Why African-American Parents Are Seeking Greater School Choice

Why African-American Parents Are Seeking Greater School Choice

With the close of Black History Month, it is the perfect time to examine how the public school system has often poorly served African-American children and why a large proportion of African-American parents support school choice.

Data shows that the regular public schools are failing to meet the education needs of African-American children.

In California, for instance, only 10 percent of African-American eighth graders scored at the proficient level on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading tests.

The COVID pandemic, which has played havoc with the public schools, has had a disproportionate impact on African-American children.

In the Los Angeles school district, about a quarter of African American students received a failing grade in a subject compared to just more than one out 10 white students.

However, it is more than just low test scores and failing grades that have pushed African-American parents to support greater school-choice options for their kids.

University of Georgia education professor Cheryl Fields-Smith, who is African American and a top authority on homeschooling in the African-American community, has found many reasons why African-American parents decide to leave the public school system.

Speaking of the African-American families she researched, Professor Fields-Smith observed, “One of the predominant themes was a sense of wanting to protect their children from being labeled a troublemaker, or suggestions that they should be in special ed, or even [schools not] acknowledging the intellect of their child because they are so focused on the behavior.”

It is not surprising then to see widespread support among African-American parents for school-choice alternatives.

A February 2021 survey of African-American parents released by the National Coalition for Public School Options found that 75 percent of the parents surveyed said that they want the power to choose their child’s public school, regardless of geographic boundaries.

Also, 84 percent of the African-American parents supported education savings accounts (ESAs), which are tax-funded accounts from which parents can withdraw money to pay for education expenses such as private-school tuition and private tutoring.

In addition, 82 percent of African-American parents favored tax credit scholarships, which are scholarships granted by non-profit scholarship granting organizations and which can be used to pay for private-school tuition. The scholarships are funded by private donors who receive tax credits for their donations.

Evidence shows that school-choice programs have significantly benefited African-American children.

Among the studies with the most rigorous methodologies, most find that school choice programs, such as vouchers, improve the performance of students generally and the performance of African-American students in particular.

Charter-school options have also greatly helped African-American students. A 2020 Harvard study found that among African-American eighth graders attending charter schools, average math scores improved by an amount “which was four times larger than for students attending district schools.”

Writing in The Hechinger Report, African American parent Kayla Svedin observed, “While public school systems continue to operate in ways that neglect or outright harm the education of Black children, they also actively block the avenues of choice to which Black parents want access outside of the public system.”

“The very system on which U.S. public schools are built,” she noted, “stands in the way of quality education for Black children, not because of barriers that keep us out of ‘good’ schools but ones that keep us in ‘bad’ schools.”

“None of my children, nor the children of any low-income or Black families, ‘belong’ to the government school system,” she emphasized. Svedin has used an ESA program in her home state of Arizona to school two of her children, who have special needs, through private and home-based instruction.

“School choice programs give Black families an alternative to subpar schools,” she concluded.

The history of African-American children in our nation’s public schools has been tragic in so many ways. By giving today’s African-American parents greater school choice, we can ensure a brighter future for their children that can help counter the mistakes of the past.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2021 PRI briefing paper “New and Emerging Obstacles Facing Charter Schools.”

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