Culture & Society

Why School Choice Is the Racial Justice Issue Now

Assigning kids to schools based on geography perpetuates racist U.S. policies

School choice can help counteract the U.S. government’s historically racist housing and highway policies. Image Credit: SDI Productions/Getty Images

From a national perspective, it looks like school choice is one of those clearly aligned issues: Conservatives, who love to privatize things and who feel that public schools indoctrinate leftism, are for it; progressives, who care about equitable education for all and who favor the teachers unions, are against it. But the reality on the ground is far more complex.

In my own home state of Missouri it’s actually the rural Republicans blocking school choice efforts, probably due to the fact that the education system is a major employer in small towns, so teachers unions rule there. At the same time, some far-left state representatives from St. Louis have thrown caution to the wind to back school choice, almost certainly because the educational situation is so desperate in their districts, they simply aren’t willing to keep toeing the party line.

Americans in general overwhelmingly favor some form of school choice, especially post pandemic, with Black and Latino families leading the trend. But the reasons to favor school choice are ideologically mixed. Sure, libertarian economist Milton Friedman argued that injecting competition into the system of education would drive up quality and drive down price, just as with other goods. But as a matter of racial justice, progressives could also point to the massive federal efforts in the 20th century to socially engineer Black and white citizens by redlining and (literally) ghettoizing Black Americans into certain zip codes. If you haven’t read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” yet, run, don’t walk, to your favorite book retailer and buy it.

Furthermore, as Marcus Witcher and I explain in our book “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace,” the U.S. government used and abused eminent domain to build the American Federal Highway System so that it would implode Black and Latino neighborhoods and economic centers in major cities across the country. Much like the Fair Housing Administration’s redlining scheme, the goal of the highway system seemed to be to separate the white from the nonwhite populations geographically.

If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, Eric Avila has the receipts in his “The Folklore of the Freeway,” which includes minutes from the municipal meetings in which highway routes were chosen. In some of the most egregious examples, the government planners rejected perfectly serviceable routes that would have disturbed no one’s homes or neighborhoods in favor of the great boon of building a huge concrete wall to separate racially disparate populations.

To add insult to injury, the Federal Highway Act was immediately followed by “urban renewal” efforts, known as “Negro removal” within the Black community. Touted as a form of slum clearance, “urban renewal” simply blighted and knocked down the homes of working-class but upwardly mobile Black families, replacing them with far fewer and more expensive housing units. Whatever lame attempts at actual compensation were made under the Highway Act were eschewed altogether under urban renewal. Many of the churches, businesses, schools and social networks of city-dwelling Black Americans were utterly destroyed. Those who could, got out, while the federal government’s urban renewal efforts trapped the Black Americans left to deal with serious poverty in an area isolated from cultural and economic networks. If it was unjust to violate minority property rights and engineer people from above back then, it’s certainly unjust to trap them in inadequate and even dangerous neighborhood schools now.

It’s easy for critics to assume that public school failure in our inner cities is about corrupt administrators or teachers who don’t care, but there’s a far more nuanced story to tell. Any school working with a destabilized population is going to face challenges that would intimidate most teachers and administrators. Destabilized neighborhoods rear children who are traumatized by high crime, sometimes underfed and physically neglected due to poverty and poor family structure, vulnerable to the familial promise of gang life and habituated to chaos. The one-size-fits-all approach of our public education system cannot possibly meet the needs of children facing such challenges. We need the freedom to experiment with creative approaches, and the ability for the good ideas to win and the bad ones to go out of business.

One of the most popular objections to school choice is that it’s a stalking horse for segregation. But considering that inner city schools are entirely segregated now, the real concern underlying this objection is not about uplift for impoverished minority children in the inner city, but about regulating middle- and upper-income people. As educational freedom takes hold, it’s reasonable to assume that some approaches may tend to be less racially diverse, especially if they align with particular cultural traditions or religious backgrounds that are less so. Statistically, though, alternative schooling has been shown (so far!) to move kids from less diverse to more diverse situations, on average. But even if some diversity is lost in the long run, it’s hard to argue that well-off kids getting more diversity should outweigh impoverished minority kids getting a decent education. If education is truly the key to social mobility, real solutions for poverty should always win out over a mere cultural preference.

It ought to be noted as well that one of the subtle insults hidden in the wording of the Brown v. Board decision—according to people of such wide-ranging backgrounds as the Brown family itself, critical race theory founder Derrick Bell and stubborn individualist Zora Neale Hurston—was the implication that Black kids just can’t learn as well unless they’re around white kids. Nonsense! Look at the examples given by Thomas Sowell in his book “Charter Schools and Their Enemies.” In one prominent case, a Black charter school with kids from humble backgrounds beat out far wealthier schools in performance, just as Sowell’s beloved Dunbar High in D.C. did back before Brown was ever decided. Furthermore, a truly pluralistic society does not mean having an exactly equal or proportional representation of each demographic in every situation. Instead, it means various cultural traditions flourishing freely, whether those be Lutheran schools, Afro-centric schools, fine and performing arts schools, crunchy granola homeschool co-ops or Muslim schools.

In the end, it’s simply unacceptable to perpetuate the injustices that massive racist, progressive projects inflicted on Black Americans and other affected groups by limiting educational choice. One pithy educational freedom advocate put it this way: “There is a market for K-12 education in this country. It’s the housing market.” And that’s not right.



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