by Chris Stewart, Derrell Bradford and Dr. Howard Fuller
Education reform is at a crossroads in this country. And it seems the issue of parent choice — who should have it, how much of it there should be, and for what schools — will determine the direction many reformers will take.
While some may have difficulty defining where they stand on “choice,” others of us — who have spent years, decades, and lifetimes advocating for the liberation of Black children from schools that have not worked for them — do not suffer this crisis of clarity. Our belief is that low-income and working-class families need, as one of the few levers of power at their disposal, the power to choose the right school for their children — and that those choices should include traditional public, public charter, and private schools. Our belief is grounded not just in our understanding that no one type of school is the right fit for every type of child, but in the frank, stark, brutal reality and history that colors the pursuit of education by Black people in this country.
Black history teaches us liberation and education go hand in hand, which is why the struggle by Black people in America to be free has also always included the struggle to be educated. Black people are the only Americans for whom laws were passed prohibiting their education. Despite this, from the moment Black folks became “free” we worked to build our own schools and educate our own children. Yet, still today, Black parents must fight to access schools of their own choosing.
Some would have us stop advocating for all parent choice, including vouchers, and, instead, accept the limited options available to low-income and working-class Black families. We must reject those limits if our goal is to rescue Black children languishing in underperforming schools with long records of failure in our urban centers in particular. Incrementalism is a sad substitute for the transformative revolution we need in Black education. And blunting choice ignores that Black people have never benefited from investing their hopes and dreams in any one system.
Critics of school choice programs find the politics of empowering Black families with the wider range of options available to wealthier families difficult, but we don’t. Some may find it radical to believe that we should use every school available to ensure our children are educated. We don’t. Some may believe that the quest for “choice” and the historic role of private schools in education is a moral and historical inconvenience. Indeed, the opposite is true: It’s a necessity. Some believe vouchers and other forms of parent choice are a threat to democracy. The real threat to democracy is an uneducated populace. We believe Black people must seek that education by any means necessary.
We urge all engaged in the fight for parent choice to put all schools on the table. Private schools — alongside the best traditional public and charter schools — have given our society a great many things. But private schools uniquely gave us our first and only Black president of this country. Let’s make sure another child out there has the same opportunity.
Chris Stewart is the CEO of the Wayfinder Foundation, a former elected member of Minneapolis’s Board of Education and a 2014 Bush Fellow.
Derrell Bradford is the executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN).
Dr. Howard Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University.