Editor’s note: This commentary from Step Up For Students’ director of policy and public affairs Ron Matus appeared Friday on Real Clear Education.
If school choice is a right-wing plot to destroy public education – and we’re hearing that a lot as lawmakers across America consider choice bills this spring – somebody forgot to tell the late Rosa Parks. In the 1990s, Parks tried to start a charter school.
Four decades after her transcendent act of courage on that Montgomery bus, Parks saw black students in Detroit falling through the cracks. In an effort that won kudos from President Bill Clinton, she proposed the Rosa and Raymond Parks Academy for Self-Development. It would be a charter school under community control, dedicated to teaching “dignity with pride, courage with perseverance and power with discipline.”
The rich history of education choice is filled with stories like these involving individuals associated with the Left who pushed for greater schooling options, driven by a need for equity, opportunity, diversity, justice.
Those stories have been all but canceled, as politicians on the Left try to identify school choice with the Right and befoul it with demagogic myths that school choice is racist, that it’s a profiteers’ con, or that it’s crushing public schools. In these tragically polarized times, one big lie – that school choice sprouted from conservative ground – fuels them all.
In the early 1980s, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a champion for educational pluralism, warned against this kind of partisan warfare. Tribal politics were beginning to warp what had been, just a decade earlier, a progressive policy aim. If choice “prevails only as a conservative cause,” Moynihan said, “it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.”
This spring, Republican lawmakers in 30 states are leading the charge to create or expand educational choice. Parents of all political stripes owe them a debt of gratitude. History will look kindly on those who stood up for the rights of parents, no matter their social standing or political leaning, to control the educational destinies of their children.
Republican support obscures an inconvenient truth for those on the Left: school choice has deep roots across the political spectrum.
It’s easy to unearth those roots, from the centuries of black struggle for educational opportunity to the thinking of liberal academics who advocated vouchers in the 1960s and 1970s to the thousands of alternative schools and home-school enclaves that lean libertarian and left and bristle at anything that smacks of coercion and uniformity.
Thankfully, millions of parents see through the smokescreens. And over the past year, the pandemic has turned out to be the best de-fogger. Frustration with school closures has led more parents than ever to see the value of options.
I hope this growing appreciation for choice spurs a reshaping of the narrative. If some on the Left are experiencing cognitive dissonance as they warm to the merits of a supposedly right-wing policy, they should rest easy. Their embrace of vouchers and charter schools, and education savings accounts puts them in good company.
They’re with Wyatt Tee Walker, “Martin Luther King’s field general,” who went on to start a charter school in Harlem, and Martin Luther King III, who headlined a school choice rally in 2016 that drew 10,000 people. They’re with legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez, who championed a Chicano “freedom school” and predicted a flourishing of nontraditional schools that reflected America’s diversity. They’re with Senator Moynihan, who, in the 1970s, promoted a private school-tuition=tax credit bill that drew 50 cosponsors – 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats.
I realize my limitations as a messenger here. So let me recommend a primer from an actual expert: James Forman Jr. The Yale law professor and Pulitzer Prize winner authored a 2005 paper with a title that says it all: “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.”
Ultimately, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Academy for Self-Development didn’t happen. But it’s clear that Parks, herself the product of a private school education, saw value in having alternatives to district schools – not because she wanted to destroy them, but because she wanted more options for the kids who desperately need them.
Forget the big lie. If you stand for choice, you stand with Rosa Parks.