MITCHELL: Education Choice Can Undo The Harm Of Segregation For Black Families

Shaka Mitchell Contributor
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This week Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the CHOOSE Act, making Alabama the latest state to affirm the right of parents to select the best educational option for their children via education savings accounts (ESAs). 

The program creates a $100 million fund issue that will give roughly 14,000 students across the state the ability to use $7,000 toward educational expenses outside of the conventional public school system. These ‘education savings accounts’ (ESAs) already exist in 13 other states, and more states are considering enacting similar programs this year.

The concept behind ESAs is straightforward. No single school system can meet the needs of all children in a district, even though every state has the constitutional obligation to provide for those educational needs. Given this dynamic, ESAs allow parents to use existing education funds in alternative ways that do a better job of meeting student needs. Parents can use the funds for private school tuition, tutoring, tests and other supplementation materials, and even college coursework. If all this sounds significantly different from what you remember of your own school experience, you’re not alone. 

Though the first school choice program passed with bipartisan support in Milwaukee in 1990, these programs have gained tremendous momentum in the most recent 10 years. Students across the country are no longer left with a single educational option. They can choose from a range of options: public, charter, private, religious, and more. COVID-19 only highlighted the need for a more customizable K-12 education system, especially for students of color. Interestingly, one demographic that has warmed to school choice is Black voters. Despite recent columns that assign bad motives to good public policy, national polling suggests that 73 percent of Black voters support having the ability to use tax dollars to send their children to a public or private school of best fit. 

This is especially important in a state where many public school districts desperately clung to the “separate but equal” doctrine well into the 20th century. The fact is, segregation has been exacerbated, not remedied, by the existing public school system. Consider these facts: the racial composition of Birmingham City school district compared to nearby Mountain Brook is almost exactly opposite. Birmingham City is 99 percent minority while Mountain Brook is 94 percent White. 

Far from creating an escape hatch for the remaining one percent of White students in a district like Birmingham City, the CHOOSE Act will give bona fide options to Black (and other) students who are conscripts within a school system that, according to the data, is exacerbating racial achievement gaps over time. Who would blame Black parents for seeking out new options, private or otherwise, when only one in 10 high schoolers have been taught to read at grade level? And the CHOOSE Act’s price tag of $100 million, is a mere rounding error on the $9,350,000,000 total education budget proposed by the governor. 

When opponents of educational choice questioned the motives of lawmakers and parents, they effectively lost the plot. We cannot know what rests in the hearts of every person voting in favor of educational choice programs, but it is fair to assume that the parents who avail themselves of these programs are taking proactive steps to improve the lives of their children. 

The CHOOSE Act provides an example of what it means when we consider education the most important civil right of our time. Congratulations to Alabama’s lawmakers who took steps to remedy the historical dysfunction that caused today’s segregated schools.

Shaka Mitchell is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.