Over the last decade, talk of choice in education has reached an unprecedented pitch, and the talk has brought forth extensive dollars and human energy. Advocates for school choice, which has become a pseudonym for charter school reform, claim that changing how individual students end up at one school rather than another will contribute to significantly expanded access to quality education.
Forty years ago, many American communities began to reorganize student assignment on a massive scale. Court-ordered busing for desegregation radically altered how students were assigned to schools and on what criteria. It is worth looking at that historical moment to understand the nature and limitations of the present debate. Although desegregation may seem a remnant of a distant era, reinterpreting the history of desegregation raises important cautions for the current interest in charter schools.
A common thread runs through opposition to desegregation and advocacy for charter schools: the rhetoric of choice. This rhetoric emphasizes the power of individual action and decision-making and veils the deep influences of policy and politics. Examining the gap between the rhetoric and the reality clarifies the history of desegregation and contributes to a respectfully critical look at school “choice” in practice today.
“Choice” in the Story of Desegregation
It may seem odd to speak of desegregation and choice together, as the images that desegregation calls to mind are often ones of compulsion—courts ordered districts to desegregate, students experienced “forced” busing, federal troops pried open the doors of Little Rock’s Central High School. But the rhetoric of choice had an impact on desegregation, both as it happened and as its history has been written.
The accomplishments of desegregation were limited—even at the peak of court-ordered desegregation, in the 1980s, 57 percent of black southerners attended schools that were majority black—and resegregation developed quickly and forcefully, so that by 2005, that figure had risen to 72 percent, similar to patterns in the North as well. The conventional wisdom holds that “choices” made by white parents derailed desegregation. That is, the courts may have compelled desegregation, but white parents made choices that undermined these mandates. Those with the means to do so moved to less diverse or less actively desegregating districts or sent their children to private schools. Exercising this choice, they helped remake the demographics of urban schools from the 1950s through the 1980s. Cities with diverse populations by race and class became predominantly black and predominantly poor. Desegregation plans that rearranged students across schools could not keep up with these shifting demographics. Myriad individual choices—some of them frankly racist—seemed the key factor in explaining the difficulties of desegregation and the resilience of segregat...
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