What White Liberals Need to Know About African-Americans and School Choice

Politically, I’ve never been a supporter of charter schools or vouchers. It has always seemed important to me that we do whatever is necessary to make public education work for every child in this country. I fear what happens to the most vulnerable students left behind when we start giving some kids a way out.

For many years, however, I worked with colleagues who were African-American parents and had a different perspective, which led to some impassioned discussions. They would cite data showing that public schools are actually working to educate middle and upper class white students, while failing their children. That view was articulated very succinctly by Shadija Maddox, mother of 10-year-old Aniyah, who attends a charter school in Washington, D.C.

In a perfect world, Maddox said she would send both her children to public schools in Ward 8. But the reality is, with her oldest daughter already 10, she doesn’t have time to wait.

“The public schools in D.C. didn’t just start failing,” she said. “They’ve been failing for some time.”

Some polls have shown that as many as 82 percent of African-American parents with school-aged children support charter schools, an issue that is being hotly debated in that community. Geoffrey Canada, founder of the charter school known as Promise Academy in Harlem, echoed Ms. Maddox about the fact that public schools have been failing their children for decades and described the urgent need for innovation. That is exactly the kind of argument I heard from my work colleagues, who said that they can’t afford to wait any longer for us to get our act together when it comes to educating their children in public schools.

Ed Kilgore is probably right that Sen. Cory Booker’s support for charter schools could cause problems for his presidential candidacy. He notes that “the growing militancy of teachers unions and their tendency to make uncontrolled growth of charter schools a primary issue means Booker won’t be able to dodge or finesse the issue much longer.”

But it is important to keep in mind that Booker supported charter schools and school choice alternatives while mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a city where people of color make up almost 75 percent of the population (52 percent African-American) and where one third of the residents live in poverty. While perhaps not aligned with white liberals, Booker’s position was very much a reflection of the people he served in Newark.

We can point the finger at Booker and suggest that he was out of line with Democratic Party priorities. But the better course would be for white liberals to start listening to African-American families and embrace a sense of urgency about the need for innovation and reform in education.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.