Dissatisfaction with schools was a clear message this past election in Virginia. Parents want more control over what is being taught in schools. We saw various stories in print, tv, and social media from parents upset about the treatment of their children. What we didn’t see were the stories of Black parents and the treatment of Black students in schools.
Personal experience and professional data says Black students have bad experiences in Virginia schools. Literacy and math rates for Black students fall behind White and Asian students. Black students make up 20% of students enrolled in Virginia public schools, however they make up 50% of all suspensions. Black students have low enrollment in gifted and AP courses. Some call this the achievement gap, however, it is more an “opportunity gap” because some schools don’t afford Black children the same options and access as others. School choice can be a chance for Black families to have schools that are safe spaces for their children while also closing the opportunity gap.
There is plenty of opposition to school choice in Virginia. Some argue that school choice has roots in segregation. This is true, however, public schools are just as segregated today as they were before the Brown vs Board of Education ruling. The difference is that redlining, inequitable school funding formulas, and punitive education policies provide white and middle class families with fully funded schools. Many of these schools offer an abundance of resources and opportunities. Opportunities that families who live in poorer and predominantly black zip codes are denied.
School choice opponents also say that school choice leaves behind Black families who deserve quality education. Traditional schooling in Virginia leaves Black families, especially poor ones, behind everyday. This argument also ignores the reality that Virginia has public school choice for middle class and upper middle class parents. They have magnet, specialty, and governor’s schools with admissions policies that eliminate most poor and usually Black students.. School choice gives all Black tax paying families a voice in the future of educating their children.
For Black parents, school choice can be an opportunity for their child to attend a school where they are culturally affirmed and not over policed or over disciplined. An opportunity to attend a school where high expectations are the norm and not the exception and where books, stories, values, and cultural norms uplift and inspire all children. Schools where the teachers and administrators are mirrors and role models of excellence, schools where true multiculturalism is valued. There are some dynamic neighborhood non profit charter schools around the nation who serve predominantly Black students such as Gestalt Community Schools in Memphis, Urban Prep in Illinois, Purpose Prep in Nashville, Friendship Public Charter in Washington DC, and the Ipromise Academy in Akron.
I recently had a conversation with a former student. She and her husband are working two jobs each to afford private school because the schools in their neighborhood are underfunded and under-resourced. The family is working twice as hard as other families to provide a quality education that other children who live in wealthier zip codes already receive. People often say no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. That same philosophy should apply to education. No parent should work 40 hours a week, pay taxes, and be forced to send their children to crumbling schools with low literacy and graduation rates.
I am not against traditional schooling. I am the product of those schools and I work every day to make them better for all children. However, we have to understand that traditional schooling and systems do not serve all students well and the turnaround of struggling schools can take years to happen. Parents have a short window of time to put their children on a solid path to success and don’t have years to wait for organizational and structural change.
I welcome the opportunity to have school choice in Virginia but it must be inclusive of Black and Brown families and their experiences. They must have a seat at the table along with Black and Brown teachers and school administrators. I have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Those interests are what’s best for students, particularly Black and Brown students who allow me the privilege of serving them every day. Our families can’t afford for us to get school choice wrong.