September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

‘School choice’ and other white lies

School choice: promises and pitfalls

In 1966, at six years old, I was one of six Black children in a busing "experiment" to "integrate" an all-white elementary school in Queens, New York City.

Every day, the six of us would anxiously touch hands as we took the early morning ride from Hollis, in southern Queens, to the northern community of Little Neck. Hollis was a newly Black and middle-class community back then – made newly Black by the hurried panic of Whites moving to places like Little Neck, where they thought they’d be "safe."

Our coming made them feel unsafe. And we were not prepared for their violence and hatred.

Teachers, students, and parents taunted us constantly. Students were given special dispensation not to hold our hands or in any way have contact. After a day of abuse in school, we would leave school as we entered – dodging rocks and epithets. The rocks never hit anyone. The epithets did. They hit and burrowed deep into our souls.

This is how the "choice" movement began – with the rock throwers and the naysayers. It was, and is, a movement rooted in fear. It was, and is, a movement that flees from public education rather than fights for public schools that serve all children, regardless of color or income.

It is no coincidence that this country’s first school voucher movement gave public dollars to white students in Virginia to attend private, segregated schools following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision legally banning racially separate and unequal education.

Today, conservatives are once again taking a strong interest in school vouchers – only this time in the guise of concern for Black folk.

Aided by millions in funding from conservative think tanks and public relations firms, today’s voucher movement has a much slicker image. And it is attracting diverse faces.

A high profile, big-ticket ad campaign is pushing the idea of school vouchers in the African American community, although the campaign uses the more appealing term "choice."

While ads target the Black community, the White conservatives bankrolling and controlling the school voucher movement have a far broader agenda. Instead of providing the money needed to improve public schools, they want to use public tax dollars for vouchers for private schools. Since most voucher plans do not approach the cost of tuition at the best private schools, it’s clear that in the long run, vouchers are a way to help the (mostly White) well-to-do flee public schools. The overwhelming majority of students of color, meanwhile, will remain in even-more-poorly-funded public schools.

The difference between the "choice" movement and authentic school reform is the difference between abandonment and accountability. Vouchers enable parents to withdraw public education dollars and spend them at private schools. Taxpayers are no longer a community unit committed to maintaining public education for all. They are individual consumers out for the best deal.

But this sidesteps the underlying problem: that the bad schools are concentrated in Black and Brown communities. We need to fight to improve the entire system, not for a better place within it for select individuals.

After centuries of fighting for equal education, more and more African Americans are understandably weary. For those who can afford to augment vouchers and get their kids into a great private school, vouchers might sound like a good idea. But for the rest of us, vouchers undermine the ability of African American kids to get an education at all, because they further defund the public schools where the overwhelming majority of our kids will remain.

In the days of the historic Brown case, many Black people put their lives on the line in the fight for quality public schools for all. This was the real choice movement. It wasn’t about slick ad campaigns. It was a movement that took place in basements of churches and at kitchen tables of mamas and grandmas who cared deeply for all their community’s children.

The new choice movement, with its clandestine commitment to advancing white privilege and its crass consumer approach to education, is a betrayal of this legacy.

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