July 13, 2020

School choice and the unlovely threat to white progressive credibility

Over the last few days I’ve collected a bit of lecturing from young non-black activists who are using their best college voices to teach me the perils of school reform. It’s always a precious encounter to have childless Twitter hipters lecture a 45 year old black man about what’s best for my children, or poor children, or children of color. I often wonder, what did we do for ourselves before these Chuck Conners wearing “Save Our Schools” types came to share their university-derived opinions about our choices.

In one exchange with a particularly pharisaical special education teacher in Chicago I asked if she could tell me her story of choosing a school for her black children.

Sadly, that ended our conversation. I’ve asked the question of others too. Still, no response.

It isn’t meant to be a rude question. I’m willing to answer it because it forms the bases for why I care about education policy.

Two factors combined inspire all of my educational activism. The first is my own unremarkable k-12 career, and the second is the fear, worry, and great aspirations I had as a young father.

During my own time in K-12 I witnessed the real disparities in schools. I gained insight, as a kid, into the obvious differences between public and private, rich and poor, safe and dangerous, and so on. This included time in a west coast hippy school, a few poor southern schools, a working class Catholic school, a middle-class Midwestern school, and an ultra-wealthy school for children of privilege.

If we all carry our own experiences (and sometimes baggage) into family decisions about education, that’s mine.

When my first son was born I had all of the normal insecurities a young first-time father might have. But the normal anxieties were accelerated by love, fear, and low income. Suddenly I cared for someone so much more than myself, and I didn’t want my own experience to be his. Specifically, I didn’t want him to work in the service industry as I had up to that point.

There was only one real way to launch him toward his God-given potential, beyond the limitations of  income, neighborhood, and demography. Education. It was my one shot at getting him on more equal footing with the children of millionaires I was working for at the time.

Now, many years later, many lessons later, and many confounding choices later, I’ve transformed from unremarkable student, to desperate father, to damn near full-time education activist. Not because my story is special. It’s not. Indeed, my story is too common.

Having seen the immense power of school choice, and the real need for parents to have options when they encounter an educational crossroads for their child, how could I be anything other than a school choice advocate?

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

You would think that white progressives would be the biggest champion of empowering poor families, especially those from historically marginalized communities, with the same opportunities they enjoy. But it isn’t so. Locked between their affectionate preference for organized labor and disorganized people of color, they will side with labor while offering contorted fantasies about  “shared” interests with the poor.

They will make the argument that what is best for labor is best for everyone, including denying school choice to families that have a life or death need for it.

Over the last year or so I’ve consistently encountered anti-reform illiberals in one form or another. The empty nesters, the Ph.d candidates, the ivory tower administrators, the unionist re-Tweeters, and of course, my favorite, the childless urban hipsters slumming in organizations paid to blackwash pro-union plantation management rhetoric.

The thing they have in common? They all forthrightly suggest that providing school choice for poor families of color is not good for the families, or public education in general.

“What about the kids they leave behind” many have asked. As if anyone in white America makes a school decision for their children based upon the “left behind” effect. If that were the case, there would be no segregated schools in the United States.

My one simple question in these exchanges is “how did you make choices for your own child”?

The answers I hear are frustrating and enlightening and full of hypocrisy.

How do we explain the fact that so many wannabe progressives who oppose school choice refuse to put their own children in the schools they want kept open for poor families?

Look at the offenses and tell me if you see a trend.

Starting at the very top, there is President Barack Obama, who enjoyed the privilege of a private college prep education. He now sends his children to private schools. Yet, his Department of Justice is moving to block school choice in Louisiana, citing its impact on integration.

That’s doubly puzzling given the fact that Eric Holder, Obama’s leader of the now anti-choice DOJ, was the beneficiary of a highly exclusive education. The son of immigrants, he attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School, a selective admissions high school that has been accused of racial bias in enrollment.

And, Diane Ravitch, a salty axe against school choice for years, says little about her parents choice for her two brothers. They went to private school when the Great American School System didn’t work out. Further, her grandchildren could have attended schools that need integrating, something she professes to be important, but instead took full advantage of residential privilege which got them into exclusive schools.

As per a 2011 Washington City Paper story, the difference between the posh school Ravitch’s grandchildren will experience is world’s apart from schools just three miles away.

A grandmother of three, Ravitch is also excited about her youngest grandson enrolling, this September, at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, one of New York’s most coveted neighborhood schools. Some 65 percent of the kids are white; 80 percent meet or exceed state standards in math, English, science, and social studies. The PTA fundraises, via PayPal and employer matching, to support supplemental programs. At P.S. 167 in Crown Heights, less than three miles away, 99 percent of students are black and Hispanic; fewer than half perform at grade-level in math and reading. There is a PTA, but it doesn’t have a PayPal-enabled website.

Then there is Matt Damon. Isn’t he precious.

He’s endeared himself to the reactionary union-first movement and is now a viral legend for his performance at “Save Our Schools” rallies.

In one speech he says the following:

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

And now?

Two years after that strong stand for public education Damon has a new tune.

Sending our kids in my family to private school was a big, big, big deal. And it was a giant family discussion. But it was a circular conversation, really, because ultimately we don’t have a choice. I mean, I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.

See how things change when one’s own children are part of the “choice” equation?

The reader might be tempted to excuse these folks because they are elites. These are people with names and status and blessings in life that elevate them. It could be easy to discount their “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” use of school choice because they are abnormally privileged.

That would miss the point. They are not unique.

Below them is a nation of left-leaning opponents of school choice who find every selective pathway for their own children, including use of the most common method, residential privilege, and for urbanites, selective magnets, open enrollment, and political advocacy for enrollment boundaries that create enclaves.

American suburbs were not built by economic development as much as school choice. The creation of ideal settings for raising children, including schools that would be protected against the “element” of socially disfavored groups, is the primary version of “school choice.” We don’t argue much about revoking that free pass, opponents just assail choice for the poor and people of color as being ideologically irreligious.

We have lots of local examples of that here in Minnesota.

Robert Panning-Miller who joyfully attacks “neoliberal” “corporatists” who want to “privatize” public education, attended Marian Catholic High School.

His kids attend a magnet school that is a haven for educators not willing to send their children to any of the public schools that need integrating.

Similarly, teachers in Panning-Miller’s anti-reform activist circle share his difference between walk and talk. Some have no children at all but love to get all preachy about what is best for our kids. Those with kids have chosen private schools, magnet schools, and out-of-district schools.

Most have chosen the whitest possible option instead of schools that desperately need to be integrated.

To be clear, it isn’t just white progressives.

Even some people of color who have benefited from choice are willing to join the door-closing efforts of anti-choice activism.

Example: Julian Helig Vasquez, a Ravichian academic who conducts studies to discount school choice, benefited from a private high school education. Now he sides with white progressives, even to the point of attacking elders in the black community like Howard Fuller who support school choice as part of their long view of civil rights.

That reminds me of people of color who benefited from affirmative action, only to later denounce it as bad for black people.

All of this should make us mindful of the famous quote from John Dewey:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

The reflection every merciful and generous person must attend to is one that rejects any political ideology that assigns the poorest and neediest families and children to stations with the fewest options, thus, imperiling our self-conceptions of justice and democracy.

Ironically, nobody needs that reflection more than white progressives who profess one thing for us, while enjoying something very different for their kids.

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