Column: School choice boosts civil rights

Brandon Brice

Charter schools alone are not the answer. But school choice at least guarantees that parents are genuinely empowered to find better options for their kids.

Many assume that district public schools with their teachers unions have the ability to fix themselves, and better a situation that’s failing far too many Detroit kids. The reality is parents in poor districts don’t have many options. Perhaps the most problematic and troubling aspect of this dilemma is government being used to consistently trap poor minority students and parents, like the days of Jim Crow.

Civil rights in 2017 means living free from all discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, age, disability and socio-economic background. What can be a better example of civil rights than for parents to have the freedom and ability to send their kids to a school of their choice? Charter and other choice schools depend on parents purposely deciding to send their kids there, because they judge there to be a direct need that can be met with better quality of education than from where they left.

Far from holding minorities back, charter schools represent a new expression of educational freedom and parental involvement. Just imagine the freedom that low-income parents get to be a part of the process of selection, talking to teachers and sending their children to schools that give them a real shot at success. They become valued partners in the educational process, in their pursuit for a better life.

Sadly, too many kids are still trapped in failed schools. According to a 2010 study, more than 60 percent of black students in Detroit Public Schools were assigned to schools that were underperforming, and thus much less likely to graduate on time. Just 68 percent of black males actually completed high school in four years, compared to 92 percent of their white male counterparts. Hence, this suggest that education reform still matters—demanding bi-partisan action to fix it.

Despite a proven track record of success for many charters, some skeptics still oppose the concept of school choice and reforming public education. Far too often, these opponents that represent institutions are more concerned about their own special interests over what’s best for the kids, only looking out for adults.

Courage is needed because standing up for the civil rights of kids and families may provoke hostility from some, especially when the issue is viewed through the lens of politics and power. Martin Luther King III recently explained why he stood up for school choice. He said his father “used to say that the ultimate measure of the human being is not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience. But where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

School choice can take on many forms. In some cases, choice means opening new charters or it can mean allowing students in one public school to transfer to another, if there’s space. Lastly, choice can mean giving students in underperforming schools access to a financial scholarship or “voucher” to attend a private school.

As studies of other states’ programs have shown, educational choice is not about strengthening one kind of school at the expense of another. By empowering parents over bureaucrats, choice challenges school administrators to do better or close their doors. When parents have the ability to make decisions for their kids, it encourages parental involvement and competition. That competition leads to schools improving and finding better ways to serve the needs of children.

Brandon Brice is a nonprofit executive and consultant in Detroit.