News & Politics

School "Choice" and Other White Lies

A current high profile ad campaign is pushing Blacks to accept school vouchers.
After nearly a half-century since the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that legally banned racially separate and unequal education, conservatives are taking a strong interest in Black folk and public schools. A high profile, big-ticket ad campaign is pushing the idea of school vouchers in the African American community. The ads -- and their backers -- are part of the complex relationship of school reform to race.

The television ads are numerous, plaintive and compelling. Black folk. Regular. Sincere. Speaking directly into the camera about their aspirations for their children's education and lives. Given prevailing stereotypes of apathy and neglect, the spots, which also are heard on radio, would be a welcome respite from such standard portrayals of Blacks in education. In fact, the ads sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) deftly switch the focus from the typical "unteachable kids" frame to one that squarely blames dysfunctional schools.

The campaign would be right on target if it weren't for the group's solution: school vouchers. Called "choice" by conservatives, (like BAEO founder Howard Fuller and much of the group's funders) the difference between the "choice" movement and authentic school reform is the difference between abandonment and accountability. Vouchers are especially troublesome. They enable parents to withdraw public education dollars and spend them where they choose (usually at private schools). It is the ultimate breach in the social contract: Taxpayers are no longer a community unit committed to the maintenance of public education for all. They are individual consumers out for the best deal.

Conservative groups are quick to downplay the role of funding in school quality. A case in point: one BAEO press release (to be filed under What Were They Smoking?) touts research that "finds" it is choice -- not books, good teachers, etc. -- that advances Black education. Considering that the only choice that matters is choosing a better school over a struggling school, the underlying problem with the "choice" movement is clear. There shouldn't be any bad schools in the first place. The fact that the bad schools are concentrated in our communities should move us to fight the entire system -- not search for a better place within it. But that would show general concern for Black folk which is clearly not what BAEO or its funders (right wing stalwarts Bradley and Friedman Foundations among them) are really about.

That is not to deny that many schools are in trouble. They certainly are but the answer lies in wholesale reform, not in a few of us taking the money and running. However, these groups are not interested in real reform because it costs money; money that some schools don't have and that others would rather invest outside of the classroom in metal detectors, security and the like. Even in the city of San Francisco, progressive in comparison to most districts, the district spends more money on police than school nurses.

Clearly, money matters. Who gets it and for what purpose is at the heart of the education debate. They are decisions that have been fraught with racism, controversy and even intrigue for centuries. And school vouchers are no different. In fact, the same interests that are behind these ads are the same interests that have opposed quality education for Black people for many years.

The Roots of Black-White Inequality

The truth is, inequitable funding and the resulting low quality schools are yet another broken promise of Reconstruction. Black families were considered illegal less than a century and a half ago and were allowed no autonomy or authority as a fact of slavery. As "emancipated" men and women, we were promised access to the nation's "great equalizer," public education, as part of the tremendous debt owed us. In fact, the debt concerning education is a literal one. It was common practice for enslaved and (post slavery) "indentured" children to be "loaned" out for service as apprentices in exchange for cash to support the private school tuition of their "owner's" children. In other words, White children of the gentry, for at least three centuries, were educated as a direct result of the deprivation of education (and wages) of Black children.

Of course, what rights "free blacks" acquired through Reconstruction were hotly contested, and the right to quality education was an important part of the struggle. In fact, African Americans led the fight for free public schools that were accessible to all. After more than a century of sit-ins, protests, lawsuits and more, the courts have slowly made it clear that quality education is indeed a right and schools are to be equitably funded, accessible and non-discriminatory.

Given the incredible amount of resources that were segregated to benefit Whites, many thought that only racial integration would force the equitable division of resources at the school level which gave rise to court cases like Brown. In many of the districts finally forced to cooperate with these court decisions, Whites rebelled by moving out of cities with any significant Black population thereby starting the march toward sprawl and sub-urbanity. They even started their own private schools to avoid campus contact with blacks. This was the beginning of the "choice" movement.

A Movement Born of Fear

In 1966, at six years old, I was one of six Black children asked to participate in a busing "experiment" that would "integrate" an all-White elementary school in the Queens section of New York City. Far above the Mason-Dixon Line, my parents thought I would be safe from the savage anti-integration sentiment they saw in Little Rock, Arkansas or Jackson, Mississippi.

Boy, were they wrong.

Everyday, the six of us would anxiously touch hands as we took the early morning ride from the community of Hollis in the southern area of the borough north to the community of Little Neck. Hollis was a newly Black and middle class community back then -- made newly Black by the hurried panic of Whites moving to places like Little Neck. There they thought they'd be "safe." Our coming made them feel unsafe. And we were not prepared for the incredible violence and hatred they would subject us to as a result.

Teachers, students, and parents taunted us constantly. Students were given special dispensation not to hold our hands or in any way have contact. After a day of abuse in school, we would leave school as we entered -- dodging rocks and epithets. The rocks never hit anyone. The epithets did. They hit and burrowed deep into our children souls. And there they stayed. Like tumors. Like acid.

