Personal responsibility alone won’t fix education achievement gap

In my life, I have assigned different meanings to the notion of personal responsibility. If asked what those words meant at age 12, I probably would have said cleaning up my room and helping my mother fold the laundry. At 24, I might have said paying off

In my life, I have assigned different meanings to the notion of personal responsibility. If asked what those words meant at age 12, I probably would have said cleaning up my room and helping my mother fold the laundry. At 24, I might have said paying off my college debt and making sure I didn’t max out my credit cards.

But at 43, personal responsibility sometimes sounds a lot like an excuse that public officials use to not do the right thing. This is particularly true of the state legislature’s unwillingness to reform the way we fund education in the state of Illinois.

Last week, the Chicago Urban League and the Quad County Urban League filed a lawsuit calling for the courts to put an end to the discriminatory way public school education is funded here. (Yes, it has come to this.) Funding equations have proven time and again that ours is a lopsided system.

But in the midst of this discussion is a major irritant: The way people tend to default to the parental engagement argument to explain the achievement gaps between white kids in more affluent areas and poor Black children living in struggling communities. “Don’t bother to put more money in schools until parents start raising their children,” they say.

The African American community is not above being called on the carpet, I agree. But people tend to default to parental engagement (a.k.a., personal responsibility) without trying to understand or solve the funding problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in bootstrapping and everybody handling their business and raising good children. But some people talk about personal responsibility as if it’s the last pinch of spice that is going to fix this bitter soup we’re in.

Poor parenting, in fact, is a direct result of poor education. Parents of failing students oftentimes attended some of those same failing schools, and graduated to a life of poverty and social ills if they graduated at all. When adults have to work two to three low-paying jobs to keep a roof over head, or cannot read well or understand math themselves, how can they help their children do better in school?

African Americans recognize the value of education. But in households battling social problems such as incarceration, unemployment and lack of access to medical care, parents are simply over-stressed. Providing better and more resources for teachers and administrators are not the only solutions to this complex problem. However, they are at the heart of breaking the cycle of poverty and poor parental engagement, and are a critical place to start to improve the quality of education for African American and Latino children.

As long as the failure of our children to graduate from high school or go on to graduate from college can be blamed on a lack of parental responsibility, or lack of individual responsibility, policies will be slow to change. It’s your fault, or it’s your mama’s or your daddy’s fault you didn’t graduate, right? Wrong.

Now, I do believe that children have a better shot of growing up to be well educated and responsible members of society when they have engaged parents and other adult mentors, when they are taught to reach for the stars but also to respect boundaries. But a child walking hand-in-hand in the desert with the loving gaze of a mother and a father might still die of thirst.

I guess what I’m trying to say is personal responsibility is something we all should aspire to. If you have children, then you should try to be the best parent that you can be. But to put the onus solely on parents to narrow the education achievement gaps that correspond directly to race and improper funding is merely a distraction away from doing the right thing.

The way I see it, parental engagement without equal opportunity and equal access to a world-class education is a smokescreen. In Illinois, the African American community has got to stand up and demand education funding reform. We owe it to our children to fight to give them an equal chance to succeed before the world tells them it’s their fault they failed.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at president@thechicagourbanleague.org, or visit www.thechicagourbanleague.org.

Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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