August 12, 2020

It’s about the Ben and Jens, not the Benjamins

Dear Dr. Helig Vasquez,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter about school choice and civil rights advocacy. Your correspondence is thought-provoking, well-conceived, and deserving of a response.

You look at school choice through the contemporary lens which views the issue in a left-to-right political continuum. You tidily knit together “the Koch brothers, ALEC, Walton Foundation, Broad, Heritage, DFER, Jeb’s FEE,” and cast them as “neoliberals.” On the other side you insinuate a unionist left which I suppose is romantically representative of an egalitarian proletariat.

This view fails for me twice.

First, the individuals and entities you lump together as “neoliberal” are distinct enough to be more carefully – and accurately – categorized. I assume the Koch brothers might be more aptly characterized as paleoconservatives, Eli Broad might be a traditionalist; Jeb Bush a corporate Republican, and so on. Arguments are stronger when they call things what they actually are rather than what we prefer them to be.

Second, there is an assumption that people of color support issues like choice through coercion or subordination to white interests, as if there is no original thought in our community that generates our own solutions. History tells a different story, but that gets lost when the frame of public education discussions are framed as a white-on-white discourse and people of color are objects of the discussion rather than participants.

Given the publish-or-perish nature of professors, and the way in which they write for each other rather than the common people, I can see how communities of color are not seen as thought leaders. But we are, and have been so for quite a while.

School choice is not new to us, in fact, some might say we invented it. The first charter school that I can find record of was established by Lucy Laney, an African American educator, in the 1880’s. Mary McCloud Bethune came out of Laney’s school, and started her own as well.

Black educators and Northern religious societies started independent schools at a time when the State would not, or could not, educate black children. That is a story which repeats itself in a consistent line from that time until now. Some credit African American legislators with conceiving and instituting publicly funded, universal education in the Reconstruction-era South. Black attorneys can be credited for the development of public school choice resulting from the school integration movement. Add to that the black conception of Freedom schools, culturally affirming private schools for black children, and black home schools.

In 1968 black psychologist Kenneth Clark articulated the need for black students to have access to schools that are “viable competitors” to the district public schools:

The author asserts that American public education suffers from “pervasive and persistent” inefficiency, particularly in the schools provided for Negro and other underprivileged children. After discussing the obstacles to “effective, nonracially constrained” education, the author proposes a strategy for providing excellent education in ghetto schools in conjunction with efforts to bring about effective school desegregation. Because the present patterns of public school organization are them-selves a principal factor in inhibiting efforts to improve the quality of education,it will be necessary, he contends, to find “realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors”to the present public schools.

In 1975 Marva Collins started a school catering to the needs of under-served black students in Chicago; in the 1990’s Bill Wilson started a successful black charter school; many black-led schools have followed extending a long tradition.

Through the lens of the black struggle for self-determination and self-sufficiency, it isn’t logical that our attachment to school choice is the result of a right-wing campaign. As stated above, we were for choice before choice was cool. It would be a mistake to assign our continued struggle to a subservient, or even misguided, position on the tails of ALEC and their associated interests. That could only be done to score rhetorical and ideological points while once again marginalizing the real story of African American thought, humanity, invention, and devotion to social progress.

Throughout all of our history we have made a practice of aligning with allies with the power to develop pathways to greater freedom, self-efficacy, and self-determination. No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Today’s white liberals – the true ones I suppose you to represent – might ask themselves where their views are falling short for people of color who demand more options. That might be preferable to simply discounting us as misguided for not seeing the superiority of their logic.

Finally, in your letter you ask a number of important questions. We would need to sit down over beers and *real* burgers to unpack each one fairly. However, I suggest that most of your questions are answered by obtaining a larger number of independent, self-determining, site-based schools.

Again, thank you for a truly productive letter.



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