This is how the "choice" movement began -- with the rock throwers and the naysayers. It was and is a movement rooted in fear. Aided by millions in funding from conservative think tanks and public relations firms, today's "choice" has a much slicker image. And, as a result, it is attracting diverse faces with its focus group tested promises of community control.

Looking back, it's a fascinating transition. Just a century ago, these same interests were working to ban private schooling and make public schools mandatory. They introduced state laws designed to outlaw Catholic Schools (for the Irish), and Hebrew Schools and German schools organized by the many immigrant families trying to hold on to their heritage on these shores. The Ku Klux Klan was a major advocate of these mandatory public school attendance laws. They were concerned that children in private schools would be taught "foreign values" that would pose a threat to the "American way of life."

With the advent of school integration, it is now public schools that "threaten" their way of life. Fear of attending school with people of color, concerns over sex education and multicultural curricula are driving white families to private schools or home schooling. Vouchers, privatization and private all-white academies have provided powerful vehicles for white flight.

In order to keep white families in public schools, a whole new set of policies and programs were erected within school districts. Tracking, magnet schools and in-school academies became more widespread. These programs' stated purpose was to enable students to work at their own level. They were based on assumptions of fixed intellectual capacity meaning that once students were "proven" to belong in a "lower" track, that's where most were kept (without review) throughout their K-12 career.

A recent study by the Applied Research Center (No Exit? Testing, Tracking, and Students of Color in U.S. Public Schools,, found that tracking is most common in schools with "significant numbers of African American and/or Latino students." Further, white students regardless of test scores, grades or behavior were much more likely to be placed in "higher tracks" or academic programs. Students of color -- especially African Americans and Latinos -- were more likely to be placed in "lower" tracks. Academic programs became "mainly white" set asides, creating separate and unequal schools within a local district or even within a single school.

The right abandoned schools where they could not control the resources and composition. And like their earlier efforts to destroy private schools that were inconsistent with their agenda, conservatives have wrapped their plan to shift resources out of public schools in the American flag. These conservative groups are not committed to fairness or even to preserving options where parents can choose from a variety of quality educational institutions. They are seeking to concentrate resources at their schools -- just like the days of Jim Crow. Perhaps the best example of the choice movement's unabashed commitment to white privilege is found in their efforts at the post-secondary level.

Whites-Only Scholarships

As high paying, factory jobs of the industrial economy disappear, a college education is now critical to life without poverty. As a result, college admissions -- specially at the graduate level, have become highly contested terrain. There have been a number of lawsuits and policies at both the state and federal level designed to limit minority access to college (especially graduate school) and expand access for Whites. Special outreach measures like affirmative action have been under attack in several lawsuits. In the state of California, a statewide ballot measure was passed that greatly curtailed the ability of institutions to consider racial diversity as part of their hiring and admissions criteria.

By contrast, Whites are suing for race conscious admissions to gain unprecedented access to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) so that they have expanded options for college education -- especially at the graduate level. For example, Alabama State University is currently operating under an integration order that requires that they set aside nearly 40% of their academic grants budget for scholarships to Whites. The state augments the university's $229,000 contribution with public funds bringing the "Whites only" scholarship fund to a million dollars a year. There are few eligibility requirements. A student must be White and have earned at least a C average. African Americans vying for admission to the university must earn almost a full point higher to even merit consideration. In fact, as a C average is just slightly above the minimum required to pass a class, White scholarships are the only academic scholarships for entry at the university level with such low requirements.

Aside from the irony of such a policy that cuts off African Americans from institutions established to help address the deep inequalities of slavery and its aftermath, there are no accompanying requirements for Historically White Colleges and Universities. On the contrary, such efforts to integrate white institutions from Harvard to the University of Texas have been under attack. Despite the fact that many colleges across this country are overwhelmingly white with little diversity, there are no mandates, no timelines, not even laws or policies requiring integration at these institutions at any level.

Back To the Future

After centuries of fighting for equal education, more and more African Americans are understandably weary. For those who can afford to augment vouchers and get their kids into a great private school, it might sound like a good idea. But for the rest of us, vouchers undermine the ability of African American kids to get an education at all because they further defund the schools where our kids are. It's a policy that also diverts resources and responsibility from the government and moves it all to the market. There, it's all about the Benjamins without any mechanisms for accountability. Those that "have" will get an education, those that don't will be on the fast track to prison -- thanks to right wing sponsored policies (many of which were spearheaded by BAEO funders) that increasingly criminalize our young people.

In the days of the historic Brown case, many Black people put their lives on the line in the fight for quality education for all. This was the real choice movement. It wasn't about slick ad campaigns. It was a movement that took place in the basements of churches and at the kitchen tables of mamas and grandmas who cared deeply for all their community's children. The new choice movement, with its clandestine commitment to advancing white privilege and its crass consumer approach to education, is little more than a betrayal to this legacy. And a high priced one at that.

Makani Themba-Nixon is Political Editor for and much to her chagrin, an alumni of a reportedly public HWCU. Her four school aged kids are a constant reminder that Black folk better do something about public education and soon.

Some web resources to check out if you are interested in school issues:

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence (ERASE)

Rethinking Schools //

FairTest //

NCEA: National Coalition of Education Activists //

NECA: Network of Educators on the Americas //
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