Denisha Allen

American Federation for Children

When critics argue that the foundation of school choice is steeped in racism, they’re misrepresenting history – while inadvertently suggesting that Texas parents, especially from lower-income, Black backgrounds, should resign themselves to public schools that have been deficient for generations. To comprehend the racial undertones in our education system, let’s travel back to America’s early educational landscape.

In the 1600s, while White boys were navigating the corridors of formal education, enslaved Blacks faced fatal consequences for seeking knowledge. Yet, driven by an indomitable spirit, they pursued it in secret, as revealed by findings of clandestine “pit schools,” as documented by Heather Andrea Williams. In post-Civil War times, African Americans, undeterred by segregation in Texas and other states, initiated their own learning centers. They embraced the essence of a “free market” in education long before economists coined the term. The freedom of the body and the mind has always been the goal.

The Freedmen’s Bureau did offer a glimmer of hope. But as history shows, even when public schools became accessible, many Black communities opted to nurture their own educational hubs. Take, for instance, the groundbreaking partnership of Booker T. Washington, ex-slave, and Julius Rosenwald, Jewish philanthropist, in the early 1900s. Thousands of Black-run schools blossomed across the South, with Texas benefiting from their vision.

History does mark that after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, opposing tactics including the idea of White-only vouchers emerged, a shadowy side of the education system that Texas wasn’t immune to.

Black Americans have always had to fight for our freedoms. Choice has always been core to this fight.

But, the fight for educational autonomy for Black Americans wasn’t a concept born in the 1960s. It was a torch carried across generations, honoring those who knew true freedom encompassed both body and mind.

Today’s Texas confronts a form of segregation defined by ZIP codes. This modern redlining traps students in inadequate learning environments. And the results? Texas’s academic records show a troubling proficiency gap among Black students.

Taking a leaf out of Washington and Rosenwald’s playbook, shouldn’t we empower parents to select schools that genuinely cater to their children’s needs? And empower Black leaders to create those environments?

In much of today’s media narrative, school choice is painted as a policy that siphons funds from public schools, caters to the privileged, predominantly White demographic, and is purely a conservative agenda. Yet the existence of Black school founders challenges these widespread misconceptions. In 2020, we pioneered the inaugural directory of Black-founded schools. As of now, this directory boasts over 400 schools founded by Black educational entrepreneurs.

Recently, we surveyed these school founders and found that a majority of them identify as Democrats. Notably, a significant number of these respondents also mentioned their active advocacy for school choice at the state level, amplifying the voices of educators, Democrats, and people of color within the school choice discourse. The reality is that school choice transcends political boundaries.

In the vibrant tapestry of Houston’s educational legacy, the Beatrice Mayes Institute is a beacon of dedication and enduring excellence. With roots that date back to 1966, BMI proudly stands as the oldest African American school in Houston. The journey commenced with Beatrice and Thomas Mayes, seasoned educators who envisioned an institution that would furnish their community’s youth, especially African American children, with unparalleled educational opportunities.

Representative Jacey Jetton’s recent proposed bill promises a brighter horizon for educational leaders like BMI. His bill aligns with Governor Abbott’s vision of universal eligibility for school choice. This move could be transformative, especially for students attending Black-founded schools. Education freedom would help ensure pioneer educators like Beatrice and Thomas Mayes continue to benefit the next generation.

So, why do detractors of school choice often overlook or even conceal the robust endorsement of school choice policies within the Black community?

Acknowledging the fervent support for school choice within the Black community would require its critics to confront a stark truth: Their claims are grossly inaccurate.

My own educational journey underscores this reality. From being a disenchanted student in third grade to becoming the first in my family to graduate from high school, undergraduate college, and graduate school, a scholarship was my beacon. It wasn’t luck but a defining opportunity that pulled me from the failing grasp of a district school.

Too often, the status quo resorts to buzzwords like “racist” to sway opinions and rally support, rather than addressing the fact. Black Americans will not be easily swayed.

For families who have been battling for generations to secure premium education for their children, school choice represents a pivotal advancement.

Texas needs an educational renaissance, one crafted by its communities and championed by parents. It is the next step in the profound historical struggle for educational equity.

Denisha Allen is senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and Founder of Black Minds Matter, which maintains the only online directory of Black-founded schools.

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