Coming back to freedom of choice, 46 years later

While defending his sponsorship of Pennsylvania’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams has been known to draw parallels between opponents to school choice and the demagogues who blocked the advance of the civil rights movement. But there have been an increasing number of critics who blanch at the analogies, most recently from Kevin Ferris at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Ferris acknowledges that “education is indeed a civil right” and he supports the educational options that would result from the Opportunity Scholarship. “But voucher opponent does not equal Klansmen,” he writes.

That may be a harsh indictment of Williams, who hardly appears ready to adorn his political adversaries with a white hood, but it raises a fair question in our discourse over education reform: Is it appropriate to resurrect the history of the civil rights movement and relate its struggles to today’s effort to establish more educational alternatives for disadvantaged children?

The name of the Rev. H.K. Matthews may not be as familiar as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in history books, but Reverend Matthews is well known in the Southeastern United States as a pioneer in the movement who led the first sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in the Florida panhandle and was jailed 35 times during the process. He also marched with Dr. King at Selma, and his achievements have been celebrated and his life story chronicled in the biography Victory After The Fall. But for the past several years, Matthews, who’s now 83, has been active in the cause for school choice for low-income children, calling the effort “a natural extension of the civil rights movement.”

RedefinED talked to him recently by phone. I will disclose that Matthews has participated in events promoting my employer, Step Up For Students, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. But in all the times we have talked, we have spoken little about why he came to believe that this was a natural extension of the cause for civil rights.

“I keep coming back to freedom of choice, which is something we were denied as African Americans,” Matthews said from his Alabama home. “We were trying to get the right to go to school wherever we wanted to go. We were trying to get the right to live where we wanted to live. To visit a lunch counter. It’s a human right. It’s a civil right to be able to choose for yourself, and your child, the best possible educational facility that you would want him or her to go.”

Is it fair to characterize opponents to school choice as “standing in the schoolhouse door,” as Williams has? Matthews notes that school board members and teachers unions have promised to do everything they can to stop what they believe is an attack on public education. There were people in 1965 doing everything they could to stop the progress of black citizens.

“I’m not trying to call them racists,” he says of today’s opponents in the choice debate, but he says they are fighting a measure that would help to level the educational playing field for young, poor students with a zeal he commonly saw among officials who blocked the integration of schools.

“I have seen too much,” he says. “We have good public schools. I don’t deny that. But neither do I subscribe to the idea that being able to exercise choice for your child means that we are siphoning money away from schools.”

He then shared with me some comments he made last fall at a panel discussion of school choice in Pennsylvania. He was heartened by the news that the Republican candidate for governor and the Democratic candidate for governor in that state both pledged to put politics aside and support publicly funded private learning options for low-income children.

“That has special meaning to me,” Matthews said. “I have devoted my life to the cause of social justice for all people in America and I fought so that the generations that came after me would have an equal opportunity. Nowhere is that more important now than in public education.”

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit