Educate to Liberate

Black Students And The Myth of School Choice

The current model of school choice is fashioned upon an assumption that Black students and other marginalized students of color have an unlimited range of exemplary choices to have their academic needs uniquely met in privately operated, for profit school institutions, when it is glaringly apparent that these students are not being equitably served in the traditional public school system. The problem with this general assumption is that there are actually a scant few options of excellence in accessible schools of choice nationwide and there is no existing, widespread precedent within which Black students are universally afforded a liberation infused, anti-racist, inclusive, minimally invasive, free and appropriate educational ideal in any significant educational model that is replicated on large scale. This means that in spite of our best efforts and for all the technological advances of the 21st Century; the reality is that for Black students, (those who most acutely suffer the deleterious effects of mis-education in a combined K-12 and post-graduate educational system which mimics the same exclusionary and oppressive power dynamics of larger society); we are simply not represented in the few, innovative schools touting (and more importantly), implementing nontraditional best practices by offering authentic student choice, rigor or those sharing alternative, counter normative instructional methods which are universally culturally responsive. It bears repeating the common mantra that indeed #RepresentationMatters.

In America’s pervasive system of white supremacy and institutionalized oppression, exceptional school performance is an anomaly and appears inextricably linked to racial and class divisions. Those residing in affluent residential areas have both the privilege and financial means to guarantee the quality of every, fully resourced public school in their area and still have the privilege to exercise school choice in that they have purchased homes in communities where high performing schools (public and private) abound. Supposedly, school choice programs are designed to break the link between housing and access to a quality education with the goal of expanding educational opportunity to all children, especially the most disadvantaged. Except that this is not exactly the reality for the vast majority of marginalized groups. Far too often, our “choices” reflect the same degree of ineptitude and poor track record as do the most unfit public schools and given the sporadic data and lack of evidence to prove otherwise, many charter schools fare much worse as their public school counterparts. The highest performing charter schools I have ever encountered working exclusively in large, Black and Brown communities were both founded, funded and wholly encompassed the admirable vision and clear priorities of the veteran educator and deeply invested leadership which reflected the majority Black student of color population. These schools are far preferable and always seemed to effortlessly provide a more wholistic and rigorous academic program than do their conservative, Christian or Fortune 500 business model charter schools counterparts. On the contrary, I have also witnessed first hand the stark contradictions or what Kozol refers to as the Savage Inequalities of Charter schools, which grossly mis-educate through a combination of outsourced mis-management, underpaid and poorly resourced staff/schools and which overtly value profits over academics or student productivity. You hate to see it, but the struggle is real and many of those students would be infinitely better served in their local public schools.

Even as we consider the dangers of the underrepresentation of marginalized students in accessible, high performing “schools of choice” paradigms, there’s a tendency to blame the victims of mis-education or to advance the notion that we, Black people, are not duly taking advantage of all of the school choice environments which might more readily and completely meet our academic and social needs. Except that when many of us do test the odds of exploring local charter school option (and the options are seemingly endless), it’s often a roll of the dice as to whether the school of choice will even be a neat fit for our children. On the other hand because of the aforementioned expansive tax base, affluent Whites don’t even need to exercise school choice, but can simply attend their local public-private schools and benefit from the elite academic foundation which otherwise affords them to a lifetime of privilege. We simply can’t ignore the potential double standards inherent in the overrepresentation of the white, privileged demographic (who overwhelmingly comprise the persons already in power) in the most affluent, high performing, public, charter and private schools across the globe.

In the current era of Trump and DeVos policies in favor of the carte blanche expansion of school choice options, The Washington Post reports that their priority “ is ultimately aimed at privatizing the most important civic institution in the country.” Despite the fact that, “More than 80 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend traditional public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses the latest data available, (and) about 10 percent of schoolchildren in the United States go to private schools, about 5 to 6 percent attend charter schools, according to 2013-14 data, and a little more than 3 percent are home-schooled, according to 2012 data.” The school choice movement is on the rise, with no end in sight. Whole communities like that in New Orleans, have no public school alternatives whatsoever, and the degree of mis-education in their unimpressive roster of charter schools creates a monopoly which leaves much to be desired. The school choice movement is not monolithic however, and the wide array of choice options include: charter schools, vouchers, tax-credit programs, education scholarship accounts, home schooling and online schools. It is noteworthy that in a 2017 analysis, data journalists at The Associated Press found that charter schools were significantly overrepresented among the country’s most racially isolated schools. In other words, Black and Brown students have become the object of the re-segregation of schools from within charter schools, the very institutions that promised to “equalize” education. Because of the resegregation, under-resourced and underfunding injustices of charter schools (not to mention the sporadic, not necessarily improved academic performance of the so-called schools of choice), are now only overtly championed by wealthy, conservative and racist Republicans like Trump and DeVos. While public outcry increased from the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement which simultaneously called for a moratorium on all new separate and unequal schools of choice since 2017. Recent reports from Howard County, MD has White parents fighting against legislation aimed at desegregating the schools alongside written testimony that “We don’t want urbanized Blacks”. Wtf does that even mean? Is there an assimilated version available upon request?!

