For at least two decades, conservatives have argued that school choice was the last unachieved civil right. In 2010, some powerful moderate voices echoed their view and invoked the name of Rosa Parks to support it. At one screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which claims that charters are the solution for the persistent failure of urban public schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the film signaled a “Rosa Parks moment” that would initiate a new movement for school choice. He repeated that message on the Oprah Winfrey Show: “When the country looked at Rosa Parks and looked in her eyes and saw her tremendous dignity and saw her humanity, the country was compelled to act.”
In so doing, Duncan and his allies—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits—reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman. In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in the capital of Alabama after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer. Moreover, the concerns of civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and to achieve the full rights of citizenship. As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
This misunderstanding of the history of the civil rights struggle reveals one of the key flaws in the push for market-based educational solutions. The top-down, managerial, single-minded approach pursued by Duncan and his allies ignores the vital, grassroots efforts underway in low-income communities, many of which directly challenge the market approach to schools that embraces competition, choice without equity provisions, and privatization. These local activists are deeply concerned with a range of problems that prevent public schools from giving poor and working-class children a good education: rampant unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, environmental degradation, and a flawed immigration policy. They want the state to distribute equitable and sufficient resources across communities, not simply to individual schools and parents. And they worry that choice stands to further stratify communities by race and poverty.
ADVOCATES FOR market-based reforms are disconnected from such grassroots concerns. They take an elitist approach, claiming to know what is best for communities of color. In searching for spokespeople—for exemplars of struggling parents and students to represent the need for market-based reform—they neglect the vibrant efforts of those working for educational equity for entire communities.
A good example of inequity concerns the huge gap between funding for inner-city and suburban school districts. In 2011, a broad swath of entrepreneurial school reformers, pu...
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