Undoing racism, segregation through school choice

BY DWIGHT MONTGOMERY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR | THE HILL

Undoing racism, segregation through school choice

A new report from the Center for American Progress perpetuates the misguided notion that today’s school choice programs are synonymous with Jim Crow-era efforts to resist desegregation by providing white students with vouchers to attend private schools.

To be sure, we must not forget the troubling history of Jim Crow and the intentions of some white parents and politicians who opted to send their children to private schools rather than allow them to learn alongside black children.

But today’s school choice movement bears virtually no resemblance to these efforts more than a half-century ago. In fact, school choice is creating an integrated learning environment, thus turning these harmful policies on their head — by providing equal opportunity to a high-quality education for every child, especially the minority and low-income students who have historically been the victims of racism and inequity.

While critics of school choice liken contemporary programs to segregation academies, which sprung up in certain areas after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, today’s private school choice movement has been embraced with open arms by minority families in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

And public charter schools are allowed in 44 states plus the District of Columbia, with 3 million students enrolled, many of whom are minority, and more than a million more students on waiting lists to attend them.

Momentum is only growing for school choice programs because they level the playing field for minority students and enable parents to decide which schools will best meet the needs of their children.

Through vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and Education Savings Account programs, the vast majority of the nearly 440,000 children accessing a private school of their parents’ choice are low-income, working-class, and minority — an opportunity that most minority families during the Jim Crow era could only dream of.

And these programs are producing positive results for students. Research shows that test scoresgraduation rates and the number of students enrolled in college improve through vouchers and other forms of private school choice.

What’s more, studies show that students who participate in school choice programs end up in more integrated classrooms. Of the ten empirical studies that have explored this topic, nine found school choice programs move minority students into less segregated schools, while the remaining study found no effect in this regard.

These positive outcomes — higher achievement, greater integration, more educational options — are why school choice enjoys overwhelming support from diverse communities.

Seventy-two percent of African Americans and 75 percent of Latinos favor school choice policies, according to a poll conducted this year by the Democratic firm Beck Research.

This coalition of support is championed by minority parents, who are frustrated by a system that conscripts children to a school based on geographic proximity, regardless of its quality. School choice grants them a way out of an unfavorable situation — empowering parents to change the trajectory of their child’s education, and in turn, their future.

In Louisiana, for example, 94 percent of the state’s school choice scholarship parents report being satisfied with every aspect of the program, and 99 percent say their child feels safe in their school of choice.

Students are thriving in high-quality, less segregated schools. Parents are happy to have the ability to make decisions about their child’s education.

And yet, the education establishment continues to condemn choice and defend antiquated systems that aren’t working.

The status quo has had plenty of time and chances to make a difference, at the expense of thousands of children who have been shuffled through too many bad schools.

Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a future in which children of all races could develop their intellect and character so they could live efficiently, morally and fully in society.

This conviction compelled him as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where I am humbled to serve as the president of the Memphis Chapter, and it’s a conviction that families who are exercising school choice are living out today.

As a matter of fact, Charles Steele, Jr., national president/CEO of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says “Education is the new civil right”.

All children deserve the opportunity to receive a high-quality, life-changing education, and yet, they don’t have an association or lobbying group pushing their agenda in legislative chambers. We owe it to them to be their voice, and to support bold changes in public policy that help every child succeed – no matter where they live or the color of their skin.

There are no civil rights without choice.

Dwight Montgomery is senior pastor of Annesdale Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church and the president of the Memphis Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which advocates for civil rights and economic justice. The SCLC was founded in 1957 and Martin Luther King Jr. served as its first president.

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