We Need To Be Clear About What School Choice Means

Jan 23, 2024 2:24:20 PM


"Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you." - Howard Thurman

It’s school choice week. For those fighting for the children who need choice the most, I salute you.

For the past 20 years, I've been a stalwart advocate of school choice, educational freedom, parental choice - whatever you want to call the policies that allow parents to use their per pupil allocations of dollars to decide the who, what, and where of how their children are educated. My commitment has been unwavering; I've written extensively, spoken in various forums, and rallied others to the cause. I've traded barbs with choice opponents so much so much online that it became a part of my brand and identity.

My advocacy was never about championing choice policies out of ideological allegiance to public education.

It stemmed from lessons learned in the 90s, navigating life paycheck to paycheck, often with unreliable cars and utilities at risk of being cut off. Those times taught me the crippling impact of school failure on opportunities.

I link the resource scarcity in my life directly to my educational shortcomings. Faced with the upbringing of my firstborn, I was determined to redefine success, viewing him as a tabula rasa where endless possibilities awaited. From his preschool years to college, my unwavering goal was for him to surpass my achievements, marking the real origin of my journey as a defender of school choice.

This path was further shaped by my deep engagement with black thought systems, a self-educational pursuit that started in my teens. I devoured writings about Malcolm X, Huey Newton, the Civil Rights movement, and anything that shed light on the historical and contemporary positioning of Black Americans within the American power structure. My primary question throughout this self-education was how to overcome systemic barriers and achieve true freedom. This exploration was rooted in the belief that our journey toward liberation is ongoing, with current forms of oppression morphing over time, never truly freeing us. I rejected notions suggesting otherwise as deceptive narratives designed to pacify us into a false sense of freedom.

In my quest, I universally recognized education as the cornerstone of empowerment: knowledge is power. Every faith system emphasizes knowing oneself, and black thought consistently teaches the importance of understanding our past to navigate our future. Thus, education became my chosen instrument for liberation.

During my financially constrained days, the contrast between my life and those around me, who had college educations, was stark. These individuals, capable of providing loans for necessities like phone minutes, had mortgages, cars, and vacations, and provided enriched experiences for their children, all underpinned by their formal education. Contrary to opinions that downplay the significance of college, my experiences spoke differently.

Every instance of my child wanting something beyond our financial reach reinforced my belief in the value of higher education as a path superior to my own.

Engaging with the public education system, I was driven by the desire to secure a better educational path for my son than my own. My educational experiences varied widely, from underfunded schools in New Orleans to well-resourced ones in Minnesota, and even a posh school in Bel Air. These experiences highlighted the drastic differences in life outcomes based on educational backgrounds.

When it came time for my son to transition from elementary to middle school, I feared our stroke of good fortune was ending. His next school, as teachers warned, was not a suitable environment. Facing limited options, I explored private schools, astounded by their resources and opportunities, yet daunted by their costs. Despite finding a scholarship opportunity, the financial burden was still overwhelming. This realization – the inaccessible nature of quality education – was a bitter pill, leaving me feeling like I was failing my son.

My quest for alternatives led me to discover charter schools, igniting my advocacy. My son's subsequent journey through private high school and college, leading to a life of opportunities that once seemed unattainable, was a testament to the power of educational choice.

Yet, the landscape of school choice advocacy has evolved. What began as a united front, with a shared focus on choice policies beneficial for varied reasons, has now diverged.

The emergence of the anti-CRT movement and its co-opting of school choice signaled an inevitable split.

My alignment was never about proving an ideological point or restricting the breadth of education for others. It was always rooted in anti-racism and liberation.

As the movement veered towards upholding systemic biases, it became evident where my alliances lay. When white supremacy began to overshadow school choice, and supposed moderates turned a blind eye to anti-black legislation, the true nature of my so-called allies was revealed. In moments of crisis, their true stances surfaced, forcing me to reevaluate and ultimately step away from a movement that no longer aligned with my principles.

Yet, stepping away didn't mean abandoning the fight for self-determination in education. The right to agency, empowerment, and full humanity – long denied to Black Americans – remains central to my advocacy. Although my children now attend well-resourced public schools, I'm acutely aware that many others are trapped in failing educational systems.

My advocacy for choice continues, especially for those who need it most.

Years ago, Dr. Howard Fuller, a man who has done more to inform my thinking than anyone else in the "movement," replaced "school choice" with “parental choice.” That's more than a rhetorical shift.

Schools don’t have kids. Parents do. And some parents have way fewer options than others.

Liberation for those parents is at the heart of Dr. Fuller’s thinking.

I can't speak for him, but the point I took away from our discussions was that if choice policies offer equal allotments to the rich and poor, gaps aren’t closed. The rich already have choice. The poor are captive to a system that limits them. Educational justice would urgently get them the resources they need before anyone else.

His words ring in my ears now as I see Educational Savings Accounts proliferate in pro-racism red states, with none of the accountability conservatives were famous for demanding from the public system whenever there was a funding discussion. I’m of two minds. I’m the dog who caught the car and found a skunk in it. The policies I’ve advocated are finally here. Suddenly, it isn’t all that I thought it would be. The programs will create more opportunities for children and families, but with little evidence to show these opportunities will lead to better outcomes. I was never for the choice to be poorly educated. 

My push for choice today is a call for leaders of the main educational system to leverage their resources and scale to create new opportunities that broaden the horizon for young people. There have been several periods in education history when states and districts were bold in their experiments and choice wasn’t seen as something pursued to destroy public education as much as a thing public educators did to bring life to it. For too long districts have been off the hook for having to produce new schools and programs. They’ve lived on the idea that more funding for what exists already is the priority. For districts like mine where schools have resources, it’s easy to be that lazy. But in places where the schools are decaying, it's criminal to lack imagination about what schools could be. It has happened before.

Morality almost mandates a dedication to invention, innovation, and the creation of better ways of educating young people. 

I understand the inherent challenges of bureaucracy and its resistance to change or additional work. This resistance, while significant, is gradually losing its effectiveness as a justification against innovative solutions. Charter schools, for instance, emerged partly as a solution to bridge the gap for families dissatisfied with substandard urban education who sought alternatives, potentially in private schools, especially if voucher systems were implemented. They were envisioned as public schools offering choice, similar to magnet schools, but with greater autonomy granted to educators, parents, and students to experiment with new approaches. While I'm uncertain about what the next innovative educational model might be, I'm confident that school districts possess the necessary resources to invest time and effort in developing progressive educational solutions. This would represent real choice within a public education system that remains accountable to its citizens.

I’m loving this moment of profound understanding, where it’s clear that the objective is more than school choice or even parental choice – it must center people most in need. Specifically, I refer to those who are often overlooked, the ones repeatedly missing the bus of opportunity while others enjoy abundant advantages. These are the individuals whose only educational options are schools lacking essential resources, where opportunities for advanced courses, diverse electives, or college recruitment visits are nonexistent. They are part of an underrecognized class, serving society daily, yet relegated to low-opportunity environments with expectations far below what any parent would desire for their child. Initially, this group was the primary focus of those fervently advocating for choice, but for many, this was merely a facade, a means to an end. The endgame, it seems, was always about expanding choices for the already privileged. I’m still a choice advocate in every way, but now I focus on it being the people’s choice.

The real power of choice is only one that liberates those who aren't free.

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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