When It Comes to Schools, Do Black Leaders Walk It Like They Talk It?

When it comes to school choice we should follow what our leaders do more than what they say.

This past week represented both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s day of celebration, and the beginning of national #SchoolChoiceWeek. That’s a fitting duo.

As most of the nation celebrates the birth and life of Dr. King today, I must admit I don’t see his dream. Instead, I see our reality and, at least in education, isn’t worth celebrating.

I can’t say it enough: eight million black children attend public schools that help too few of them reach their highest potential. Today’s public education doesn’t even approximate the beautiful dream of a beloved community that died with Dr. King.

Researcher Erick Hanushek puts it this way: “After nearly a half-century of supposed progress in race relations within the United States, the modest improvements in achievement gaps since 1965 can only be called a national embarrassment. Put differently, if we continue to close gaps at the same rate in the future, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

Tyrone Mowat of Ed Inquiry, a group that works with schools to improve educational outcomes, consistently reminds us that black 4th-grade reading proficiency is only 31% in the best state, New Jersey.

At worse, only 12% of our children are reading proficiently in Missouri.

Mowat says “[w]e are failing a whole population of children. Relegating them to permanent third or fourth class status. So where is the outrage?”

Truly.

Where is our outrage about failing to secure what Dr. King said was the “most important asset,” the “intellectual care and development” of our girls and boys?

For their part, integration fundamentalists, the supposed bearers of King’s dream, are lost in the cheap jingoism of the refrain “separate can never be equal.” History has an ironic reply in that Dr. King’s own success was formed in the black church and in Atlanta’s black public schools.

And, it was at Morehouse college that Benjamin Mays helped King step into the calling of the Christian faith that would become his moral power source, and where he was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which would become his intellectual shield.

Like Morehouse, other HBCUs offer generations of black students culturally affirming environments that graduate students who go on to be leaders at all levels.

According to the UNCF, these colleges and universities generate “25 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields for African Americans, award 14 percent of all African American engineering degrees, and graduate the most African Americans seeking doctoral degrees in science and engineering out of all U.S. colleges and universities.”

I won’t argue for separatism. For me and my integrated family, social separation is unrealistic and spiritually broken. But our struggle for equality should get us equal power to determine where and how we live, what we eat, what we believe, who we marry, how we pray, and to what God. Add to that the power to determine where and how our children are educated. We need equality of opportunity and access, not a socially engineered demand for conformity handed down by distant intellectuals.

Many will attempt to project what Dr. King would think about the senseless educational dichotomy between integration and choice. Integrationists will look to his words for poetic justifications of their premise, and they will find it.

Realist, on the other hand, will see actions are the more powerful indicators of what people value and believe.

On that note, Dr. King’s family exercised school choice when his children integrated The Galloway School, an elite private school.

Malcolm X’s children followed suit.

Jesse Jackson? Same thing.

Even congressman Keith Ellison, who for years was the most visible heir to Paul Wellstone’s political theology, chose traditional, charter, and private schools for his children.

That matches old research that found most of the Congressional Black Caucus were private school parents.

Even Hillary Shelton, the NAACP official who traveled the country year before last giving speeches against school choice had three kids in Georgetown Day School.

Could there be a more glimmering example of what black people do when given a chance to access better schools, black people with resources lead by example?

I support all of them in their rights to choose schools, but if equality is our goal the school choice they enjoy should be a right shared by all.

It’s a right that even the best integration schemes have failed to produce.

Look to LaShawn Robinson, a parent in Connecticut who tried for 16 years to get her children into Hartford’s famed magnet school system. Although there was room for more students in the school she wanted, the open seats were being held for white students. Ms. Robinson’s children are black.

Proving their zealotry for ideology rather than justice, none of the local integration advocates are standing with Ms. Robinson out of fear her case would ruin their integration plan. That’s a perversion I’m certain Dr. King would abhor.

I’ve come to believe the case for self-determination, parental sovereignty, and, ultimately, school choice, is superior to continuing the wait for the fickle nymph of public school integration.

The two ideas – integration and choice – don’t need to be in a contest, and they are only made so by zero-sum thinkers on the integration side, but if we must pick a preferred route out of chronic social inequality, school choice is for me the better accelerant for that mission.

No, I can’t sidestep the academic evidence in social science that integration helps students build interracial relationships and outscore their peers living in education wastelands.

Likewise, I won’t ignore research that tells us private school choice produces similar civic benefits that improve the country.

I believe Dr. King’s dream is still possible, but not by limiting educational options to ones our most notable civil rights leaders avoid for their own children. Whether integrated or not, we’ll do best with a marketplace of schools and programs that prepare students for the mixed company of America’s open spaces by fostering the self-confidence required to be active, contributing, and generous citizens.

By any means necessary.

This was originally published on Citizen Stewart’s blog page.

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