The time has come for the very foundations of our country, good and bad, to face a reckoning; we’re dealing with long-standing racial disparities and injustices while trying to attain equity and equality, and the educational system is where it starts. In a recent column, Andre Perry said, “We must dismantle the structures that generate racial disparities” in our public education system.
I wholeheartedly agree. I also agree with the need for “a larger movement to end taxpayer funding for institutions that are anti-Black at their core.”
The call to “defund the police” says that funding should be diverted from a state-monopolized system to programs and policies that aid “economic and social growth, democracy and unity.” But there is a very significant parallel between government-run policing and government-run schooling. Both perpetuate economic disparities and racial injustice.
I am not a scholar. I’ve never run a school or earned a Ph.D. I’m a stay-at-home mother of four and a woman of color. I am intimately familiar with the racial and social disparities that come from a public school system that continues the legacies of segregation and table-scraps education.
I agree that systemic racism was foundational in developing the U.S. public school system and policies, but I balk at the idea that Black parents should be forced to stay in the system while they wait for change. While public school systems continue to operate in ways that neglect or outright harm the education of Black children, they also actively block the avenues of choice to which Black parents want access outside of the public system. Black parents should be afforded the ability to exercise their agency in choosing the placement and mode of their children’s education.
Related: COLUMN: Defund the private schools
I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, to a single mom, and we lived below the poverty line. During my formative years, I lived in what people call “the projects.” When it came time for me to enter kindergarten, I was enrolled at my assigned neighborhood school, which reflected the demographics and socioeconomic status of our area. My mother found the school lacking in its curriculum and resources. My needs were being unmet, and she wanted the choice to send me somewhere better.
In Nevada, there is no true open enrollment, the most basic of options for school choice. My mother had to apply for a zone variance. These were difficult to obtain, but she managed to secure one for me, and I was moved to a school out of my neighborhood that met my educational needs. It was predominantly white, predominantly middle to upper class — in other words, a “good” school.
We still haven’t gotten what was in the building. We still haven’t gotten the quality of education that students deserve and are entitled to.
But why should two schools in the same city, in the same school district, be so disparate in quality when the only significant difference between them is the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the student body? The sad reality is that this happens all over the country. There are systems that base school funding on the property taxes of the neighborhood within the district’s boundaries; systems that still use borders from redlined districts meant to divide residents by socioeconomic and racial demographics; systems in which schools that enroll a majority of students of color receive $23 billion less than schools that enroll primarily white students; systems in which money might not be the cause of disparities, because many are still under-serving Black students despite having high per-student spending.
The very system on which U.S. public schools are built stands in the way of quality education for Black children, not because of barriers that keep us out of “good” schools but ones that keep us in “bad” schools. When we are fighting against a state-controlled system that has been used to target and systematically oppress the Black community — the police — where is the intellectual honesty in arguing on behalf of another state-controlled system that has been used to target and systematically oppress the Black community?
It is this so-called “public” school system, despite the well-meaning verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, that continues to deliberately segregate the haves and the have-nots, the well-connected and the disenfranchised, the predominantly white schools and the predominantly Black ones.
During the Jim Crow era, Black schools dealt with subpar materials, out-of-date textbooks and very crowded classrooms. But the state of today’s public schools for Black children remains unchanged, except that now their schools — with subpar materials, out-of-date textbooks and crowded classrooms — also have fewer Black educators in them. One of the unintended consequences of Brown v. Board was that 38,000 Black educators lost their jobs, and racial disparities in the U.S. teacher workforce persist.
Virginia Walden Ford was one of the first students in Arkansas to desegregate the public schools, and she went on to fight for a federal scholarship program in Washington, D.C., in 2003. She said the intention behind desegregation efforts after Brown v. Board “was not to get into the building, it was to get what was in the building” —meaning, quality education and access to opportunities unavailable to Black students.
We still haven’t gotten what was in the building. We still haven’t gotten the quality of education that students deserve and are entitled to. But sometimes, someone like Miss Virginia steps up and tries to carve a path out and away from a system that was designed to keep us separate and unequal, and lead us to opportunities where we have control over our destinies and those of our children.
I, along with many other mothers in my home state of Arizona, am trying to do the same.
Two of my children have learning disabilities, and we have been greatly blessed to have access to the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona, which enables the families of qualified students to access their state-allocated per-pupil funding. We are able to use these funds for our children’s individual educational needs for private or home-based instruction, as well as to purchase curricula and pay for educational therapies. This program has allowed me to remove my daughters from schools that were not meeting their needs.
Andre Perry and other critics of school choice say we don’t need “escape hatches.” They believe that when I seek out and obtain an education that meets my daughters’ needs with the funding assigned to them, I am removing “support” from the public school. But I must be clear: The funds allocated to my children do not stay in the school if I remove them, whether or not I do so via a scholarship or voucher— because the money doesn’t go to the school. It goes with my children, and it should follow my children to any educational option that meets their needs.
None of my children, nor the children of any low-income or Black families, “belong” to the government school system. And we should not be criticized for seeking other opportunities and means for meeting their needs when they’ve gone unmet for so long. We need not apologize for using their entitlement to a publicly funded education on their own education.
To tell Black parents that freedom and liberty are “fraudulent” is insulting and untrue. To throw out the merits of self-determination through school choice in the Black community, because there may be people who have used it in racist ways, is unserious. To take that logic to its absurd end would be to say that Black people should never be farmers because our ancestors worked the fields of racist white slave owners.
Perry suggests that supporting or utilizing school choice programs “promot[es] racism,” even when many of the families who do so are Black Americans like myself. And they support the availability of these options.
Am I, a Black woman who makes the conscious decision to utilize a school choice program that benefits my children, choosing to be “anti-Black”? Should Black children not have access to educational opportunities that meet their needs simply because of their socioeconomic status or the neighborhood in which they live? Should Black parents not be afforded the respect and deference they deserve when they want to exercise their agency in demanding other options for their children?
It is the residentially assigned system of public schooling that has plagued the Black community for far too long, not the options for leaving that system. In fact, polling data show that a majority of Black voters support school choice programs, including the use of vouchers.
School choice programs give Black families an alternative to subpar schools, which is why Black “school choice moms” protect those choices with their votes. If anyone is “promoting racism,” it is those who are still standing in the schoolhouse door trying to block Black families from entering, or leaving, the schools they wish to.
If we really want to reform America’s racist system of public education, we should start by empowering Black families with the freedom and resources to choose.
Kayla Svedin is a wife and mother in Arizona who began a volunteer-staffed community nonprofit called Empowered Arizona Families, which she runs with several other mothers who utilize the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. They volunteer their time and experience in helping other families access the many school choice options in their state.
This story about school choice programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.