Take from the 'pluribus' to destroy the 'unum'

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Last August 13 the Board of Education here voted unanimously to approve an application from Mary A.T. Anigbo to open the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School. A charter school is an oxymoron, a private school that is funded with public money. In the case of the Garvey school, District residents pay $4,000 to $6,000 per student. This year, its first in operation, the Garvey school has 62 students and will receive up to $372,000 of the taxpayers' money.

The board seemed not to have the slightest idea what it was establishing. Ms. Anigbo, a self-described "clinician, psycho-education, consultant" proposed, vaguely, to create an Afrocentric school that would require students to wear military-style fatigues and would offer instruction in such matters as "Cultural Family Retardation" and "The Destruction of Black Civilization."


The board noted that it did not know what this description of the curriculum actually meant, but it granted its blessing anyway. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Two weeks ago the board members found out what kind of place they had established. A reporter for the Washington Times, Susan Ferrechio, went to the Garvey school for a story on its progress. While waiting for Ms. Anigbo, Ms. Ferrechio briefly interviewed a student. A school secretary demanded that Ms. Ferrechio show her the notepad. She refused. Mary Anigbo, accompanied by four young males, apparently students, attempted to wrest the notepad from the reporter's hands.


Racial taunts

Ms. Ferrechio resisted and was forcibly expelled from the school by a group that included the secretary, the principal and seven or eight students. They hit and kicked Ms. Ferrechio repeatedly and yelled racial taunts at her.

Within two hours, Ms. Ferrechio returned to the school with two police officers and two Times staffers, one black and one white. When the Times photographer began taking pictures of the secretary, Principal Anigbo and other adults attacked him. When the police attempted to intervene, the attackers (including Ms. Anigbo's nephew, Calvin L. Gatlin, a security guard at the school) scuffled with police. Again, Ms. Ferrechio and the white photographer were subjected to racial taunts.

Ms. Anigbo claims that Ms. Ferrechio stole a notepad off a counter and refused to return it, that Ms. Ferrechio hit her in the chest and grabbed her arm, that her students naturally tried to defend her, that Ms. Ferrechio shouted racial insults at the students, telling them that she was going to "get you black people out of that building," that Ms. Ferrechio threatened the students with a knife and a can of Mace.

Last week it was revealed that (1) Ms. Anigbo was, in 1986, charged with assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a deadly weapon after she attacked two female process servers with a knife (slashing one) and a small log; and (2) Ms. Anigbo's nephew, Garvey security guard Gatlin, was convicted in 1978 of armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon (a gun), in 1984 of armed robbery, in 1989 of possession of cocaine and in 1995 of attempted unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

After this incident, several predictable things happened. The national media showed little interest in the story. The Washington Post has played it mostly inside, made no real effort to ascertain the truth of what happened, and generally treated the disputing accounts of what happened as morally and logically equal.

Also predictably, black political racialists have rallied behind Ms. Anigbo, blaming the whole thing on "white people."

What has not happened so far in the Garvey school affair is what most obviously should happen. There has not been much of a hue or cry against the whole idea of charter schools. This is odd, because the Garvey school affair demonstrates everything that has always been wrong with the idea.


Charter schools, and similar ideas like tuition vouchers for private schools, enjoy support from the right and the left for essentially the same reason. Conservatives like charter schools because they think the schools' autonomy will allow the teaching once again of conservative virtues -- old-fashioned education, discipline, religious instruction. The race-and-gender left likes charter schools because autonomy will allow the teaching of its values: Afrocentric schools for blacks and feminist schools for girls and so on.

And this bi-ideological popularity is, as the Garvey case shows, exactly why such things as charter schools and school-voucher programs cannot in the end succeed. A pluralistic society cannot sustain a scheme in which the citizenry pays for a school but has no influence over how the school is run. Public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interest of e pluribus unum.

Charter schools and their like are definitionally antithetical to this American promise. They take from the pluribus to destroy the unum. If you say that the taxpayers should support the Little Sisters of the Poor to run their private school as they see fit, without any real oversight by the elected representatives of the taxpayers, you must also say that we should pay for Mary A.T. Anigbo to run a place where black children learn that white people are their enemies, and act accordingly.

Michael Kelly is the editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 12/15/96