A Be⁠t⁠⁠t⁠er Way ⁠t⁠o Honor Be⁠t⁠hune’s Legacy

By: William Mattox / 2016



This opinion editorial orginally ran in The Daytona Beach News-Journalon April 10, 2016.

The most symbolically significant legislation adopted by the Florida Legislature in 2016 is now spurring a great deal of interest in honoring the right person — in the wrong way.

The legislation calls for replacing the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall with a Floridian more deserving of this honor. Appropriately, one of the Floridians most often mentioned as statue-worthy is Mary McLeod Bethune, the legendary educator who founded a school for African-American girls that grew into what is today Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

Without question, Bethune deserves more prominent recognition for her pioneering work offering high-quality educational opportunities to black schoolchildren in the early 1900s.

But there’s a small problem with the idea of putting Bethune in Statuary Hall: She already has a statue on Capitol Hill — and it’s a more captivating work of art than any of the statues currently crammed inside the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

The Bethune statue is found at the center of Lincoln Park, a dozen blocks east of the U.S. Capitol. It depicts an elderly Bethune sharing a scroll of knowledge with two young schoolchildren. In a city full of statues devoted to war generals on horseback and government leaders striking serious poses, the Bethune statue provides a refreshing reminder that some of the most important work in society is done by those who inspire young people to learn.

Not surprisingly, the Bethune statue in Lincoln Park is quite popular with both residents and visitors of Capitol Hill. (It’s been a favorite of mine since I lived on the Hill many moons ago.) And while its presence obviates the case for another D.C. statue honoring Bethune, it should not lessen the call for a new tribute to the great Daytona educator back here in the state of Florida.

Indeed, the most fitting way to honor Bethune’s legacy would be to name a new universal scholarship program after her, modeled after the recently adopted Gardiner Scholarship for special-needs children.

The Gardiner Scholarship is to 21st century education policy what Bethune’s private school was to 20th century educational practices — a much-needed departure from the status quo that elevates the unique worth of each child above the entrenched interests of the existing establishment.

Under Gardiner, per-pupil funds for special-needs students are placed into a “personal learning scholarship account” that parents can draw on to obtain a wide array of educational resources tailored to their child’s unique needs. Importantly, these learning services can be bundled together at a single school or they can be obtained in an unbundled fashion from multiple educational providers.

As such, the Gardiner Scholarship expands the educational marketplace much like Bethune’s private school did a century ago. Gardiner gives new options to students whose needs are not being met by their local “one-size-fits-all” district school. And by allowing parents to roll over unused funds — or to put them into a college savings account — the scholarship encourages parents to seek out educational programs offering the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price. (Which is good for students — and taxpayers!)

Adopting a universal Bethune Scholarship for all Florida K-12 students (modeled after Gardiner) would be a fitting tribute to the legendary African-American educator. It would not only honor Bethune’s faith-informed belief in each child’s unique worth and dignity, but it would also signal that Mary McLeod Bethune’s pioneering work in education isn’t just a good lesson for an African-American history course.

It’s a legacy that ought to inspire Floridians of every background and color.

Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute. He served on the Tallahassee Civil Rights Landmark Committee, which commemorated those who protested segregated buses and lunch counters.