Last week the Journey for Justice Alliance released a report called “Failing Brown v. Board.” The report is a direct attack on public charter schools and “school choice,” arguing that they perpetuate segregation and thereby increase educational inequity.
I’ll agree with the report on one thing—our country has not lived up to the promise of Brown v. Board, which was decided 64 years ago last week. But Journey for Justice—along with my friend, Andre Perry, who praises the group’s report—states that school choice and charter schools are part of the problem as long as they aren’t deliberately seeking racial integration.
What they don’t seem to understand is that this should be about the ability for Black families to choose a quality school for their family. And Black families pursuing educational justice cannot be bound to neighborhood schools that have struggled to properly educate children for generations.
Perry dismissively states that “more schooling isn’t going to close the racial wealth gap,” but Black families have always known that quality education is tightly intertwined with our path to liberation. Malcolm X, whose birthday we celebrated last weekend, told us education was our “passport to the future.”
And while charter schools might be something relatively new, the focus on school choice has long been a staple in Black communities. Despite the fact that we were far from affluent, my family viewed school choice as an integral right and the bedrock to self-determination.
My mother exercised school choice by sending me to a full-time Freedom School in Philadelphia, Nidhamu Sasa (Discipline/Freedom Now), established to ensure students were highly educated with a focus on nurturing a strong positive racial identity and a lasting commitment to community.
In addition, my siblings and I attended neighborhood public schools, a private Islamic school, a magnet school—we were even homeschooled. Whatever my parents thought was best for us at the time.
Now, I am a principal at a neighborhood charter school in the same West Philadelphia community where I grew up. In our neighborhood, the vast majority of families are Black, and they are choosing the school that is right for their child.
That is the goal. Not integration in and of itself.
Now, I’m not opposed to integration. I admire the “diverse by design” schools that seek to promote racial diversity (many are charters, by the way).
I understand the hope that by integrating schools, Black students might have more access to the resources and course offerings that are standard in mostly White schools. But one look at the achievement gaps that exist in these “integrated” schools tells you that these superficial attempts to integrate only continue to fail our Black children.
Most attempts at “fairy tale” integration simply force the most marginalized communities in public education to sacrifice further.
If we want to integrate, let’s not focus on the racial makeup of our schools. Let’s start by integrating the wealth that is being hoarded. Let’s integrate the investments in neighborhoods and locally owned businesses. Let’s integrate the power structures that keep communities of color out of the decision-making process.
Journey for Justice makes many strong demands about the need for equity in funding our schools, and I strongly agree. I’ve fought for years here in Pennsylvania for adequate funding of our public schools.
But this obsession with integrating our schools is a distraction.
At this point in the conversation, someone usually reminds me of a different Malcolm X quote about school segregation: “A segregated school system produces children who, when they graduate, graduate with crippled minds.”
I have to remind them to read the rest of the quote.
But this does not mean that a school is segregated because it’s all Black. A segregated school means a school that is controlled by people who have no real interest in it whatsoever.… When you’re under someone else’s control, you’re segregated.
Perry states outright: “Charter schools that accept segregation as a default don’t help rescue Black children.”
Well, Andre, I’m not only accepting my virtually all-Black school, I am reveling and celebrating its Blackness.
And, I think our students, staff and families agree that we don’t “rescue” our children. Our goal is to empower them and ourselves so that we collectively fight for liberation—our students’ and our own.
This was originally published on Education Post’s network.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.