School choice, civil rights and a little discord over linking the two

From left to right: Julio Fuentes with HCREO; Rabbi Moshe Matz with Agudath Israel of Florida; T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miamii; and BAEO's Howard Fuller.
From left to right: Julio Fuentes with HCREO; Rabbi Moshe Matz with Agudath Israel of Florida; T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miamii; and BAEO’s Howard Fuller. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

It’s an increasingly common refrain: school choice is an extension of the civil rights movement. But two of the choice movement’s elder statesmen took exception to that description at a National School Choice Week event Thursday night.national-school-choice-week-logo1

The civil rights movement was broader than the battle for school choice, and every generation ought to define its own movements, said Howard Fuller, a legend in the choice movement and chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Also, attempting to link the two can create friction and arouse suspicions when it’s used by choice supporters who may not see eye-to-eye on other issues important to civil rights veterans and their supporters.

“Just even using that terminology gets us into arguments that we don’t need to be in,” Fuller said.

T. Willard Fair, a former chairman of the Florida Board of Education, raised another objection: When it comes to school choice, too many black leaders are not on the same page.

“During the civil rights movement, no black elected official dared to stand up and be against this,” said Fair, who co-founded Florida’s first charter school. “If he or she did, we would get them.”

The spirited comments from Fuller and Fair, and polite comebacks from other school choice leaders, came during Florida’s “spotlight” National School Choice Week event. About 200 people attended the event, held at Coral Springs Charter School near Fort Lauderdale. It was organized by the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, an umbrella group for a wide range of pro-school-choice organizations, including Step Up for Students, which administers the state’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

The back-and-forth over civil rights and school choice was spurred by the event’s theme. This year is the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional. Many school choice supporters see a connection between the barriers knocked down then and those falling now.

Other panelists and speakers at Thursday’s event were among them.

Expanding access to a high-quality education is “by far the No. 1 issue facing our country today,” said Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. Seeing some of the schools where poor families have to take their children “literally drives me to tears.”

“We know that too many kids are not getting the access, are not getting the level of education they deserve. And that is injustice,” said Georgia state Rep. Alisha Morgan, a strong pro-school-choice Democrat who grew up in Miami. “While we’re not marching or protesting in the street, we ought to.”

Rabbi Moshe Matz, president of Agudath Israel of Florida, said he couldn’t begin to imagine life during the civil rights era, and so hesitated to make a comparison. But there are issues of morality and justice that cut deeply across different eras, he said, “when people have been held back from being able to pursue what their dreams are, and their freedoms.”

“Today there is a struggle,” Matz continued, referring to school choice, “and one that we need to constantly be defining and one we need to constantly be reminding people of.”

In his opening remarks, Fuller stressed equal opportunity. He called President Barack Obama a hypocrite for opposing school vouchers while sending his own children to an exclusive private school. He said he’d never stop noting that it’s only poor people in America who don’t have choice.

“Because if you got money, and the schools are not working for your kids, you’re either going to move to communities where they do work, you’re going to put your kid in private school, or you’re going to get the most expensive tutor you can find, or you’re going to do all three,” Fuller said.

At the same time, Fuller cautioned choice supporter not to dismiss the economic considerations of some choice critics. Many blacks and Hispanics can thank school districts for aiding their rise into the middle class.

“Now you roll up into here saying we need to radically change this so that kids can be educated – they’re not hearing that kids need to be educated, they’re hearing jobs, they’re hearing pensions,” he said. “If you say how come these black preachers are not out there (for school choice), it’s because who’s on the deacon board of these churches? Principals. Teachers.”

“If we don’t begin to understand the economic aspect of this movement, and we only approach it from the standpoint of, this is best for kids, we are misunderstanding the nature of what this battle is all about, and why it is so difficult.”

Thursday’s event also featured two high-profile figures in the charter school realm: Frank Biden, president of the Mavericks charter school network, and Jon Hage, founder, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA.

Biden, the brother of Vice President Joe Biden, offered some red meat, saying the school choice movement needs to continue organizing parents – and accumulating political power.

“It’s all about the 501(c)(4) and how much money we get in it,” he said. “And we go see our friends and we tell them we’ll support them. And we go see our enemies and look ‘em in the eye and say we’re going to take you down.”

Hage said it’s clear vouchers and charter schools aren’t fads. Coral Springs Charter School, which Charter Schools USA manages, has 2,000 students on its waiting list. But, he also said, supporters should understand the movement isn’t going to win overnight.

We’re in for a “50-to-100-year battle,” Hage said. “Education is one of those things that’s going to be state by state, and it’s going to be much harder work.”