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Senate votes Monday on whether to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education

Felicia Wong: School choice is not really about freedom

Editor’s Note: Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, an economic and social policy think tank working to re-imagine the rules so they work for all Americans, and co-author of the forthcoming book “Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy.”
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is on Roosevelt’s board. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

CNN —  

As the Senate prepares to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, opposition has primarily focused on questions of her basic competence. Some have also critiqued her background and experience almost exclusively with private, religious schools: She and her children have only ever attended Christian schools, and she and her husband have donated almost $8.6 million in recent years to Christian schooling organizations.

The limited scope of DeVos’ education policy experience has raised questions for many about whether she is suited to run the federal agency charged with making American public education first-rate for all children.

Felicia Wong
Felicia Wong

But there is another subterranean element to this debate, which now should be surfaced, especially given our racially charged environment and the role that segregated schools have long played in our politics. Racial animus was a primary catalyst of the move toward private and religious K-12 education almost 50 years ago, and racial segregation remains a dominant factor in all schooling, public and private, today. DeVos’ track record suggests that as secretary, she will do little to combat these trends.

In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, which famously declared that separate schools for black and white children were not equal, the federal government began – albeit slowly – to desegregate. This applied to schools in the South that were previously forbidden by law from educating children of different races together and to schools in the North plagued by de facto segregation.

The backlash, now infamous but perhaps too familiar even today, was fierce. From Alabama Governor George Wallace’s stance in the schoolhouse door and his proclamations of “segregation now, segregation forever” to Louise Day Hicks leading the Boston antibusing movement, the reaction to desegregation roiled American politics.

But the Brown ruling did not apply to private schools. Thus, an estimated half-million white students left public schools between 1964 and 1975 to enroll in schools that were known as “segregation academies.” This move to private schools was part of a larger “white flight” movement.

White flight was one of the greatest demographic shifts in American history. Millions of whites nationwide moved out of cities and into racially isolated suburbs. Scholar Kevin Kruse has called white flight “the most successful segregationist response to the moral demands of the civil rights movement and the legal authority of the courts.” The character and quality of most American schools today, like the neighborhoods in which they are found and which they shape, have a racial past.

Now, American public schools are falling back into a kind of racial segregation that is reminiscent of our country before Brown. In the last 25 years, the number of severely racially isolated schools, defined as those with 0-10% white students, has tripled. In 2010 in New York City, 92% of black students and 88% of Latino students attended schools that were majority-minority, some of which see such severely racialized and concentrated poverty that they are dubbed “apartheid schools.” In DeVos’s own state of Michigan, which has seen two decades of charter school growth, enrollment and funding for public schools has waned while schools have become increasingly segregated.

Nor does public funding for private schools, which DeVos advocates, seem to achieve much good for students of color. Voucher and other public funding programs are marketed as appealing because tax dollars “follow the child.” But research over the past fifteen years shows that private schools are even more racially segregated than public schools.

This has negative consequences for both white students and students of color. Research shows that both black children who attend desegregated schools end up with more income, higher wages and better long-term health, with no negative effects on white students. Further, a range of studies strongly suggest that desegregated schools educate all children such that they can better contribute to American society and to a healthier American economy.

It is therefore both a moral outrage and an economic mistake that so much of the current movement in favor of school choice and religious education carries the stain of racial animosity, even in dog-whistle form.

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Of course, many private and religious schools are excellent and inclusive places of learning. But let’s not be fooled. School choice is not really about freedom. Freedom, of course, is a bedrock American value. But the kind of “freedom” associated with the flight away from integration and toward racial isolation will never lead to a more truly free United States.

So as senators consider DeVos’ nomination to oversee public education for every American child, they would do well to remember the deepest values of public schooling, as well as the deeper meaning of appointing a Secretary of Education associated with a more exclusive and racially exclusionary vision.