We Can’t Let Racists Co-opt School Choice

Jan 31, 2023 3:12:03 PM


I’ve spent much of my adult life producing persuasive messages to convince you that school choice was a totally not racist force for social progress. 

I stand by most of it, with nuances.

My argument has been that determining how and what one learns is a human right. Historically, marginalized populations were denied control of their intellectual development. While other groups can also benefit from school choice, those historically on the social margins have a particular case for that right. You cannot achieve self-determination, the ultimate marker of overcoming oppression, without the right to self-education.

Over the many years I have made that argument, the most vigorous opposition always came from left-leaning people who talk endlessly about “equity,” only to abandon the concept the moment people of color demand education outside of the conventional system - the system primarily controlled by white, left-leaning people.

They love our push for freedom until it makes us free of them.

Fauxgressives Been Waving “The Public Good” to Hide Their Hypocrisy

It's been easy to attack their duplicity because their double-takes are so gross. They say trapping us in the schools they avoid for their children is somehow our sacrament for democracy. Yet, a review of enrollment patterns and the educational gerrymandering that sorts affluent, white, progressive families into their own little enclaves of privilege shows their NIMBYism is identical to that of conservative families.

Whenever Black, Brown and Beige captives of the conventional schools nobody wants to attend seek avenues out of education ghettos, the privileged white moderates - the fauxgressives - rush to the mic spouting about the “public good.”

Of course, they aren’t comfortable saying, “Listen, minorities, it’s best for all of us if you have no choice other than the schools we want for you.”

That would sound racist. And reveal their real agenda.

Instead, they deflect attention from their maternalist oversight of our affairs to the paternalist aggressors on the right. 

We may think that the issue is about gaining control of when, where and how our kids are educated, but those fauxgressives tell us we’re just being dupes for super-racist people on the right who want to destroy public schools and put us all in Christian, national re-education camps.

It’s been a good hustle.

I’ve tried fruitlessly to get progressives to live up to their declared values on this issue, pointing out that they don’t have to agree with the choices marginalized people make, but they must respect our right to make these decisions for ourselves. 

Their blindspot — either sincerely ignorant or cynically obstructive — is that school choice for us is in line with a long legacy of civil rights theory. There are progressive origins to choice, and attempts to limit our educational opportunity to the conventional one-best system are antithetical to progressive values.

That seemed like stable intellectual ground. Until now. 

Today’s Bigots Are Driving School Choice Away from Pluralism

In the past, we could easily dismiss liberal claims that choice was the sport of white nationalists who see the policy as a way to resegregate education, sabotage traditional public schools, profit from privatization and further white supremacy. 

But now, I’ll be damned if some of the right-of-center school choice folks haven’t handed the left everything they need to make that case bulletproof.

The school choice party line has been nominally inclusive in that it held together an uneasy coalition with platitudes about “pluralism.” Choice has meant “to each their own.” Choice could work because it could be each group’s tool for self-actualizing, whether that meant culturally-affirming, Afrocentric pedagogy, a classical education curriculum, indigenous practices, Montessori, etc. 

It could be everybody’s everything.

But some within the white right grew tired of the movement platforming groups they opposed ideologically, politically and in terms of faith. They formulated a plan to make school choice whiter, more partisan and ideologically opposed to what they saw as the “threat” of inclusion. 

A 2021 “study” by the Heritage Foundation, an ultra-conservative think-tank that acted as the outbreak monkey for this white choice virus, signaled a shifting political orientation for school choice.

"Choice advocates might decide to focus on universal school choice programs without means-testing or caps on program size, as they successfully did recently in West Virginia. The 2021 Education Next Survey of Public Opinion found Republican support is greater for universal vouchers than for low-income vouchers, while Democrats were more supportive of vouchers for low-income families than for all families. Choice advocates might also embrace efforts to identify school choice as a mechanism that allows families to find learning options that…reject curriculum they do not like, such as Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project."

School Choice 2.0, Powered by CRT Panic, Favors Bigotry and Tribalism

Critical Race Theory panic was a useful nuke created in the political thought laboratories of the right-wing world. Education conservatives cast it as a global threat to white existence that can be explicitly defeated with a combination of vouchers and anti-Woke legislation that curtails the academic freedom of minorities. It is a clever way to mobilize white voters who fear the rapid social changes around them.

Look at how this AP story frames the growing push for school choice across states, and ask yourself if this is the winning message for a “universal” choice movement:

"Nichole Mason first became concerned when she learned administrators at her children’s public school were allowing transgender students to use girls’ bathrooms. Her frustrations mounted when she felt her children’s next school went too far with how they enforced COVID regulations during the pandemic.

Now, the mother of five is among a swelling number of parents around the United States funneling those frustrations into a renewed push to get state lawmakers to create taxpayer-funded programs to help parents pay for other educational options including private school, home-schooling or hybrid models. In Utah, a proposal would allow roughly 5,000 students to apply for $8,000 scholarships."

This new iteration of school choice erases equity, increased educational opportunity or the peace a diverse nation can find in policies that support pluralism. Instead, it explicitly favors bigotry, division and tribalism, vaulting the white tribalists to the top of the power grid.

Choice now appeals to legions of white moms who fear what a world where gays and coloreds are considered human might portend for their dominance. They are using their social and political privilege to block any school program that does not explicitly benefit their children. When their anti-social premise fails to stop diversity and inclusion, school choice becomes their ticket to safe, white spaces.

What Now?

I feel bad for my moderate friends in the church of school choice:  trapped between their public talking points about choice lifting all boats and their private fears of being excommunicated if they fail to coddle bigots. What an awful dilemma. Either they speak vigorously about the immorality of using school choice policies to stoke hate for outgroups, or they risk losing access to the beautiful Waldorf salads at the next meeting on Massachusetts Avenue in D.C.

As for me, I'm excommunicated. I refuse to pander to old white men with money. School choice demands a bigger tent, not a bigot tent.

Yet, I remain unmoved in my belief that it is a human right for every individual, family and community to decide how, when, what and where they are to be educated. That case is solid for people who have had all their rights stripped from historical systems of oppression.

I see the right-wing choice machine without its fig leaf. Their bare-naked instinct to drive the message away from a multiracial, nonpartisan, pluralistic effort to get every kid into tailored learning environments, toward the darker goal of redefining diversity as a threat to America, is too dangerous to ignore.

At the same time, the left continues to block our right to educational self-determination. To be true to progressive values, they must move hard and fast to make public school choice at least competitive with, if not superior to, other choice schemes.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the end of getting choice laws passed justifies the bigoted means. Maybe the path to freedom for all really does require labeling anything that offends the sensibilities of old, straight white men and the women who love them as “woke,” and then criminalizing all things “woke.”

But I doubt it.

The only choice movement that will last into the coming generations is the one that can balance the needs and differences of families and students and offer affirming solutions for them all.  

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Always Learning. This is an edited version. 

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at citizenstewart.com and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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