Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote, "“Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote about Betsy DeVos and the African-American roots of school choice, “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Long before anybody used the term “school choice,” black communities were striving for it, often by any means necessary. Which is why black parents, though overwhelmingly Democratic by party registration, are likely to find their views on educational options to be more in line with Betsy Devos, the Republican nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, than the white progressives trying to derail her. Crazy times.

I’m not black, and I’m not a historian. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that fighting for educational freedom has been at the heart of the black experience in America. And yet, somehow, that epic struggle is overlooked in these polarizing fights over school choice – which is a shame, given the possibility it might make the fights less polarizing.

If I were king, I’d make white progressives read Yale Professor James Forman and listen to choice advocate Howard Fuller. In the meantime, if their tribal impulses are getting revved up over Betsy DeVos – and I know from my facebook feed they are 🙂 — I’ll have the audacity to hope they check out this recent piece in The Atlantic, “The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform.”

The author, College of Charleston Professor Jon N. Hale, offers a brief, nuanced look at choice through the lens of black history. That history isn’t always flattering to the choice “side.” Segregation academies, for example, did happen in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. (Choice supporters have acknowledged that past, and noted how it differs from the ideals that spur today’s choice movement.) But that stain is a small part of a bigger story, in which private schools have been essential to black progress.

Writes Hale:

American history clearly demonstrates that communities of color have been forced to rely upon themselves to provide an education to as many students as possible. Students of color have rarely been provided a quality public education. As James Anderson demonstrated in Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, black communities consistently had to provide their own schools by taxing themselves beyond what the law required, as white officials never appropriated public money equitably by race. Black civic leaders and educators had to forge alliances with philanthropists and “progressive” whites for further financial support.

Barred from the American social order, black educators, in effect, were forced to rely upon private means to meet the educational needs of their own children. African Americans established schools controlled by the community. Such “community-controlled schools” were by necessity administered by African Americans, taught by African Americans, and attended by African Americans.

Hale sums it up this way: “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

The Atlantic piece mentions a few examples. We’ve explored others, including some that show how central faith was to many of these efforts.

Mary McLeod Bethune started a private school for black girls in Daytona because public schools for black students were beyond bad. The father of Florida’s public education system relentlessly attacked the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School, a school founded by missionaries, because it dared teach black and white students together. Some 5,000 black communities across the South, like this one in Central Florida, used their own money and resources, and a little help from a white philanthropist, to build their own beloved, community schools – schools whose substantial upsides were overlooked in the transition to racial integration.

The evidence suggests the pressing need to use “private means to create a public good” didn’t end with desegregation. That’s why legendary teacher Marva Collins started a private school in the 1970s; why BAEO formed at the dawn of the millennium; and why so many black parents (like this one, and this one, and this one) spoke up when a lawsuit, filed in 2014, threatened the largest private school choice program in America. (It ended well.)

It remains to be seen how much DeVos has in common with black parents (or any parents) on testing, civil rights enforcement and other education issues. I don’t see strong signs a DeVos-led department, but for an increased emphasis on school choice, will be that different from the reform-minded departments under the past two presidents. But when it comes to choice, I think parents of color in particular will appreciate her vision. She has sided with groups like BAEO on the appropriate level of regulation for vouchers and tax credit scholarships, and she’s consistently used her clout to promote programs that favor disadvantaged students.

Given the history, using the term “privatization” as a weapon doesn’t make sense. It obscures the real motivation of school choice advocates, which is the intent. But it also erases growing numbers of black parents who are flocking to charter and private schools, and growing numbers of black educators who are working in and/or creating them.

As Hale puts it, panning out to the future:

In the hands of families who need a quality education, privately operated schools wouldn’t be charter schools or private schools, but community-controlled schools that connect to a longer history of self-determination.

It’s ironic that many white progressives don’t see that, but a conservative white billionaire does. Crazy times.

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