How School Choice Turns “We” Into “Me”

John Rex Elementary Charter School
John Rex Elementary Charter School (on the right) is the newest school built in Oklahoma City Public Schools. Their collection area is narrowly defined in an a part of the city where there are few children. That makes room for downtown executives to enroll their children from all parts of the metro. Photo by Brett Dickerson

“School choice” turns the “we” of society into the “me” of taking care of my child at the expense of everyone else.

Segregation is a part of our social fabric

Acknowledging that the showcase public school systems in a suburban America had already started the process of turning “we” into “me” is the first step to recovery for public education.

Suburban developers and realtors have made billions since the early 1950s by luring white people to buy homes of marginal quality in exchange for their children moving to “good schools”, meaning schools that have no significant count of black students.

The overall message went something like this:

Here, choose this home and your child will have a better chance of success. Leave that old deep city neighborhood behind. Leave its schools and someone else’s children behind. There’s no sense in trying to reform or save them. Let it be someone else’s problem.

Choose the neighborhood and you choose the school. School choice.

So why not just another form of “school choice”? It’s a convincing argument that says that all people should be able to choose.

One more step isn’t that different, right?

So if we have been practicing de facto school choice, isn’t it just logical to go all the way and allow everyone school choice? That’s the argument, and it’s a convincing one.

It is much easier to just pick up and leave other people’s children behind than to become active, militant, and spend time reforming a school by interacting with people who aren’t necessarily like you.

And so this is a powerful argument to many people who might have been practicing “school choice” by swapping homes for years.

School choice starts with seeing someone else’s children as other. And it becomes even easier when the other-ness of a child is illustrated by the fact that they don’t look like your children or even start with the same language.

Alienation = urge to segregate

Chuck D is still my favorite rapper because he has resisted the lure of record companies’ big money to gangsterize his music instead of fighting  for the powerless, which was the true beginning of rap.

In his post-Ferguson appearance on the Tavis Smiley show last year he talks about the extreme segregation based on turning the “we” into “me”. It is a poet’s testament to the alienation that is driving many moves to further segregate America.

Suburbs started it and can end it

“School choice”, vouchers, educational savings accounts, or any other scheme to segregate American children has been made more palatable by the fact that we have had a form of school choice for years that was funded by tax money.

But, now there are suburban school districts around Oklahoma’s two large cities that have done an excellent job in recent years of embracing new students who don’t look like the old Senior class pictures of only 10 years ago.

One aspect of this is that the older suburbs that were the beneficiaries of white flight in the 1970s have matured into large, increasingly urbanized areas in their own right and now must face the realities of a diverse population that reflects the rest of America.

Perhaps it is that reality that now tempts some to want even more “school choice” in order to escape for good.

The current suburban realities of diversity present a great opportunity for fighting what we know to be a sinister move on the part of the wealthy to skim even more unaccountable tax money away from all of us for their own narrow purposes.

Next steps

If parent leaders and educators in those previously segregated districts would stand up and talk about what you have learned about inclusion in a place that once practiced exclusion, wouldn’t that be a powerful thing?

I believe it would. And it would challenge the very base of the “choice” tradition that makes the current move to institute unaccountable, tax skimming for private segregation seem so reasonable.

This is not an argument against right-now militancy to fight “school choice” measures funded by investors to open up a new “education market”.

Let’s fight measures this week that threaten to segregate our children further. But it’s not enough. The idea of voucherizing all of education so that we segregate children further will keep coming back until we embrace a true concept of what public education means.

It means embracing the “we” and resisting the urge to focus on “me”.