Julianne Malveaux

By Julianne Malveaux
NNPA Columnist

Between early August and late September, students are going back to school. Before they go to school, though, they and their parents will hit the malls and stationary stores to prepare for their return. Retailers say that students and their parents will spend $75 billion on back to school items, and clothing represents about a third of this spending.

Cash registers are also busy collecting money for school supplies, electronic goods and, for college students, accessories for their dorm rooms. While many students feel it is important to make the first day of school a fashion show, others can’t afford new clothes and are often stigmatized at school.

What if K-12 students wore uniforms? Parents might have to buy two or three uniforms, and costs would be cut. Of course you can “jack” your uniform. I distinctly recall sneaking green suede boots into my tote bag and then changing them on the bus, I realized the boring uniform didn’t have to be boring (of course, I was sent home). Still, minor accessories – pins, headbands, and other goodies can adorn uniforms. The bottom line – uniforms save money for parents and reduce the clothing competition among students,

The dollars saved on clothing, especially for high school students, can be used for after-school programs that include SAT and PSAT tutoring. When researchers look at the achievement gap, they find that White students get more outside help than African American students. This gap explains different college admission rates, different financial aid packages, and different opportunities for internships and other career-enhancing experiences. If there is a choice between clothing and educational supplements, the supplements ought to win hands down.

People in this country use every occasion as a spending opportunity, whether spending is necessary or not. Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so on, are all occasions to spend money. Have the pencils and pens purchased last year suddenly become obsolete?

I’m not the Grinch who hijacked back to school. I just think parents, especially African American parents, should be wise in the purchases they make. For example, many buy computers or tablets, but what about educational software? Many treat their children to a concert. What about a museum? How many sit down to read a story, watch PBS instead of BET, buying into education? Some will stand in line, even sleeping in line, to secure a ticket for entertainment. How long will they spend to get their child into a public magnet school?

Poor children have a “word deficit,” having been exposed to about 1,500 less words at kindergarten than higher income families. A range of summer and after school programs can close that word gap. In some ways this is a civil rights issue. Our children start behind, and fall further behind when schools offer “race neutral education” that keeps the word deficit in mind.

While the Internet will offer almost anything you want – dictionary, thesaurus, even research – has your child been to a library to do primary research, or to look at the many books that contain decades of knowledge? The Internet is not enough to teach great habits, and great habits lead to educational excellence.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have more and more employment, but fewer African American students are prepared to compete in these fields against Whites. Part of this has to do with the deficient equipment available in inner city high schools (where is the parent lobby?). Part of it has to do with inadequate counseling in some schools. Is it in anyone’s interest to poorly prepare our children? Can we stand in the gap for them?

Children will produce the outcomes that reflect parent and community investment. Invest in clothing, and you’ll get a fashion plate. Invest in educational software, and you’ll get a scholar. What do you prefer?

African American students must be able to compete in the classroom and in the workplace. They can’t compete without the necessary tools. Some of our organizations have made closing the achievement gap a priority. Closing the achievement gap must be all of our priority. Otherwise, we have not properly prepared our young people to compete as the labor market changes. Back to school is not exclusively about new clothing. It must also be about new educational tools.

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C.


Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women. She is an economist, author and commentator who’s popular writings have appeared in USA Today, Black Issues in Higher Education,...

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