the Black Alliance for Educational Options misleading Black
and Other White Lies
By Makani N. Themba
SeeingBlack.com Political Editor
about it! To respond to this article, click here.
After nearly a half-century since the landmark Brown vs. Board
of Education decision that legally banned racially separate
and unequal education, conservatives are taking a strong interest
in Black folk and public schools. A high profile, big-ticket ad
campaign is pushing the idea of school vouchers in the African American
community. The adsand their backersare part of the complex
relationship of school reform to race.
The television ads are numerous, plaintive and compelling. Black
folk. Regular. Sincere. Speaking directly into the camera about
their aspirations for their children's education and lives. Given
prevailing stereotypes of apathy and neglect, the spots, which also
are heard on radio, would be a welcome respite from such standard
portrayals of Blacks in education. In fact, the ads sponsored by
the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) deftly switch
the focus from the typical "unteachable kids" frame to one that
squarely blames dysfunctional schools.
The campaign would be right on target if it weren't for the group's
solution. School vouchers. Called "choice" by conservatives, (like
BAEO founder Howard Fuller and much of the group's funders) the
difference between the "choice" movement and authentic school reform
is the difference between abandonment and accountability. Vouchers
are especially troublesome. They enable parents to withdraw public
education dollars and spend them where they choose (usually at private
schools). It is the ultimate breach in the social contract: Taxpayers
are no longer a community unit committed to the maintenance of public
education for all. They are individual consumers out for the best
Conservative groups are quick to downplay the role of funding in
school quality. A case in point: one BAEO press release (to be filed
under what were they smoking?) touts research that "finds"
it's choicenot books, good teachers, etc., that advances Black
education. Considering that the only choice that matters is choosing
a better school over a struggling school, the underlying problem
with the "choice" movement is clear. There shouldn't be any bad
schools in the first place. The fact that the bad schools are concentrated
in our communities should move us to fight the entire systemnot
a better place within it. But that would show concern for Black
folk generally which is clearly not what BAEO or its funders (right
wing stalwarts Bradley and Friedman Foundations among them) are
That is not to deny that many schools are in trouble. They certainly
are but the answer lies in wholesale reform, not in a few of us
taking the money and running. However, these groups are not interested
in real reform because it costs money; money that some schools don't
have and that others would rather invest outside of the classroom
in metal detectors, security and the like. Even in the city of San
Francisco, progressive in comparison to most districts, the district
spends more money on police than school nurses.
Clearly, money matters. Who gets it and for what purpose is at
the heart of the education debate. They are decisions that have
been fraught with racism, controversy and even intrigue for centuries.
And school vouchers are no different. In fact, the same interests
that are behind these ads are the same interests that have opposed
quality education for Black people for many years.
The Roots of Black-White Inequality
The truth is, inequitable funding and the resulting low quality
schools are yet another broken promise of Reconstruction. Black
families were considered illegal less than a century and a half
ago and were allowed no autonomy or authority as a fact of slavery.
As "emancipated" men and women, we were promised access to the nation's
"great equalizer," public education, as part of the tremendous debt
owed us. In fact, the debt concerning education is a literal one.
It was common practice for enslaved and (post slavery) "indentured"
children to be "loaned" out for service as apprentices in exchange
for cash to support the private school tuition of their "owner's"
children. In other words, White children of the gentry, for at least
three centuries, were educated as a direct result of the deprivation
of education (and wages) of Black children.
Of course, what rights "free blacks" acquired through Reconstruction
were hotly contested, and the right to quality education was an
important part of the struggle. In fact, African Americans led the
fight for free public schools that were accessible to all. After
more than a century of sit-ins, protests, lawsuits and more, the
courts have slowly made it clear that quality education is indeed
a right and schools are to be equitably funded, accessible and non-discriminatory.
Given the incredible amount of resources that were segregated to
benefit Whites, many thought that only racial integration would
force the equitable division of resources at the school level which
gave rise to court cases like Brown. In many of the districts
finally forced to cooperate with these court decisions, Whites rebelled
by moving out of cities with any significant Black population thereby
starting the march toward sprawl and sub-urbanity. They even started
their own private schools to avoid campus contact with blacks. This
was the beginning of the "choice" movement.
A Movement Born of Fear
In 1966, at six years old, I was one of six Black children asked
to participate in a busing "experiment" that would "integrate" an
all-White elementary school in the Queens section of New York City.
Far above the Mason-Dixon Line, my parents thought I would be safe
from the savage anti-integration sentiment they saw in Little Rock,
Arkansas or Jackson, Mississippi.
Boy, were they wrong.
Everyday, the six of us would anxiously touch hands as we took
the early morning ride from the community of Hollis in the southern
area of the borough north to the community of Little Neck. Hollis
was a newly Black and middle class community back thenmade
newly Black by the hurried panic of Whites moving to places like
Little Neck. There they thought they'd be "safe." Our coming made
them feel unsafe. And we were not prepared for the incredible violence
and hatred they would subject us to as a result.
Teachers, students, and parents taunted us constantly. Students
were given special dispensation not to hold our hands or in any
way have contact. After a day of abuse in school, we would leave
school as we entereddodging rocks and epithets. The rocks
never hit anyone. The epithets did. They hit and burrowed deep into
our children souls. And there they stayed. Like tumors. Like acid.
