I grew up poor and white in the American South in the 1980’s. My dad pastored numerous small rural churches in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. We moved on average every 3-4 years throughout my childhood. In December of 1991, we moved from Star City, Arkansas, population 2,000, to Nashville, Tennessee, where I began the second half of my freshman year at Hillsboro Comprehensive High School, enrollment approximately 1,200. At high school graduation, I was the product of four public school districts in three different states.
Through every transition, we consistently lived well below the poverty line. When we first moved to Tennessee, we lived in two upstairs bedrooms in an upscale Nashville neighborhood where my mother was the caretaker of a wealthy elderly widow. That unique arrangement completed my paper fortune teller “M.A.S.H.” experience of living in a Mansion, Apartment, Shack, and House (we also lived in multiple mobile homes growing up).
“School Choice” was something not many people talked about in the 80’s and early 90’s. Every time we moved, I would enroll in the local public school. That was all we knew. Given that church was not a weekend activity but a way of life for my family, it seems very possible that my parents would have chosen a private Christian education for me and my sisters if such an education became geographically and financially available to us. At the same time, we were generally happy with and felt connected to our local public school. At times, my parents were both employed within the public school system. And our poverty was never something that hindered my parents’ involvement in my education.
Today, school choice proponents love to claim that vouchers and educational savings accounts are designed to primarily benefit families of color who are “stuck in failing urban schools.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true, however, that some families of color do seek out school choice policies in search of better perceived educational opportunities. Furthermore, I have written elsewhere that public school advocates should tread lightly, particularly when criticizing communities of color seeking charter opportunities.
On the whole, however, school choice is a movement by and for white people. There are two distinct classes of white people in the school choice movement: the architects and the sleepers.
The architects are white men in power suits at right wing think tanks like the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. The architects are white legislators who tweak the same failed school choice bills year after year. The architects are emboldened suburban white parents who live for retweets from national school choice peddlers like Corey DeAngelis. The architects are those who stand to cash in the most on school choice policies, middle class and wealthy white families who already have their children enrolled in private schools. School choice was and always will be entirely about advancing the interests of the architects.
School Choice is a movement by and for white people.
The second class of white people in the school choice movement are families exactly like mine growing up. The sleepers are those white folks whose existence allows the architects to sleep at night. The architects find comfort in knowing their interests align with poor white parents who, if given the opportunity, would have the time and privilege of navigating the complications of accessing education savings accounts. The architects don’t truly want better education opportunities for communities of color. The architects of school choice are pleased to freely share the benefits with poor evangelical white families and are willing to tolerate the benefits that trickle down to a chosen few families of color.
Unfortunately for the architects, so many of the sleepers live in rural areas where the local public school is the center of community life. Currently in Oklahoma, rural schools are rallying against a renewed push for school choice policies in the Oklahoma legislature. And private schools simply do not exist in vast regions of states like Oklahoma. Still some sleepers stand to truly (and selfishly) benefit from school choice policies. I believe, however, that poor people in general have a heightened sense of community and an intrinsic understanding of the meaning of the word “public” in public school. I will be eternally grateful that my family’s white privilege (which still exists for poor white people) did not manifest itself in a private education for me, subsidized in part by public money.