Politicians Say, “Black Families, Be Grateful for What You Have and Don’t Ask for More.”

From presidential candidates to affluent parents to public school principals, I am weary and wary of anyone trying to convince Black and Brown folks that fewer school options better serve their children’s advancement and liberation. The only thing these families should have less of are bad schools. in their communities.

I often hear of some pretty wild claims that don’t jive with the experiences of many Black and Latinx families. Often these types of claims are very consistent with the mostly white teachers unions here and around the country. 

Parents want what’s best for their own children. Teachers want what’s best for all children.

People shouldnt buy into the racist tropes that insidiously asserts that Black and Brown communities aren’t filled with adults who love and care for their community’s children and youth. I’ve been surrounded by Black parents and advocates who have consistently, over the course of 50 plus years, been staunch advocates for other people’s children, as well as their own. You all should get to know the countless Black folks who have advocated for their own and for others, who have been the epitome of servant leadership, often, even at the sacrifice of their own children. 

Also, to make a broad statement that all teachers care about all children, belies the inherent racism, explicit biases, and macro aggressions that Black and Brown kids say they encounter daily in our schools – often as early as pre-school.

One of the most naive (ignorant) things I consistently hear from educators is that racism, oppression, and constricted, negative mindsets about Black and Brown kids magically dissipates the moment teachers, most of whom are white, are hired by districts and schools. Bullshit.

The problem with school choice is that it creates segregation. 

I have to run a few errands today, so I don’t have time to walk yaw through what actually created and continues to cement segregated cities, schools, and neighborhoods. But for starters, segregation is state sanctioned, supported, and funded. Think redlining, disinvestment, racism, gentrification, etc. Poor parents having options, ain’t it. 

Choice takes away limited resources from inclusive neighborhood schools and leads to even fewer resources being spent on our students who are most in need.

Money should follow students. Families have the sovereign right to demand quality options, expect quality schools, effective teaching and learning, and choose what they believe best fits their children’s intellectual, emotional, and cultural needs. Exercising these choices have always been standard practices for the affluent and influential. 

However, the resources people often refer to are actually for children and should follow them to wherever their parents choose to send them. It’s rare to hear people scold white folks and the privileged people of color for choosing their schools. You don’t hear the “you’re taking resources away” argument if you are white and/or affluent. Contrary to many peoples‘ abhorrent beliefs about children of color, Black and Brown children are entitled to a quality education, not just the education their parents can financially afford. 

No one believes in parental choice more than public school teachers, college professors, and politicians. They consistently exercise and access school choice as parents. And, while they complete their own children’s school applications or apply for mortgages in neighborhoods their real estate agents say have good schools, they bemoan Black and Latino parents’ fervent desires to access parental choice — in many cities, it is rare for teachers, politicians, and professors and educators to put their own children in non-gentrified neighborhood schools.

No one exercises school choice more consistently than urban teachers, educators, and politicians.  Yet these same groups of middle class folks ask, Why are these Black and Latino parents overwhelmingly supportive of more options that traditional public schools?!

Why? Could it have something to do with the outcomes for Black and Brown children in these schools? The lack of accountability for what Black students learn and are able to do ? The lack of opportunity poor students are afforded? The wanton racism and classism that exists in our schools? 

As a principal, I supported the school choice banner and practice because as an educator who grew up in Philadelphia, I knew Black and Brown parents had limited options if they were poor. I knew of my grandparents’ frustrations with the schools in the neighborhoods they raised my parents, aunts, and uncles. As the oldest son, I witnessed firsthand, my parents’ frustration with mandated, zip coded schools that because of American racism, were subpar, oppressive even, I learned a lot.

Neighborhood schools are a public good.

Politicians, teacher unions, and policy makers champion traditional public schools as a public good, but they are the ones most likely to opt out of this public good. Go figure.

As a principal, I championed great schools and blasted bad ones. When a magnet school opened in our school’s backyard a few years ago, I didn’t lament that they shouldn’t open a magnet school or that this new school shouldn’t receive support. On the contrary, I celebrated that families in West Philly would have more quality options, an increased number of strong schools, and I was absolutely thrilled that a principal I knew and admired would be leading it. 

Because I intimately know, that when politicians describe the public schools Black and Latnix children are forced to attend as democratic education and a public good, they are often nothing short of a nightmare for far too many families.

Lastly, I am noticing more educators who came into education through an alternative route to teaching, blasting alternatives to the status quo (alternative certification, charter schools, etc.) that particularly benefits poor people of color.

For example, the folks who hate Teach for America so much, are often the same people who vehemently oppose Black people having the audacity to pursue the “white only” privilege of choosing their children’s school.  

Educators, politicians, policy makers who exercise parental choice by purchasing a home in the catchment of a good school, or wait in lines for 48-hours for access to a kindergarten class, or complete applications to send their children to criteria-based/magnet schools, should never stand in the way of others exercising options and gaining access. 

Stop telling Black and Latinx children that they only deserve the education their parents can afford.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

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.

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