This is how the "choice" movement beganwith the rock throwers
and the naysayers. It was and is a movement rooted in fear. Aided
by millions in funding from conservative think tanks and public
relations firms, today's "choice" has a much slicker image. And,
as a result, it is attracting diverse faces with its focus group
tested promises of community control.
Looking back, it's a fascinating transition. Just a century ago,
these same interests were working to ban private schooling and make
public schools mandatory. They introduced state laws designed to
outlaw Catholic Schools (for the Irish), and Hebrew Schools and
German schools organized by the many immigrant families trying to
hold on to their heritage on these shores. The Ku Klux Klan was
a major advocate of these mandatory public school attendance laws.
They were concerned that children in private schools would be taught
"foreign values" that would pose a threat to the "American way of
With the advent of school integration, it is now public schools
that "threaten" their way of life. Fear of attending school with
people of color, concerns over sex education and multicultural curricula
are driving white families to private schools or home schooling.
Vouchers, privatization and private all-white academies have provided
powerful vehicles for white flight.
In order to keep white families in public schools, a whole new
set of policies and programs were erected within school districts.
Tracking, magnet schools and in-school academies became more widespread.
These programs' stated purpose was to enable students to work at
their own level. They were based on assumptions of fixed intellectual
capacity meaning that once students were "proven" to belong in a
"lower" track, that's where most were kept (without review) throughout
their K-12 career.
A recent study by the Applied Research Center (No Exit? Testing,
Tracking, and Students of Color in U.S. Public Schools, http://www.arc.org),
found that tracking is most common in schools with "significant
numbers of African American and/or Latino students." Further, white
students regardless of test scores, grades or behavior were much
more likely to be placed in "higher tracks" or academic programs.
Students of colorespecially African Americans and Latinoswere
more likely to be placed in "lower" tracks. Academic programs became
"mainly white" set asides, creating separate and unequal schools
within a local district or even within a single school.
The right abandoned schools where they could not control the resources
and composition. And like their earlier efforts to destroy private
schools that were inconsistent with their agenda, conservatives
have wrapped their plan to shift resources out of public schools
in the American flag. These conservative groups are not committed
to fairness or even to preserving options where parents can choose
from a variety of quality educational institutions. They are seeking
to concentrate resources at their schoolsjust like the days
of Jim Crow. Perhaps the best example of the choice movement's unabashed
commitment to white privilege is found in their efforts at the post-secondary
As high paying, factory jobs of the industrial economy disappear,
a college education is now critical to life without poverty. As
a result, college admissionsspecially at the graduate level,
have become highly contested terrain. There have been a number of
lawsuits and policies at both the state and federal level designed
to limit minority access to college (especially graduate school)
and expand access for Whites. Special outreach measures like affirmative
action have been under attack in several lawsuits. In the state
of California, a statewide ballot measure was passed that greatly
curtailed the ability of institutions to consider racial diversity
as part of their hiring and admissions criteria.
By contrast, Whites are suing for race conscious admissions to
gain unprecedented access to Historically Black Colleges and Universities
(HBCUs) so that they have expanded options for college educationespecially
at the graduate level. For example, Alabama State University is
currently operating under an integration order that requires that
they set aside nearly 40% of their academic grants budget for scholarships
to Whites. The state augments the university's $229,000 contribution
with public funds bringing the "Whites only" scholarship fund to
a million dollars a year. There are few eligibility requirements.
A student must be White and have earned at least a C average. African
Americans vying for admission to the university must earn almost
a full point higher to even merit consideration. In fact, as a C
average is just slightly above the minimum required to pass a class,
White scholarships are the only academic scholarships for entry
at the university level with such low requirements.
Aside from the irony of such a policy that cuts off African Americans
from institutions established to help address the deep inequalities
of slavery and its aftermath, there are no accompanying requirements
for Historically White Colleges and Universities. On the contrary,
such efforts to integrate white institutions from Harvard to the
University of Texas have been under attack. Despite the fact that
many colleges across this country are overwhelmingly white with
little diversity, there are no mandates, no timelines, not even
laws or policies requiring integration at these institutions
at any level.
Back To the Future
After centuries of fighting for equal education, more and more
African Americans are understandably weary. For those who can afford
to augment vouchers and get their kids into a great private school,
it might sound like a good idea. But for the rest of us, vouchers
undermine the ability of African American kids to get an education
at all because they further defund the schools where our kids are.
It's a policy that also diverts resources and responsibility from
the government and moves it all to the market. There, it's all about
the Benjamins without any mechanisms for accountability. Those that
"have" will get an education, those that don't will be on the fast
track to prisonthanks to right wing sponsored policies (many
of which were spearheaded by BAEO funders) that increasingly criminalize
our young people.
In the days of the historic Brown case, many Black people
put their lives on the line in the fight for quality education for
all. This was the real choice movement. It wasn't about slick
ad campaigns. It was a movement that took place in the basements
of churches and at the kitchen tables of mamas and grandmas who
cared deeply for all their community's children. The new choice
movement, with its clandestine commitment to advancing white privilege
and its crass consumer approach to education, is little more than
a betrayal to this legacy. And a high priced one at that.
-- May 17, 2001
Some web resources to check out if you are interested in school
2001-05 Seeing Black, Inc. All Rights Reserved.