Black Families Have a Long History of Using School Choice as Resistance to Racist and Inadequate School Systems

Jan 22, 2024 12:00:00 AM

by Sharif El-Mekki

National School Choice Week is an independent public awareness effort spotlighting effective education options for children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning and homeschooling. The week runs from January 21-26. For more information, visit or follow the discussion on Twitter using #SchoolChoiceWeek and #SCW.
For Black families, school choice has always been intertwined with our self-determination, liberation and education. While forces always have tried to limit our options in America, we, in turn, have always resisted and pushed for the ability to create our own opportunities for quality education. Despite some of the rhetoric about charter schools, school choice has long been a staple in Black communities. For us, this journey did not begin 25 years ago. And, just as the notion that Black Lives Matter isn’t new, Black families exercising school choice is rooted in our trek for liberation itself. Although we can go as far back as the 1860s to highlight the inadequacies of the schools established in Black communities, for now, let’s just fast forward 100 years. People find it surprising that Malcolm X, in the 1960s, advocated for community schools—schools wholly apart from the traditional public schools in Harlem. Black Panther Party members also created schools to ensure that Black students were receiving the quality of education they deserved. Activists, including teachers, launched over 40 Freedom Schools in Mississippi to respond to the wholly inadequate and racist school systems thrust onto our communities. The Freedom Schools’ mission was to create a choice, a real choice, that was:
  1. The school is an agent of social change.
  2. Students must know their own history.
  3. The curriculum should be linked to the student’s experience.
  4. Questions should be open-ended.
  5. Developing academic skills is crucial.
Later, under the leadership of Marian Edelman Wright, the Children’s Defense Fund was established to relaunch the concept of Freedom Schools.

Education as the North Star

Financially strapped parents—like both sets of my grandparents—who saw education as the North Star to liberation scraped together meager earnings to send their children to private school, even while paying taxes for a persistently failing neighborhood school. My mother exercised school choice for similar reasons that her mother did. Black families pursuing educational justice cannot be bound to neighborhood schools that have struggled to properly educate children for generations. I attended a full-time Freedom School in Philadelphia, Nidhamu Sasa (Discipline/Freedom Now), established to ensure students were highly educated with a focus on nurturing a strong positive racial identity and a lasting commitment and accountability to community. Nidhamu Sasa was one of several local and national examples of entire communities exercising school choice. I never attended a traditional public school in the United States until my 10th grade year. As a teenager, I grew to love several aspects of my traditional neighborhood public school, but it didn’t take me long to realize why my family did not view our neighborhood schools as transformative experiences. My siblings were homeschooled after my mother pulled them out of the neighborhood elementary school that would, over 20 years later, become a charter school. We study history to learn from it, but it also warns and inform us. We know that if we allow people to restrict our school choice for generations, we do it at our children’s peril. And, just like #BLackLivesMatter, so do Black children’s school choices.
(editor's note: this post has been updated from January 2017)

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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