In March of 2011, Governor Jay Nixon appointed me to the State Board of Education representing the 1st Congressional District. My term expires in June of this year. The majority of black children who attend Missouri public schools live in the 1st Congressional District. Because of this I felt an extra responsibility that is a sacred trust for anyone black who accepts the responsibility of public office. I have considered this appointment to be the most important work I’ve done in four decades of public service.
I have no expectation that Governor Greitens will reappoint me or extend my tenure by not immediately replacing me, and I’m good with that. Everything and everyone has a season, and I’ve had mine.
In those four decades in politics, I’ve been in many rooms where it happened. None of them had as a prime objective any interest in advancing or even including the interest of the black community, the only exception has been the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
I’ve served with 11 board members (only two of whom have been African-American), and to a person they have been the finest group of public officials I’ve had the honor of working with. This includes the entire leadership team at DESE, especially Education Commissioners Chris Nicastro and Margie Vandeven. I salute you all and offer a heartfelt thanks for your support and friendship.
When I joined the SBE, public schools in majority-black districts were under siege, attacked from all sides. First, by rapacious predators who saw huge financial windfalls by hijacking the public schools governed by the black community. There was another group of cultural imperialists, who felt that the black community was inherently incapable of managing the education of its children. Lastly, there were the unhinged libertarians who want to dismantle the public infrastructure that makes civil society possible.
The voices you hear advocating school choice for black children (never for white children) are not about school choice. If they were, they would advocate for metropolitan school districts where any child could go to any public school in the metropolitan area. What they are really about is dismantling public education for black children. They want black parents to choose different schools within the black community, all of which would be created and controlled by forces outside the black community.
Today there are no unaccredited black school districts, and I’m confident that the two provisionally accredited districts will meet the state requirements for full accreditation in the near future. The progress that has been made is a result of changes in culture and instructional strategies that leadership at all levels has instituted to enhance the capacity to meet the educational needs of students were they are. This is real progress, but we have miles to go before we rest.
American public education is in desperate need of deep structural reform. Black communities must begin having a serious internal dialogue about what does effective 21st century education for black children look like, and how is it delivered? We have neglected this issue far too long, and to continue to ignore it makes us guilty of child endangerment.
At the core of every unresolved policy argument in education is the contradiction inherent in what is meant by education. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire eloquently and succinctly summarizes this tension: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the 'practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."
How we answer this question is the key to the future of our children.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weekly by the Missouri Press Association.