by Keith Jacobs
The United States has a dismal history of providing inferior education for black students. Landmark Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 sought to eradicate this incongruency in educational access. Despite these efforts, many schools continued to systematically discriminate against students of color.
This institutional racism persists today. It has transformed from denial of access based on race to denial of access based on ZIP code. In both cases, black students are forced to be products of their environment — which often lacks the tools to provide them a quality education.
Opponents of educational choice are the most flagrant offenders because they prioritize systems over students. In some instances, choice opponents use Brown v. Board of Education to justify denying black students the right to choose a school that has a predominantly black population. This is counterintuitive given that Brown fought to end forced segregation in schools.
What this landmark case also established, but is often overlooked, was that a black family should have the right to choose which educational facility is best suited for their child, regardless of any racial implications. Furthermore, if a black child has the option to attend a high-performing school in their community, it is their right to explore that option without consideration of the racial makeup of that school.
If the current education system seeks to adequately prepare all students for postsecondary education, then why are there policies that don’t reflect the higher education landscape? Would opponents of choice deny a black student access to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University because it was predominantly black?
There is a sense of pride and dignity that accompanies a black student who chooses to attend a school where most students are black. There is a sense of ownership when black students choose the educational setting that best meets their needs.
Exercising this choice means working collaboratively with the school’s stakeholders on a shared vision of cultural responsiveness. This is empowering. In addition, providing a sense of cultural identity for black students is inspiring. By removing the barriers they face in schools based on their residence, choice necessitates ownership.
We must acknowledge that there are norms within a school setting that may not align with the cultural norms in these families. Providing educational choice options for black students can encourage self-reflection, promote culturally responsive teaching and curriculum, reinforce culturally responsive school environments, and engage the community. Black students take pride in their ability to choose a school that will enhance their identity while also providing a connection to their heritage, culture, and school from the lens of their community.
In addition, the curriculum would demonstrate to black students how their life experiences are connected to the great accomplishments of present-day black role models and the heroes who came before them. Black students develop a sense of commitment, pride and hard work seeing the accomplishments of these role models, despite the barriers society has placed on them. Educational choice can provide them a cultural identity that can’t be found in many traditional settings.
I challenge educational choice opponents to reflect upon their own biases regarding how they view black children, and how they meet the social and psychological needs of these children. The social injustice of our time will be that black students were the victims of institutional racism cloaked in the promise of equal education for all. This misguided idea of equality expects black students to conform to a system that does not understand their struggles as a race. This country can never atone for centuries of inadequately educating black students, but it can begin to move in the right direction by learning from the past and preparing these students for the future, through cultural awareness and empowerment.
Black students didn’t have a choice 70 years ago. Do they have a choice now?
Keith Jacobs is manager of the Charter School Initiative for Step Up For Students.