Among the small contingency of marginalized student “tokens”, able to access the heavily resourced educational opportunities of suburban or private schools as afforded by their own parents’ wealth and/or proximity to whiteness; there are egregious crimes committed under the guise of child’s play. For example, just this week at Immanuel Christian School in VA. an entire gang of racist, White boys pinned down a Black female student and forcibly cut her locs, while taunting her with names like “nappy” & “ugly.” Fairfax County Police are said to be investigating, yet who’s to account for the permanent damage to the psyche of the impressionable victim? As a pertinent point of reference, VP Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, teaches at this private, Christian school part time – so one would assume an exclusive school attracting such affluence would be somehow insulated from such an abject level of exposure to school choice failure. But such an assumption would be a grave mistake. Even in cases where the “token” students are not subjected to overt physical violence, the few Black students in these elite schools become exceptions to the average Black student norm and are celebrated for their “unique” cultural, academic or athletic prowess, rather than viewed in the context of their individual worth and genius as a representation of the whole. As such, in the same way that Malcolm X referenced his own degree of mis-education in his autobiography, as a “mascot” of sorts, rather than a valued partner/learner/contributor . . . So are Black students oftentimes symbolic of the abject tokenism which can only be understood as white people’s fascination and pre-occupation with all things Black from afar. In the tokenized mascot role, Blacks are valued solely for the expressed benefit of appropriation or for one’s attempts at feigning diversity and not at all for an abdication of generational White privilege. Not only are Blacks and marginalized people discriminated against or fetishized when we are either excluded or tokenized in majority white and affluent school settings, but the very power structure and design of these institutions ensure the perpetuation of the status quo. White students who are almost entirely educated in segregated groups, assume a centering power status in which their voices are always and overwhelmingly amplified. Whereas the powerful narrative of Blackness, Indigenous and other people of color are always, routinely ignored. This only exacerbates the oppressive paradigm played out in society.

As earlier referenced, in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when he was (somewhat predictably), sent to reform school for being Black, the smartest in his class but otherwise irreverent for simply having worn a hat in the classroom; he wisely deduced his role as merely a tokenized mascot in the presence of white people. Of this demeaning experience he recalled: “They all liked my attitude, and it was out of their liking for me that I soon became accepted by them — as a mascot, I know now. . . They would even talk about me, or about “niggers,” as though I wasn’t there, as if I wouldn’t understand what the word meant. A hundred times a day, they used the word “nigger.” I suppose that in their own minds, they meant no harm; in fact they probably meant well.” Malcolm understandably bristled at the dehumanization of being forced to unsuccessfully navigate academic and domestic white spaces in recalling: “It was the same with the other white people, most of the local politicians, when they would come visiting the Swerlins. One of their favorite parlor topics was “niggers.” One of them was the judge who was in charge of me in Lansing. He was a close friend of the Swerlins. He would ask about me when he came, and they would call me in, and he would look me up and down, his expression approving, like he was examining a fine colt, or a pedigreed pup. I knew they must have told him how I acted and how I worked. What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me. This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their “liberal” white friends, these so-called “good white people” — most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.” So there’s that. And arguably, not much has changed.

With charter schools leading the schools of choice movement and allowing for a vast selection of publicly funded schools-as-businesses models to reap private profits and provide virtually zero accountability for students’ performance; a palpable recipe for the mis-education of Black students flourishes. Personally, having worked for 14 years in traditional public school districts (in Detroit and New York) and for 8 years in both extremely high performing and persistently low performing charter schools (prior to my current pursuits in entrepreneurship and higher education); I have witnessed first hand what works and what constitutes an abysmal failure for Black students in both public and so-called schools of choice. Please refer at will, to the cited Washington Post article for a comprehensive overview of the bevy of school choice options but recognize that there is no panacea for Black students wishing to escape the degradation of mis-education via traditional or nontraditional school choices. Regardless to supposed benefits, it’s better to resign ourselves to the knowledge that our collective obligation is to ensure the implementation of an authentic, liberation based pedagogical model in all schools where our presence is predominant.

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