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The Real Ebonics Debate

By Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit

For six months, the 30-member African-American task force (school board members, community activists, and teachers) grappled with the under achievement of African-American students enrolled in the Oakland public schools.

The average grade point average for all students in the district was 2.4; for white students it was 2.7; for Asian- American students, 2.4. The average grade point average for African-American students was 1.8. While African Americans made up 53% of student population, they represented 80% of suspensions and 71% of students labeled as special needs. Against the backdrop of this dismal picture of school failure, the above-average performance of African-American students at the Prescott Elementary School caught the attention of members of the task force.

Prescott Elementary School was the only school in the Oakland school district where the majority of its teachers had voluntarily chosen to participate in the Standard English Proficiency program (SEP). This statewide initiative, begun in 1981, acknowledges the systematic, rule-governed nature of Black English and takes the position that this language should be used to help children learn to read and write in Standard English. On Dec. 21, 1996, the school board unanimously passed the Ebonics Resolution, requiring all schools in the district to participate in the SEP. This resolution was but one element of a broad strategy developed by the African-American task force, aimed at improving the school performance of African-American students.

The irrational and racist discourse that followed the school board's approval of the Ebonics Resolution has made it almost impossible to have a careful conversation about the important educational, political, and linguistic issues that are embedded in the resolution. This special issue of Rethinking Schools, "The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African- American Children," will provide a much-needed forum for discussion of these issues.