As I reflect on National School Choice Week, I’m reminded just how old I’m getting. This year, any advocacy I engage will mark 20 years of unrelenting support for and promotion of school choice as a means to empower our most disadvantaged families, with a particular focus on students of color.
I can still remember vividly when I was first introduced to school choice back in 1998. A junior in college, while writing for The Indianapolis Recorder, the nations 3rd oldest African-American newspaper, I was invited to participate in fact-finding trips to see voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. I remember as a result asking myself, rather naïvely, how in the world could someone oppose parents picking the best schools for their children? How could one possibly oppose moving poor black youth from historically failing schools in dilapidated buildings to better performing private schools to level the playing field. After all, many of these schools were the same school those with affluence attended.
Little did I realize that such a position would be met with branding as a traitorous, anti-public education sellout (as a Black man, the last one still stings a bit). Still, through the vitriol, I never could get past that most basic premise. Who among us operate better when forced into less than ideal situations for no other reason than where we live or how much money we have?
Today, the dialogue of school choice is markedly different. Nowadays, advocates of choice can celebrate success, at the very least in the discussion is less about choice per se, and more about the quality of the choices available to youth in greatest need.
This movement has taken on a much different tone due to the introduction and robust acceleration of various options over the past decades. In some cases, it has been supported by those that only a few years ago, wouldn’t come close to support it given the politically contentious ramifications.
Still, that fundamental idea remains. Simply, in the greatest nation on earth, all its youth, regardless of race, economic status of geography should have access to the best available education option.
Despite the progression choice advocates can proudly celebrate, to truly claim victory would be just as naïve as that 21 year-old journalist full of idealism that viewed school choice singularly as a means to save our communities. Black children continue to lag behind their peers academically, as too many are bearing the brunt of generational poverty at a time where they should be planning for the greatness that lies within them. Too many of our boys are still as or more likely to fall victim to the ravages of incarceration and violence than they are to reach for the stars. Black fathers remain largely too absent not only from the broader discussions on augmenting choice with critical supports where students lack them, but from being a presence at the schools at all.
For these reasons, advocacy as servants of this movement, be it as parents, teachers, school leaders, board members, support staff or volunteers, remains as critical today as it was before the introduction of the first charter school, tax credit or voucher.
Twenty years later, my son now benefits from the same principle I believed fundamentally way back when. Today, my son attends the best public school his mom and I could choose, based on his personality, skill sets and the school’s track record of excellence. Today, I still believe all deserve that freedom though all do not have it.
And so this week serves a reminder that the struggle continues...