By Deborah De Sousa Owens, Ed.D. (From Black and Brown Americans in Search of the American Dream: A 21st Century Treatise)

What are we talking about when we talk about reparations?

The reason the debate over reparations continues to come up in American politics is that there is a very real feeling that deep harm was done to the African Americans and that those crimes continue to affect that community today.

Those who want to put the issues of slavery, racism and discrimination behind us hope that a payout of some kind will end the discussion. Reparations would be that final apology that absolves them of further responsibility. America would have “made good” on the crimes of the past, paid for its sins in a literal sense, and that would be the end of it.

Except it won’t. Reparations in the literal sense of a payout are the wrong response to a deeper problem.

What are we looking to repair? The idea behind making reparations is that you are making someone whole again. Reparation is a difficult thing to put a price on even in individual cases. Judges and juries have struggled to determine how to make someone “whole” after the loss of a career, a physical injury, or the death of a loved one. If it’s a difficult concept to apply individually, then it would be near-impossible to determine how to make the African American community of today “whole” for crimes done to our ancestors.

Even if it were possible to put a price on the African American experience, a payout is a temporary solution. It would do nothing to change the discriminatory structures that prompted the call for reparations in the first place.

To make true reparations to African Americans, we have to ask what our community has been deprived of and then consider what real measures the government can take to change that.

Identifying what was taken from us by slavery and decades of institutionalized racism is easy: opportunity. We lost the opportunity to succeed, become entrepreneurs, and get an education. For more than a century, African Americans have had the hardest path to the middle class of any group in the U.S.

The only real reparations the U.S. can make is to provide a consistent, effective, path to opportunity for black Americans.

But how can such an ambitious goal be accomplished practically? Policymakers, non-profit groups, educators, and activists have been working on this for decades, with varying degrees of success.

Education is the key to effective reparations. But not the patchwork efforts we have seen until now.

For too long, a college education has been synonymous with creating opportunity and achievement for disadvantaged minorities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with promoting college education, but it has led to a limited focus and a tendency to pick “winners” rather than elevating African American education as a whole.

The focus on college leads to outreach and scholarship programs that are primed for secondary education and beyond, but they can come too late to help many children. What’s more, this approach is based on a limited view of success that applies a one-size-fits-all approach to achievement.

The point of education should not be to get every African American child a college education. The point should be to have every African American youth graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed at a job, as a parent, and to further his or her education if he or she wishes.

We need to eliminate the phenomenon of the new high school graduate who has been granted an opportunity to enter college – only to find out that he or she is not prepared for the work required.

We also need to acknowledge that college isn’t the only answer – or even the best answer – for all young people and create other paths to success.

Reparations can be made to African Americans by putting money, dedication, and effort into an education system that provides a true opportunity for all young black men and women.

This education pathway needs to start in early childhood. As the President of Mission Education, I often talk about how an effective education system isn’t just about schools and teachers. The purpose of Mission Education is to demonstrate that a good education system requires the support of the community: the parents, the teachers, the local church leaders, the businesses that will one day hire these boys and girls … all of these people have a share in creating an effective learning environment.

Dispense with old-fashioned ideas about the racial make-up of classrooms or the need to integrate African American students into schools far from their neighborhoods. Let us take pride in our shared heritage and shared community by making African American schools a source of strength. Institutions like Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii have proven that celebrating your heritage can become a point of pride and foster achievement in students.

I am not suggesting that we re-institute affirmative action, which is not only constitutionally problematic but also comes too late to help many children.

Rather, reparations should take the form of an education plan for African American communities that starts in the pre-kindergarten years with a solid basis in the fundamentals of language and mathematics. The goal, from the elementary years through the high school years, will be raising test performance, reversing the dropout rate, and creating safe learning environments.

Dangerous and failing schools should close. The money that would go to reparations should be spent on creating safe, functional schools and in making those teaching jobs some of the most attractive in the country.

Because it shouldn’t focus on college as the only route to success, this system should embrace and promote alternatives. African American students should be able to graduate high school with a solid career path in front of them. That means that throughout their schooling years – and especially in high school – they will be working with counselors to develop a plan that will help them enter the trades, gain mentorships, become entrepreneurs, explore other certifications options, or prepare for college.

Along the way, we must accept that the idea of reparations is fundamentally flawed. There is no way to undo history, and we should stop pretending it is possible to “make up for” the sins of the past.

Let the mistakes of the past stay there. Instead, let’s look to the future and give African Americans the one thing that cannot be purchased: a strong education that will allow every black child the opportunity to succeed on his or her merit.

Dr. Deborah De Sousa Owens and her husband Rev. Bill Owens lead an important initiative to improve education in our country. Working with community, ministry, education and political leaders, they are building a powerful coalition that focuses attention on the needs of urban students and their families.