‘School choice’ is a dog whistle for resegregation

Congratulations to Cindy Marten. San Diego Unified School District’s superintendent has been tapped to become the next deputy U.S. education secretary.

Under Marten, San Diego Unified was one of two large urban districts nationwide in 2019 to outperform average test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders. The district’s Black and Latino students also graduated at higher rates than the state average.

Meanwhile, Iowa is headed in the other direction. Like, really far in the other direction.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a bevy of so-called “school choice” reforms to the state’s education system.

What you’d expect is included. Private school vouchers. More funding for privately operated charter schools.

But most striking is a change that would allow students to transfer out of schools that have a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.

Higher-income families (read: well-to-do white families) would be able to remove their kids from schools that educate predominantly lower-income students (read: Black and immigrant families in cities like Des Moines).

In other words, the resegregation of public schools.

No wonder so many right-wing politicians and pundits are gung-ho about vouchers and charter schools. As historian Steve Suitts has documented, “school choice” rhetoric and policies harken back to the racist segregationists of the mid-twentieth century.

Like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who coordinated with the Ku Klux Klan while cloaking his white supremacist beliefs in arguments for “freedom of choice” in schools.

In Iowa, they aren’t even hiding the resemblance. “Really it’s about parental choice,” said state Republican Rep. John Wills about the proposal. “Giving the parents a choice to allow their children to move to a different school or one that fits their child in a better way, and the schools right now are really prohibiting that.”

That sounds right out of the 1950s, when southern state legislatures enacted hundreds of laws attempting to avoid school integration. Which included redirecting public dollars to benefit private schools.

Of course every child should have access to a great education. Especially those from communities that have been historically underserved.

But privatization isn’t the answer. If anything, it only makes things worse.

Just one example: A recent study found that white students in North Carolina are leaving traditional, neighborhood public schools for charter schools that are whiter than the schools they leave behind.

The answer is a Marshall Plan-level of investment aimed at education justice. One that fully resources all schools—especially those in low-income areas. We must also pay teachers what they deserve, divest from the school-to-prison pipeline, and invest in community schools.

Get this. Between 2005 and 2017, the federal government neglected to spend $580 billion it was supposed to on students from poor families and students with disabilities. Seventeen states actually send more education dollars to wealthier districts than to high-poverty ones. Over 1.5 million students attend a school that has a law enforcement officer, but no school counselor.

How about we fix those things? “School choice” is at best a distraction. At worst, it’s resegregation.

We shouldn’t have to be fighting these same old battles in 2021. But here we are.

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