by Joan Rawson, Columbia, MO
I recently spoke before the Columbia School Board about my opposition to the misguided effort to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School. In the current highly polarized political atmosphere, the rabid frenzy to destroy historical symbols of a perceived oppressive structure is not surprising. What I found disturbing, however, was not the severe paucity of knowledge about Robert E. Lee’s sterling character and immense achievements rather that the facts themselves didn’t seem to be at issue.
Indeed, the historical personage of Lee is not the motivating factor around the Robert E. Lee Elementary School renaming controversy. Rather, the real agenda of the hardcore activists actually driving these renaming protests is no less than to undermine our country’s core values-individualism, the idea of heroic effort and the very concept of greatness itself.
In fact, according to vast troves of historical evidence, Lee is actually an unfair target in the extreme. Lee described slavery as an evil institution, freed his wife’s slaves, and testified after the war in Congress in a unifying effort to prevent violence by vigilante groups in the South. By all accounts, Lee was brilliant, honorable, measured, stoic and concerned at all times with minimizing the unnecessary loss of life of innocents both during and after the war. He devoted his final years to serve as president of what was to become Washington and Lee University, a gesture of profound healing and reconciliation at the time.
Throughout his life, Lee remained an object of immense admiration even among his ideological opponents. Sadly, in our current climate, the very possibility of respecting the character of one’s adversaries while holding a different viewpoint seems risible. Instead, no matter the facts, “the other” must be demonized, and ultimately, eliminated from memory.
Lost in all of the time and effort spent on hand-wringing and navel-gazing about the moral standards of historical figures is the far more relevant standard of education of Lee School itself.
According to the homefacts.com, a site used by many parents across the county considering moves to other school districts, the past eight years of math ratings beginning in 2009 for Lee for all students were as follows: C+, C, C, C-, C-, C, B-, C+. Additionally, the academic achievement at Lee shows a consistently massive achievement gap across demographic groups. Where is the outrage surrounding this cascade of shameful failures? In other countries which take education seriously, these scores would result in severe inquiries of the education bureaucracy leading to dismissal or worse.
Instead of facing the obviously disturbing truth, somehow the paladins of the education establishment in Columbia simply repeat that “we have excellent schools” as if it were a truism. Unfortunately, this “truism” is simply false. Columbia does not have excellent schools. In fact, it would be generous to state that Columbia has mediocre schools. Despite being the seat of Missouri’s flagship university, many schools in the district consistently perform far below state standards in math, science and literacy.
Given these inconvenient facts, it is not surprising that is so rare to hear Board members mention actual academic scores when referencing academic performance. Instead, we hear about ancillary matters such as days missed, free and reduced lunches given, etc. Rarely, if ever, are actual test scores shown in a clear and direct way on the sites for either the Columbia Public School District or individual schools. In this case, absence of evidence is unfortunately indeed evidence of absence.
I should add that in an overlooked irony, one of Columbia’s highest-ranking academic elementary schools, Ulysses S. Grant Elementary, is itself named after a severely flawed individual. As Ron Chernow makes clear in his upcoming biography of General Grant, the leader of the Union Army-and later President-was a deeply imperfect but heroically accomplished figure who managed to overcome profound personal weaknesses on his path to greatness. Frankly put, Grant was an alcoholic who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in history. He also made numerous statements that would have shocked today’s legion of moral scolds on numerous topics.
Is the Columbia School Board now going to subject Ulysses S. Grant Elementary to the same renaming process? Will every single school in the Columbia Public School system be subjected to the moral microscope? If not, why not? Will the Board simply await the next historical miscreant, identified by “citizen activists” whose own motives are apparently beyond scrutiny? Perhaps.
With respect, through what moral agency and/or historical expertise do the members of the Board have the capability to properly assess the appropriateness or sincerity of the principles held by long-past historical figures? Perhaps it would be better for the Board, as it begins the pro-forma, check-marking “process” leading up to its inevitable conclusion, to dispense with all transparent niceties and simply admit that it is simply bowing to the political shock troops of the moment.
For those who value the education of their children over obsession with the latest political distractions, the choice is clear-charter schools for any and all. Indeed, the charter school movement has surged from a single school in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 8, 1992 to over 7,000 schools serving three million students today. Given that after four years in a charter, urban students learn about 50% more a year than demographically similar students in traditional schools (2015 study, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes) is this any wonder? Engaged parents are looking for fresh, innovative alternatives to the stultifying decay of what passes for conventional wisdom in the current educational establishment-no matter the names on the signboards out front.
The Columbia School Board will meet on Thursday, October 19th to announce the re-naming committee members.*
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.