who are pushing the concept understand that they will exclude thousands (and eventually millions as this is pushed throughout the states simultaneously) of low-income voters— disproportionally Black and Brown. It is a fine example of the worse tradition of American democracy and absolutely in line with past sins like the poll tax, the jellybean test [a fictitious estimate of jelly beans in a jar was used to eliminate Blacks during voter registration], and so forth. We are fighting this problem in North Carolina, in Wisconsin, and we will fight it wherever it rears its head.
HARRIS: Restorative Justice and Our Youth. In Wisconsin, one of my responsibilities within the Milwaukee Public Schools District is to facilitate community restorative justice circles with the idea of finding ways to help young people restore themselves in the community. We use these opportunities to introduce them to tools that allow them to resolve conflicts among themselves and with the goal to reduce the suspension rate in our schools system. We know that if a child is not in school, he or she cannot learn.
JEALOUS: We are deeply concerned with the widespread overuse of suspensions and expulsions across the Country. We are inclined to support any serious alternative to these processes. To this end, we will support restorative justice processes, especially when the approach is that children become grown up in ways that allows them to learn to be a part of the solutions in their lives.
HARRIS: Thank you, again, so very much for this interview on behalf of the Wisconsin NAACP Education Committee Education Committee and the Black Press around the Country. For I know your appreciation for Black press.
JEALOUS: Yes, my past is heavily rooted in the work of the Black press. [Jealous is formerly the Managing Editor of the Jackson Advocate.] One that will always remain with me is the involvement of the Black Press in my efforts to stop a Mississippi governor from turning a historically black college into a prison. Those of us who really care about ensuring that all of our children have access to a great education, realize that the NAACP, the Black church, and the Black Press working together, can, should and have been a great force for all of our children.
The NAACP Regional Education Committee adopted the Wisconsin model to be implemented throughout the seven-state Region after being charged with developing an advocacy plan to gain support for public school districts in the respective states.