close
close

Even with school choice, decades after Brown v. Board, some Black families feel there are no options

Since first grade, Julian Morris, 16, has changed schools six times, bouncing between predominantly white and predominantly black classrooms. No one has met all his needs, his mother said.

At predominantly white schools, he was academically challenged but felt less included. At predominantly black schools, he felt more supported as a black student, but his mother, Denita Dorsey, said they did not have the same resources and academic opportunities.

Seventy years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregating children in schools based on race was unconstitutional, Dorsey said the options available to her family in Michigan are disappointing.

“Segregation has certainly been abolished, but our schools are still deeply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines,” Dorsey said. “It makes you think: it’s been 70 years, but was it worth it?”

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and desegregation orders were only the first steps toward the elusive goal of an equitable education. For some Black families, school choice has been critical in finding the best available option. And that didn’t necessarily mean the school with the most racial diversity.

Integration alone is not what black families have been pushing for in recent decades, said Bernita Bradley of the National Parents Union, an education organization.

“We wanted inclusion with accountability and that’s not what we got,” she said. “That’s why there has to be choice, but we still need high-quality options.”

Dorsey made what she called a “controversial decision” in 2022, choosing Saginaw High School in Michigan, which is predominantly Black, over Julian’s predominantly white charter school.

“I was challenged and I had an argument with my family. But Julian now has more support from his teachers and administration than ever at his previous schools,” she said.

The Brown decision is seen as a major boost in launching the modern school choice movement. As many white families began turning to private schools as a way to circumvent the court’s mandate, state legislatures—particularly in Southern states—began to launch school voucher programs.

In Virginia’s Prince Edward County, which closed all its public schools for five years in 1959 to avoid integration, state and local officials gave white families tuition and tax breaks to attend private schools. No similar options were offered to black families. This move inspired other states to adopt similar plans before they were deemed illegal by the Supreme Court.

The arguments for school choice evolved over time.

Some thinkers of the 1960s, such as Milton Friedman, argued that giving families money to spend on education as they saw fit would revolutionize education, incentivizing schools to improve or lag behind. At the same time, civil rights leaders emphasized that freedom of choice could equalize education for lower-income families, which primarily include black and Hispanic students.

Today, some of the loudest proponents of vouchers no longer approach it as a way to pursue social justice, says Claire Smrekar, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. Rather, the focus is on parents’ rights and removing restrictions that may prevent wealthier families from using the programs at schools of their choice.

“This expansion is really extraordinary when you think about it,” Smrekar said. “There are no social justice arguments here for families trapped in poverty and destined for low-performing schools. The new argument is that everyone should benefit from this subsidy.”

Meanwhile, conservative attacks on the way topics related to race and racism are taught in schools have only increased the appeal of alternatives for some Black families. Some schools are committed to affirming students’ black heritage, claiming the mantle of freedom schools that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement in response to the inferior education black Americans received in the South.

“All parents want is a safe and caring environment for their child to go to and they will be a partner in my child’s path to success,” said Bradley.

Black families also turned to homeschooling in large numbers during the pandemic, driven in part by a desire to protect their children from racism in the classroom and to better meet their children’s individual academic needs.

American schools today are more racially diverse compared to the Brown v. Board era, but schools are segregating again, with lasting academic consequences. Schools where students of color make up more than 90% of the student body are five times more likely to be located in low-income areas, where students have poorer educational outcomes.

According to research from Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, the recent increase in segregation appears to be driven in part by school choice. In school districts where charter schools have grown the fastest over the past two decades, segregation has increased the most.

In Michigan, Julian said he thought his mother “stumbled or just went off the rails” in pulling him out of a higher-ranked school.

“It wasn’t until I got to Saginaw High that I looked back and realized that what was said to me and the things that happened at school were not okay,” Julian said. “I was different there because I am black. But now at Saginaw it feels more welcoming and I feel included and supported. I feel the difference.”

Janel Jones, a mother of two in Atlanta, said she has seen the benefits of choice after sending her 13-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son to seven different schools together. But just giving parents an option isn’t enough, she says.

“School choice is not a choice if it is not equitable. Ultimately, liberation directly impacts our economic outcomes, and as parents we must ensure that these education systems are academically challenging, but also meet their needs as members of society,” Jones said.

It’s not as simple as sending kids to an all-black school, she said.

“Your child is protected, but also pampered. You haven’t learned how to understand and deal with the microaggressions you’re guaranteed to encounter when you get your first job. That is the educational part that we as Black parents also need to teach our children and that is not going to change anytime soon,” she said.

___

AP journalists Sharon Lurye in New Orleans and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives funding from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s Standards for Working with Charities, a list of supporters, and funded coverage areas at AP.org.