PerspectivesNikesha Elise Williams Jacksonville Today Contributor
Thomas Jefferson Elementary in the Raines High feeder pattern is one of the schools a consultant has proposed for closure. | DCPS

OPINION | ‘School choice’ hits different for parents of color 

Published on June 19, 2024 at 9:45 am
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“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”

— H.G. Wells 

An internal attack is ravaging the public education system, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Duval County. 

Duval plans to eliminate 700 positions in the coming school year (statewide, the teacher shortage totals 4,700). This in addition to possibly closing and/or consolidating more than three dozen schools in the coming years. Chronic absenteeism plagues the district (as it does the nation). And then there’s also the mass exodus of students from public schools to alternative educational options, with 30,000 Duval students making that migration in the last decade. 

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The school choice movement thrives on verbal gymnastics. Proponents wrap their pernicious plans to possibly make public schools obsolete in the language of “parents’ rights.” That verbiage is how we have the Parental Rights in Education, Stop W.O.K.E Act, nation-leading numbers of book bans, and permission slips for everything from listening to a book written by a Black author to getting a Band-Aid

In this wave of regulation, many parents fed up with “the system” and its results along with teachers are leaving public education. Be they private schools, parochial schools, charter, classical, micro, or home, the school choices are evolving but that says nothing of the quality of the education being instructed and retained. 

As alternatives become the latest experiment in the supposed advantages of deregulation and the will of the free market is still in effect, unfortunately, students are being left behind. 

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All parents, no matter our political inclinations, want what’s best for our children. Especially when it comes to education, which can bear so much weight, power, and influence on their future. And yet as a Black mother, when it comes to this issue, it’s disingenuous to believe or even posit that the current assault on public education is divorced from race and class. 

In the U.S., in Florida, in Duval County, segregation abounds. Seventy years after Brown v. Board of Education two-thirds of the nation’s Black & Brown students attend a school where the student body is 75% or more students of color. That’s evident in Duval, where nearly 70% of the students are non-white

By virtue of my address, my son attends an above-average public school. He is one of the few Black students and has been subject to racial slurs and personal panics around Black History Month subject matter. Between the Florida laws that limit the instruction of race and gender, the book bans that culled classroom and school libraries, and my own concern with how my son and daughter will see themselves and their culture as they move through Duval’s schools under unspoken but easily recognizable conservative mandates, I have half-heartedly contemplated home-schooling. 

And yet I keep my children in public school because it’s convenient (yes), there’s accountability, and as a product of public schools, and the daughter of a public school educator I believe there is value in public education. But in Florida that value is intentionally drained. And so frustrated parents, not unlike myself, buy into the buzzwords of school choice, sign up for vouchers, look forward to education savings accounts and participate in a self-perpetuating cycle of public education divestment wrought by race and class.

Just as there is now a mass movement of students migrating from public schools to alternative educational options in the name of better opportunities and outcomes, we have seen this before, albeit for different reasons. In the wake of the Brown decision, the backlash by some white parents was to move their children out of newly integrated public schools and newly integrated neighborhoods. This “white flight” is what ignited the segregation that continues today in schools, in neighborhoods, in Jacksonville, in Florida, in the nation. 

We talk about choice. We talk about curriculum and subject matter. We talk about what we want our kids to learn and be exposed to but we don’t talk about why. The why is and has always been America’s origin. The construction of race, the altar built at the idol of white supremacy, and the back-of-mind belief that maybe we’re not all created equal and thus we all don’t deserve equality.

These things not said, the core beliefs held but not voiced, are still evident in the education choices made, like in the hiring of the new Duval County superintendent. Two civil rights investigations and a whistleblower complaint, all three of which alluded to at least the hint of racist impropriety, was not a deterrent in the selection of Christopher Bernier. In fact, it seemed a prerequisite. 

The same can be said pending the results of the upcoming Duval County School Board race. Four of the seven seats are up for grabs, with nine total candidates: two proud members of Moms for Liberty, a handful of wannabe career politicians, a couple community organizers, and a couple teachers. The outcome of these races could mean the opportunity to reshape the direction of Duval County Schools in favor of a robust and equitable public education system despite Tallahassee’s tilt. 

But it could also mean a further slide into “common sense conservatism,” where raids on the public education coffers are the first stop in eliminating access to an equal and quality education, thus continuing the mass migration of students and divestment from public schools (for those who can afford to) all in the name of a betterment that continues to elude. 

That is because better is not found in the beatitudes of the antebellum South that hold the racial line and stick by class divides. The conversations about choice and curriculum are euphemisms for segregationist beliefs and a return to an old Dixieland version of democracy and governance.

Literacy is the key, education the door, and democracy is what awaits inside.  

This muddied landscape of public education is part of the grand battle for the future of not students but constituents, not schools but the country.  

It is chaos, and maybe catastrophe is the goal. 

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

Nikesha Elise Williams is an Emmy-winning TV producer, award-winning novelist (Beyond Bourbon Street and Four Women) and the host/producer of the Black & Published podcast. Her bylines include The Washington Post, ESSENCE, and Vox. She lives in Jacksonville with her family.

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