Reformers must stop whitewashing ‘choice’

Freedom to choose in privatized school system is illusion where it fails to address inequality born of slavery and ultimate lack of ‘choice’

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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“It’s ironic when abortion rights supporters don’t back school choice,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But her attempt to point out some kind of moral absurdity during her remarks to Colorado Christian College students at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., last week only pointed out her own.

According to the Colorado Times Recorder, Devos also invoked slavery to underline her point. President Abraham Lincoln had to deal with the ‘pro-choice’ arguments of his time, she continued. “They suggested that a state’s ‘choice’ to be slave or to be free had no moral question in it. Well, President Lincoln reminded those pro-choicers that [there] is a vast portion of the American people that do not look upon that matter as being this very little thing. They look upon it as a vast moral evil.’”

Aside from the obvious differences in choice between the expansion of education service providers and a woman’s right to control her reproductive choices and her body, DeVos clearly needs to learn that the Republican understanding of words like choice, freedom, liberty differs significantly for black people with our history of slavery. And this is not the first time DeVos has publicly misinterpreted history. Remember when our education secretary called HBCUs “pioneers of ‘school choice,’” completely missing the fact that black postsecondary institutions were born of government-backed segregation?

When Republicans, who are often the biggest proponents of school choice, use the term and other words like “freedom” and “liberty,” they usually mean it in the sense of freedom from government. “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” said Ronald Reagan in a 1975 interview in Reason magazine. “The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom.” It is assumed that freedom (from government) makes us free to choose. However, the basic liberties black people have gained throughout our time in the U.S. required federal intervention. Thus, the government protection from racism that black communities have called and fought for is often in direct opposition to Republicans’ stand for less government.

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Slavery is the definitive example of the way black people have been robbed of choice: White male government officials removed black people’s control of their own bodies and placed it in white people’s hands. If there’s any group of people who can make an argument for a right to choose, it’s the descendants of enslaved Africans, particularly black women. These women have been denied their right of choice twice: once because of the continuing impacts of slavery and racial discrimination and again because of limits on their reproductive freedom. Given our history, it is anti-racist to ensure black women regain their reproductive options. Even if being a proponent of one kind of choice were some kind of overarching identity, DeVos shouldn’t be asking why abortion rights activists won’t support school choice; she should be asking why school choice advocates aren’t asking to join reproductive circles.

Instead of gaining choice by reducing government, advocates can enable choice by being anti-racist — something DeVos should consider.

Although Republicans today definitely do not represent the party of Lincoln (or even Reagan), DeVos could at least have tried to extend her half-baked history lesson about freedom from slavery through, and to, the current-day education system with some acknowledgement that the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln sought is still a long way from coming.

After the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down as unconstitutional the law of the land that allowed “separate but equal” educational systems, various state governments used public funds to facilitate white people’s choice to send their children to private schools. For instance, Virginia Governor Thomas Stanley commissioned a 32-member Commission on Public Education which came to be known as the Gray Commission.  The 1955 Gray Commission’s Report to the Governor, included the use of public funds to, “prevent enforced integration by providing for the payment of tuition grants for the education of those children whose parents object to their attendance at mixed schools. States and many families chose private segregation academies, many faith-based, moving resources away from local districts.

School choice arguments purportedly give low-income families more educational options, but a key reason those families might not have quality options in the first place is because whites exercised their choice and control of government to abandon cities and public schools in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. States have yet to create funding structures that address the divestment that resulted from white flight and racism. And still, choice advocates in education too often accept the foundation of this crooked system.

Related: Education can be the great equalizer, but it isn’t yet

DeVos’ call for choice is really a campaign for vouchers and private schools — escape hatches that mostly lead to faith-based institutions like the one at which she gave her remarks.

We aren’t going to privatize our way out of racism. Therefore, choice, for black people, has always come with a demand for policies to address the racism that limits the effectiveness of government agencies and black autonomy. There are many ways a school district can provide choice and autonomy (with or without charter schools and vouchers). Black choices will always be limited if we don’t remove the burden of racism from the overarching structures influencing education reform. State takeovers of black school districts and the promotion of charters — hallmarks of the current reform movement — reflect Reagan’s vision of how to improve schools more than the view of a descendant of the enslaved.

By calling for school choice without having an anti-racist agenda, DeVos abdicates her responsibility to address the structural racism that keeps all schools from reaching their potential. By sidestepping root causes, choice can make matters worse. In many districts, choice has led to the creation of more mediocre options. For instance, in Louisiana, findings from a 2016 Tulane University analysis of the state’s voucher program shows it “had a negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement in the first two years of its operation, most clearly in math.” A 2017 report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute summarized findings from national and international studies that showed limited improvements at best from voucher programs. Where there were gains in academic performance, the report attributed them to more government oversight and accountability, not less.

DeVos’ comparison of the advocates for different kinds of choice reveals her inability to see why reproductive rights and education activists are at odds. Her choice framework doesn’t reckon with racist history; it ignores it. So, her promotion of “choice” is fundamentally exclusionary, because it privileges the views of a slew of white people on how black families and black-majority schools should be constructed over the beliefs of many in the black community.

DeVos’ repeated whitewashing of choice underscores the historic effort to have black people follow a white idealized principle that was never meant for us.

This story about advocates for school choice was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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