Families need options: Why school choice is essential to ensuring racial equality

Lenny McAllister, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

As Americans, we pride ourselves on an inherent ability to make our own choices and manage our own lives. That self-determination is a foundational tenet of our democracy, something we guard jealously.

Except in public education.

Over the course of our nation’s history, public education has never truly been a place where everyone is empowered to manage their own lives. And this is especially true for low-income families and for Black and brown students.

In areas where schools are chronically underperforming and families have little education choice, there are also fewer living-wage jobs and the school-to-prison pipeline flows all too freely.

This is why education equity remains the civil rights issue of our time.

President Joe Biden’s vision of renewed unity among America’s diverse population can never be achieved without education equity for students of color as a cornerstone of public policy. Education is the most reliable route out of poverty and has always been a prerequisite for justice, fairness and opportunity in America.

Education equity is the bridge from where we are to where we want to be as a nation.

A student works on a computer at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Provo, Utah, on February 10, 2021.
A student works on a computer at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Provo, Utah, on February 10, 2021.

Families who have chosen to enroll their children in public charter schools deserve to know with certainty that the new administration understands, values and supports their choice. These 7,500 unique public schools educate about 3.3 million children across the USA, mostly from Black and brown families.

These children have the ability to thrive in innovative public schools that best suit their needs for life, with teachers who look more like them and curriculum that is malleable to fit diverse backgrounds and learning preferences. These schools are effective at teaching our nation’s nuanced history and developing students not only with strong academic foundations, but also with self-esteem and civic awareness.

3 educators who lead the way

The best of these schools are led by remarkable Black educators like Lagra Newman.

The founder and head of school at the Purpose Prep Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, Newman ensures that her students can look around and see people who look like them and feel pride in the high quality public education they are receiving in their own neighborhood.

Lagra Newman is the founder and head of school at the Purpose Prep Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.
Lagra Newman is the founder and head of school at the Purpose Prep Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.

At Purpose Prep, over 90% of students are Black and 75% of families qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Newman finds creative ways for her students to feel affirmed and build self-esteem, including daily chants and mantras. The school offers a “Built with a Purpose” campaign to instill the values of community and civic engagement in its students. And it puts a high premium on academic excellence, with a longer daily schedule and more days in the academic year than district schools.

Newman’s success challenges those who find public charters in conflict with the best way to educate young people, and she embraces that.

Newman is motivated by the words of the late African American scholar Lerone Bennett Jr.: “An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.”

Khadijah Williams understands what it is to fight through a system of oppression. Born into poverty, she lived homeless on Skid Row and bounced among 12 schools in 12 years as she grew up. Still, she never lost sight of education being the means to change her life’s trajectory. And neither did her mother.

Khadijah Williams is the senior education organizer at Rocketship Public Schools in Washington, D.C.
Khadijah Williams is the senior education organizer at Rocketship Public Schools in Washington, D.C.

Though she had little, her mother found bus fare for Williams to get to the city library. Williams is now a Harvard-educated school leader, the senior education organizer at Rocketship Public Schools in Washington, D.C. Her story and her witness are an inspiration to her students, who can see in her the outcomes that are possible with a high quality education.

Families deserve an opportunity to seek out a school where their children can learn from people like Newman and Williams as well as Genel Fowler. Fowler is an instructional guide and intervention coordinator at Detroit Achievement Academy, and she sees herself in her students for good reason: She grew up in the community where she now works.

Genel Fowler is an instructional guide and intervention coordinator at Detroit Achievement Academy,
Genel Fowler is an instructional guide and intervention coordinator at Detroit Achievement Academy,

She is grateful for the teacher-mentors who made a difference in her life, and she is now making a difference for others.

Recently, when one of her students moved away and was at risk of not being able to continue in the school, Fowler stepped in. She picks him up on her way to school each day and makes sure he gets home safely.

Partisan divide hurts families

More children, not fewer, should be able to experience this type of school environment and support. More families each year seek this through school choice in public education.

Yet the challenges of how to improve public education frequently devolve into partisan rhetoric. The most vulnerable are most often the victims within that most divisive dynamic.

We should not be fighting over what type of public school is available to families; we must fight to ensure all students have what they need for success. We are stronger when we recognize the value in school choice, something many parents have come to better understand and appreciate through the COVID-19 pandemic.

America needs to come to terms with this truism: No pathway for real civic equality for African Americans will exist without a permanent and unthreatened bridge of education equality connecting everyone to the promise of the American dream. Today’s push for equity must include school choice.

Lenny McAllister, an author and education activist, serves as the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why school choice is essential to achieving racial equality