What School Choice Means For Black Students In 2024

School Choice Week aims to help parents explore options, but it sparks concerns about funding and equity. (Pexels photo by Roman Odintsov)

by Aziah Siid

With school districts and states busy banning books, restricting the teaching of Black history, and punishing Black children for what the hair growing out of their heads looks like, parents and guardians may increasingly be asking themselves one question: Is this the best place for my child to learn and develop — or is there a different educational option? 

Helping parents answer that question is the stated goal of National School Choice Week, the annual observance that, according to its website, promotes “the process of allowing every family to choose the K-12 educational options that best fit their children.” Schooling options include all forms of education, from traditional public schools to public charter schoolspublic magnet schoolsprivate schoolsonline academiesmicro-schools, and homeschooling

“The reason we’re having this conversation is because traditional schools are poorly designed,” Garrett Smiley, co-founder and CEO of Sora Schools, an innovative virtual private middle school and high school, tells Word In Black. 

Smiley created Sora Schools — 11% of students are Black —  in 2019 before the pandemic hit, forcing many of the nation’s K-12 schools to adopt some form of distance learning. The school is open to students from across the country, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. 

But the conversation around School Choice Week is full of controversy, with Black parents in the middle, trying to figure out what’s best for their kids. Supporters believe school choice lets parents tailor education to the unique needs of their kids. In contrast, opponents believe it’s a back-door way to drain funds from public schools into private or charter schools at the expense of parents for whom public school is the only option. 

The Roots of School Choice

Jose Vilson, executive director of EduColor, a national nonprofit dedicated to race and social justice issues in education, says school choice was initially intended to positively serve communities — like lower-income students. Over time, however, the vision for creating these opportunities for students has changed into something that may not be as beneficial as it appears on the surface. 

“Generally, it’s supposed to mean students are supposed to have a plethora of choices of which schools they can go to depending on any number of factors,” Vilson explains. “It evolved — over the last 30-odd years, I’d say — into a way to privatize a public institution and provide false choice.” 

The modern school choice movement began in 1990 with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, led by Black superintendent and education reformer Howard Fuller. The program came about from decades of Black parents and activists pushing back against the segregated, under-resourced schools their children were forced to attend due to school zoning rules. To give these children the opportunity to have an excellent education, Milwaukee’s program took public funds to pay for private schooling.

“I’ve always seen school choice from a social justice framework as opposed to a free market framework,” Fuller said in a 2019 interview with Jon Hale, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

As Hale wrote, however, “The Republican Party seized on the new voucher plan and pushed it through the state legislature. Ever since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, the Republican Party has increasingly aligned itself with school privatization efforts through vouchers and ‘freedom of choice’ plans.”

Fuller drew plenty of criticism for agreeing with Republicans on school choice, but what does the data show result-wise? 

Test Scores and Graduation Rates

Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, was one of the evaluators of Milwaukee’s voucher program from 2005 to 2010. He wrote in 2022 in the Hechinger Report that the “evaluation tracked more than 2,500 voucher kids alongside 2,500 carefully matched public school kids. After five years, we found very little difference on test scores between the two groups.”

Cowen wrote that these results came out at the same time that poor test scores for students participating in Louisiana’s voucher program post-Hurricane Katrina came out — and several other studies since have demonstrated the same disappointing result.

On the flip side, Patrick J. Wolf, a distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, wrote in a 2021 op-ed for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that “The 19 most rigorous scientific studies of private school-choice programs find that they tend to have positive effects on student achievement, especially several years after students have entered a private school of their parents’ choosing. The evidence is even stronger that choice programs increase the chances of a student graduating from high school, attending college, and receiving a college degree.” 

Wolf also wrote that private school choice programs reduce the likelihood that a student “will commit crimes or be a party to a paternity suit.

Both Vilson and Smiley say that ultimately, when selecting a school that’s best for your child, test scores and graduation rates shouldn’t be the sole determinants. How the school makes the student feel matters as well.

“A child went to a charter school that was very popular, a really smart child, but unfortunately, his teachers found him too hyperactive, and so he found himself in detention frequently in this charter school,” Vilson says. “He moved to a school that may not have been as prestigious per se, in the way the charter school was, but he seems to be  a whole lot happier, and it’s reflected in his grades.” 

Costs and Lotteries

Public charter schools are usually tuition-free. However, choice may come with an out-of-pocket price tag for families if they go for a private education. Tuition at the online school Soras is $12,500 per year, but 47% of families participate in the Flexible Tuition program and pay $6,000 annually on average. The lowest income families pay a maximum of $3,600.

“We always have had a flexible tuition program. We receive no money from the government. This is really just taken out of our operating budget,” Smiley says. He also says the introduction of Education Savings Accounts, particularly in Southern states, made the option of attending schools like Sora a reality for students coming from lower-income households. 

“These vouchers that folks can apply to private school — it’s really unlocking a totally different type of family,” Smiley says. “Families who don’t have a ton of resources and don’t have the ability otherwise to come to independent schools, but they recognize that their situation is not good, and now they’ve been given this power from their state government to go shopping,” Smiley says. 

But before securing the money to pay for a school, some parents have to worry about getting their students into a school to begin with. 

“It’s hard, but the public option is probably easier in many ways because there’s not this element of a lottery,” Vilson says. “When you enroll your child in a public school, you’re guaranteed a seat, as opposed to charters, there is this lottery element, and if they get in parents are happy.  

Academic and Cultural Excellence

Sora Schools offers over 100 classes — or expeditions as they call them — for families to pick from, ranging from learning about banned books to the history of fashion.

“Our corridor academic model is offering kids hundreds of different learning options every six weeks, and they only need to choose two or three of them,” Smiley says. 

Students typically work closely with advisors who are assigned to 10 to 15 students. They consult about their academic goals, schedules, and more.

“If there were folks who truly wanted to build an Afrocentric type school, usually what I’ve seen is they make it into a charter or independent school,” Vilson says. “It’s more about trying to create an environment that’s sustainable for students in impoverished environments, particularly those who are most marginalized racially.”  

And as Hale wrote, from his conversations with Fuller, he came to understand the legendary education reformer “believes ‘mom and pop’ charter schools are more emblematic of the long history of the Black freedom struggle than schools proposed by national charter school networks, as these grassroots schools are more often driven by the demands of historically marginalized communities.” 

Overall, says Vilson, the focus should be on how “to ensure you have an environment that’s sustainable for children who live in poverty,” regardless of the educational model.