It’s time to look at how ‘school choice’ is enabling racial inequality

June 12, 2020

The global protests against racial injustice and the murder of George Floyd are opening many Americans’ eyes to the ways racism and prejudice permeates American society. From calls to defund the police to honest conversations about the lack of racial diversity in most professions, more and more people are demanding change. Now, many are turning their sights on the U.S. school system and calling out white parents who’ve used the concept of “school choice” to uphold educational inequality.

As thousands marched across the country, Twitter users issued takedowns of white parents who will gladly talk to their kids about racism and show up to march in solidarity but who are still promoting segregation and racism via the school districts in their own hometowns.

The tweets may come as a surprise to parents who think school choice is only about their own child’s education and nothing more. But they highlight a real systemic issue that has a serious impact on the school landscape in the U.S.

The concept of school choice has been around since 1955, when American economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea of giving parents tax-funded vouchers to be spent on “purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice.”

As The Atlantic reported in 2012, vouchers were seen as a way to allow families to leave poorly performing schools in their area or to seek out schools based on religious affiliation, academic standards or other factors. A national voucher program never took off, but the idea behind it ultimately helped shape the current school landscape: a mix of public, private and charter schools, where parents can opt in or out of educational institutions based on needs, availability and socioeconomic status.

Advocates of school choice point to it as a means of allowing all families access to all school options, not just the public school they’re assigned to based on their place of residence. But critics say school choice privileges the affluent — particularly affluent white people, since white families generally have a higher socioeconomic status than families of other races due to disparities in income and employment — and leads to segregation in schools. Families who have the means to seek better schools are more likely to do so, leaving underfunded and underperforming schools to serve only those who don’t have the option to go elsewhere.

A 2019 report by the nonprofit EdBuild found that more than half of the nation’s children are in racially concentrated school districts, where over 75% of students are either white or nonwhite. Additionally, school districts that predominantly serve students of color received about $23 billion less in funding than majority white school districts in 2016. As the New York Times reports, kids who attend schools with less funding often have limited supplies, older textbooks and less access to computers. These schools may also lack programs for students with special needs or even struggle to maintain a full teaching staff.

Parents may justify school choice by saying they just want the best opportunities for their child. On Twitter, many responded to critical tweets by explaining why white parents opt out of certain schools.

But others noted that if affluent white parents invested in their communities and pushed for policies that better public schools for all, it could go a long way towards fixing the very problems they’re attempting to run away from.

There’s no clear solution to fixing segregation in schools. There are calls to rezone school districts to make them more diverse and to address inequalities in banking and home ownership that keep many Black and Latino families locked out of suburban neighborhoods. Others, like some California legislators, want to put limits on charter schools and push funding back into other public schools. The issue is complex, and it requires parents — especially white parents who disproportionately benefit from many current systems — to get involved rather than opting out.

As the U.S. comes together to address racism in policing, politics and every other U.S. system, all of us must be willing to ask ourselves hard questions about why we make the decisions we do and how those decisions impact other people. It’s time to work together to enact change and ensure all kids have access to the same education and opportunities.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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