Those who say school choice has racist roots are implying that parents, especially lower-income, black parents, should stay trapped in public schools that have failed their children for decades and continue to do so to this day.
During the early 1600s, when white boys were given the opportunity to be lawfully educated, education for enslaved blacks equated to lawful death. However, despite the threat of death, enslaved blacks educated themselves. In Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, Heather Andrea Williams reports that archeologists found tablets, writing utensils, and books in “pit schools .” Although racism and racist policies kept enslaved blacks from publicly supported education, their desire to learn was important enough to die for.
Approaching the victory of the Civil War, the realization of physical freedom sparked the actualization of intellectual freedom. But because African Americans were prohibited from attending all-white government schools, they yet again educated themselves by building and operating their own independent schools with no government assistance. Ironically, you could say African Americans opened the “door to the ideas of a free market” for themselves long before it was proposed by Milton Friedman.
Why do we prop up the public education system as a symbol of education equity when it was once the primary mechanism for segregation?
Eventually, the federal government decided to provide support for freed blacks through the Freedmen’s Bureau . The bureau’s role was to help transition African Americans from slavery to freedom. It took responsibility for building all-black public schools, converting black independent schools into public schools, supporting existing independent black schools, and funding for volunteer teachers. The commission of the Freedmen's Bureau was short-lived, but the desire for education freedom never waned. James Forman Jr. states that “in the clearest example of nineteenth-century black 'school choice,' some blacks continued building private schools even after the Freedmen’s Bureau opened publicly supported schools.”
Was the desire for self-determination “grounded in racism from the start”?
In Chicago, we had the greatest accounts of cosmic shifting in the education system when in 1912, perseverance and self-determination met moral philanthropy. Booker T. Washington had a radical idea of building quality schools for black children, and with the support of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, he was able to build more than 5,000 schools in 15 states.
Although Brown v. Board of Education was deemed a lifeline for black families because it promoted desegregation in all facets of society, the government withdrew support from black families and sponsored white-only vouchers for white families who didn’t want their children educated with black children. Racism and racist policies kept blacks from public vouchers to attend all-white private schools. The education system has always catered to white families.
The hope for education freedom for black Americans didn't start in the 1960s, when Friedman proposed the theory of school choice, and to think so gives too much credit to Friedman and none to my ancestors who died and fought for the freedom of black bodies and minds. Just as the history of education didn’t start in the 1960s, it doesn't end there.
Institutional racism persists today. It has morphed from denial by race to denial by ZIP code. Redlining promotes less funding for mostly minority schools, and it encourages more funding for higher-income, mostly white schools.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 13 out of 100 black eighth-grade students are proficient in math, and only 15 out of 100 are proficient in reading. There is a direct link between the failures of the educational system and student achievement. We must do something different, so why not follow the path of Washington and Rosenwald — why not ensure every black child has the opportunity to attend a high-quality school of their parents’ choice?
By the time I was in the fourth grade, I had been held back twice, hated school, and didn’t believe I’d graduate from high school. Instead, I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree from the University of South Florida. I am the first member of my family to go to college, let alone graduate. This didn’t happen by chance. My family had lived in poverty for at least four generations. We have been affected by policies, practices, and programs that, regardless of intent, have done harm. My pathway changed because I was given an opportunity: a tax credit scholarship to attend a private school instead of the district school that failed my family for decades.
Given the public education system’s unwillingness or inability to educate black students adequately, we need a new system, one that is built by our community and empowered by parents. That is anything but racist.
Denisha Merriweather is the founder of Black Minds Matter, a project of the American Federation for Children. She is also a beneficiary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.