Why Are We Still Asking 'Is School Choice the Black Choice' When We Know It Is?

“Is School Choice the Black Choice?” was the question on hand at a panel discussion in D.C. on Wednesday night moderated by TV One News' Roland Martin, but if you came expecting an answer you would have been disappointed. Instead we got two hours of provocative but inconclusive debate on the issues of public school choice in light of the pending adoption of a resolution by the NAACP calling for a moratorium on public charter schools. Aside from Martin emphatically declaring that “school choice is the Black choice,” and former Chicago principal Troy LaRaviere’s disruptively passionate pushback and pleas to sign on to his petition to rid public education of charter schools, the disagreement did not fall there. Panelists Elizabeth Davis, president of the District of Columbia’s teachers union, and Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president for policy and advocacy, are not naive to the fact that charter schools exist and charter schools like those founded by fellow panelist Steve Perry, who recently opened a Capital Prep charter school in Harlem, are here to stay. As an audience member it was disappointing to have the two-hour broadcast consumed by a bickering of back and forth for a question that doesn’t even exist. LaFonda Willis, former administrator for D.C. Public Schools and education chair for the NAACP D.C. chapter, agreed that the conversation shouldn’t have been centered around traditional versus charter but rather how can district and charter schools collaborate “to ensure Black children have access to high-quality education and that we’re helping them to achieve achieve self-sufficiency and reach their full potential.” I don’t think you would find one person on that panel who would say Black children shouldn’t possess all of the options to ensure success in college and career. Now, of course, half of the panelists would prefer this responsibility lie with traditional public schools. Dawn Williams, an education professor at Howard University, argued this is due to greater levels of accountability that do not exist for charter schools. And here’s where we get to the real concern: quality. Citing the reason for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium Shelton stated: “A moratorium means we have to stop for a minute. Over the last 15 years there’s been a growth in charter schools and the challenge is they don’t have very much oversight.” “The bottom line is we want high-quality education for all of our children,” he added. But if we’re really concerned about quality—responding to Shelton—Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform Now (DFER), said we need to call for a “moratorium on the traditional public schools that have been failing [our children] for generations.” Rudy Crew, former chancellor of New York City Public Schools, pushed this point further asking: “What does it look like to have real choice in the Black community? A choice between a poor-performing school and another poor-performing school is no choice. We ought to have a market of ideas of schools that are out there, but I think they’ve got to be at a standard that is something that is really a quality choice. Otherwise it’s a fake choice.”

A Longing Hope in the Traditional Public School System

I agree with Crew and Shelton that Black parents should be presented with real choices and those should be based on quality. However, as much as I would like it to be so, I lack the hope that traditional public schools can produce that quality at a faster rate than what we’ve seen. I lack the hope that one day soon Congress will wake up and say, “I think every Black child and child of color in America deserves a high-quality education and that's going to be our top priority until it happens.” I hold no high expectations for a government that has, up to now, failed to value my life. But hey, I get it. I've been in the world long enough to understand that fear of “corporatization.” The imposition of services deceptively provided to improve the quality of life of Black families only to lack any measures of accountability and do more harm than good—the payday loans, the ITT Tech’s, the neighborhood improvement projects that only lead to gentrification and push the Black residents out. And like the traditional public school system, some charter schools have failed us, too, and I’m sure there will be some that continue to fail us. But what we can’t shy away from and put a cap on are the ones that are seeing continued success—and a lot of charter schools that are seeing success are those being run by people of color. Ramona Edelin, former director of the D.C. Association of Charter Public Schools spoke to the importance of charter school leaders, “A charter school leader is someone who has a vision to really improve the education of children. They turn their lives inside out to have the autonomy to create a system.” She later added that when traditional public schools have more autonomy they will be in a much stronger position. I think my school’s founder was very much a visionary. She evaluated the public education landscape in 1930s Detroit and knew that Black children needed more than the sloppy seconds they were being handed. They needed another choice and she could create that choice. And families, like mine, who can barely afford it are still opting into that choice decades later. But most Black families can’t pay for choice and they shouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, the conversation lacked what every Black student who has been a victim of school-to-prison pipeline, dropped out, expelled or high school graduate that made it to college but left due to lack of support/and or financial aid needs an answer to: How do we move forward? How do we make sure this doesn't keep happening? Roland Martin had an answer for that: “I want what works. And so if there are traditional public schools that work: study it and replicate it. Charter schools, study and replicate it. Magnet schools, study and replicate it.” The panel will broadcast two weeks from now on TV One and stream online. The NAACP will vote on the moratorium during their national convention in Ohio, October 13-15.

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