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Paige Abuses the Apartheid Metaphor

By Bill Bigelow

I traveled throughout South Africa during the 1986 State of Emergency, meeting with students and anti-apartheid activists, especially those working in schools and literacy campaigns. Activists there had a less high-sounding term for educational apartheid. They called it "gutter education." And while everyone wanted to transform the schools, they recognized that the injustice they lived with was systemic, not just educational. As one journal editorialized, "To get rid of gutter education entirely, one would have to get rid of the gutter."

What left South African children behind was not merely their schooling—wretched as it was—but the entire system. For instance, in the early 1980s, infant mortality for black South Africans in rural areas was officially 282 for every 1,000 births. For white children it was 13. There was one doctor for every 19,000 blacks, and one for every 330 whites. The leading cause of death for black children was disease brought on by poverty. For white children, it was drowning in swimming pools. Hunger among black South Africans was rampant, even though South Africa was the world's seventh largest exporter of food.

South African activists always waged the struggle for better schools within this larger context. But Paige appropriates the language of the anti-apartheid movement while ignoring this history. He consistently fails to denounce the myriad injustices that leave U.S. children behind.

U.S. Inequality

No doubt, disparities in today's United States differ from those of apartheid-era South Africa. But profound racial and class inequalities exist here, too. White households have a net worth more than six times that of black households. In 1968, a typical black family made 60 percent of the income of a typical white family; today it's 58 percent. One out of every four U.S. children—about 15 million—lives in poverty. Almost 10 million children have no health insurance, although nine out of 10 of these kids live in families with working parents.

But as Stan Karp points out in the Winter 2003 issue of Rethinking Schools ["Some Gaps Count More than Others," pages 16-17], the "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) demanded by NCLB neglects everything about children's lives except their test scores, "and contrasts sharply with the widespread inequality that is tolerated, even encouraged, by federal policy in many other areas." Were the Bush administration to take seriously the insights of the anti-apartheid movement, it would demand, as Karp points out, full equality with measurable yearly gains and propose rigorous standards for the entire gamut of social indicators: employment, income, quality health care, clean air, and home ownership.

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