School Choice Discrimination Leaves No Choice for Vulnerable Students of Color

Published on Dignity In Schools (

By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice

The choice before human beings, is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. -George Orwell

School Choice programs, including school vouchers, charter and magnet schools, are not the egalitarian antidote for the historical inequality and discrimination entrenched within the U.S. public education system.

The term school choice is commonly used by corporate education reformers as a grotesque misnomer to disguise their attempted end-run around the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal recognition in Brown v. Board of Education(1954) of the constitutional right of all children to equal educational opportunity, based upon the absolute rejection of the “separate but equal” concept of segregated public education.

School choice programs encourage privatized outsourcing of public education that increases academic segregation based on race, disability, language and poverty that undermines equal educational opportunity.

Youth of color labeled as “high need” or “difficult” students, i.e., those struggling academically, English learners, and those with special needs or disabilities, are disproportionately excluded by school choice programs, particularly charters that deny them enrollment by cherry-picking students using selective student admissions methods, e.g., screening interviews or assessment tests.

Even after enrollment, no child is safe from selective “student-dumping” attrition, from either deliberate discriminatory pushout practices targeting low-performing or “difficult” students, or deliberate indifference of inflexible teaching pedagogy, such as rigid testing practices, that makes lower-performing students more likely to dropout.[ see March 2011 Report – What Makes KIPP Work? A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance].

Equally alarming is the ability of school choice programs to disguise their direct causal connection to the academic segregation and isolation of disadvantaged Black and Latino students (i.e., English Learners, students with disabilities, and those with poverty-based needs, e.g., homeless youth and free/reduced lunch qualifiers) away from most white students.

A recent analysis by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA of school choice in San Diego public schools found that school choice, i.e., open enrollment and charters, resulted in substantial academic re-segregation. A local reporter’s coverage detailed how diverse, mixed-race San Diego neighborhoods still contain segregated public schools , because school choice tends to isolate Black and Latino students away from white students. These segregated schools not only fail to reflect the diversity of their surrounding community, but the test-based performance of their segregated student population predictably reinforces the racial achievement gap.

School choice vouchers are egregious enablers of academic discrimination, increasingly promoted with false promises of empowering low-income families to obtain educational equity at private schools paid for by public dollars. However, research often indicates low-income urban public school students benefit less from vouchers than pre-existing private school students that opportunistically subsidize their current tuition with public dollars.

Private voucher schools undermine the financial health of traditional public schools by serving significantly less students with diverse academic and social challenges, largely due to intentional practices by which they conveniently avoid and exclude the students needing the most expensive remedial services or resource commitment. In Milwaukee, private voucher schools’ overwhelming rejection of students with special needs or disabilities was evidenced by only 1.6% of all private voucher school students having documented disabilities compared to 20% within the traditional Milwaukee Public Schools system, resulting in the filing of a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice by Disability Rights Wisconsin and the ACLU.

The systematic rejection of high need students by private school choice programs creates a disproportionate burden on under-resourced traditional public schools, resulting in a defacto separate and unequal dual system of education, that undermines the educational opportunity of all students that remain within an unfairly distorted learning environment.

This intentional, calculated starvation of resources weakens the traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of these vulnerable students. Meanwhile, the intense scrutiny of federal Race to the Top guidelines and test-based performance standards demonizes any lack of progress under this manufactured duress, further justifying the continued privatization of K-12 education and slashing of education budgets.

This cynical process is designed to yield only one conclusion – the traditional concept of free, quality public education must die.

The unchecked proliferation of false school choice programs will usher in a devastating redistribution of public education resources from the largest urban school districts into the hands of private education profiteers, without built-in civil rights protections, public accountability, or transparency to prevent academic segregation based on race, disability, language and poverty. Students of color, whom disproportionately rely upon traditional public education as a lifeline to the American Dream, will find this path to their aspirations abandoned, along with the Brown v. Board legacy of equal educational opportunity for all children.

All in the name of school choice.

Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights and liberties lawyer, and founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. He has been defeating the school-to-prison pipeline since 2004, including coordinating the largest successful mass student defense to-date (Round Rock, Texas 2006-2007). You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.


One thought on “School Choice Discrimination Leaves No Choice for Vulnerable Students of Color

  1. Absolutely agree! This issue of segregation through school choice is a reality across the country. The only issue I wish you discussed in greater depth is magnet schools. In D14 in Brooklyn, our magnets are designed to attract white, middle class families and bring diversity to the classroom in schools that have suffered through decades of racial and socio-economic isolation due to housing segregation.

    I would also add that stand alone “Gifted and Talented” programs, identifying children through test scores, reify segregation as well.

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