Civil Rights leader: There's nothing racist about parents who want school choice

Our nation is reeling from the tragic events in Charlottesville this past weekend that left three people dead. As the debate over racism in our country takes on even more urgency there's another part of the debate that's been missed.  

A half century ago, I marched for civil rights at Selma. More recently, I led a historic march for parental choice. There is no doubt both movements are fueled by the same noble impulse, to expand freedom and opportunity.

That is why the debate over whether school choice helps or hurts students of color—fueled by insensitive comments by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten comparing school choice to segregation—is compelling civil rights activists like me to speak out.

Education is the great equalizer. With a quality education, all children—regardless of income or race—have a shot at their dreams.

Some parents are lucky enough to have the resources to ensure their child gets a good education by buying a home in a good school district, paying private school tuition, or hiring a tutor. Others—a high percentage of them minority—are relegated to the schools within the arbitrary boundary of their zip code. 

We can break down the historical system of segregation and oppression by giving these parents the freedom to choose the education that gives their child the best shot at life.

Demeaning parental options and distorting the history of school choice and of public schools in order to protect the status quo is not in the best interest of students. And, this paternalistic approach to sealing a child’s fate based on their parent’s income certainly does not further racial equality.

The American Federation for Teachers has fought hard and invested millions of dollars—taken from teachers’ paychecks—trying to take down any reforms in order to protect their power.

A few years ago, their affiliate union tried and failed to put an end to Florida’s private school choice program—the largest in the country—by filing a lawsuit to end the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. More than 100,000 low-income students use these scholarships in 1,700 private schools. About 70 percent of them are black or Hispanic. Their average family income is $24,000 a year.

These scholarships have empowered parents of color to enroll their children in schools that would have been financially out of reach. As a result, private schools in Florida are more diverse than they were 15 years ago, when the program began, and more integrated than nearby public schools.

More importantly, students are succeeding. Reams of test data show scholarship recipients were the ones who struggled the most in public schools, but are now making steady progress.

Other research shows public schools aren’t hurt financially, and that public school students benefit academically from the competition. These outcomes should be highlighted, yet those who oppose options for disadvantaged kids continue to benefit from selective scrutiny.

Both the circuit court and appeals court dismissed it because the union could not provide any evidence to back claims of harm to public schools. Six months ago, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the lower court rulings.

Having failed in the courts, the American Federation of Teachers is attempting a new line of attack: painting parental choice as racist. Meanwhile, minority parents are clamoring for greater options.

The accusation by Weingarten of racism is a desperate attempt to hold on to their power. 

I am old enough to remember how Southern racists, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, tried unsuccessfully to use whites-only vouchers to dodge the court ruling. But I’ve also advocated for school choice long enough to know that that an abhorrent part of history is a one part of a much bigger, evolved picture, and that the coalition supporting educational freedom may be the most politically diverse in America today.

We must not forget the central role racism played in shaping public schools. Florida’s first elected superintendent of public schools, William N. Sheats, literally wrote segregation into our state constitution in 1885. He led efforts to shutter a faith-based private school that dared to enroll black and white students, and to arrest three white Catholic sisters for the crime of teaching black students.

Public schools have progressed since then, but unconscionable inequities persist. Black students are far more likely to be taught by novice teachers and substitutes; far more likely to be suspended for the same infractions as white students; far less likely to be enrolled in advanced classes. Given this reality, how could anyone bar black parents from seeking different options?

Last year, I had the honor of addressing 10,000 people who rallied to oppose the union lawsuit in Florida. Most attendees were parents of color. Martin Luther King III was the keynote speaker. More than 200 black and Hispanic pastors also denounced the suit. How absurd for anyone to suggest they want to return to segregated schools, or that they’ve been duped by those who do.

What they want is the same thing all parents want, including those with the means to move to white suburbs where schools are public in name only. They want the freedom to access schools that work for their children.

Rev. H.K. Matthews is a longtime civil rights leader in Florida who has worked with the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was jailed 35 times during the civil rights struggle.