Despite Insults and Condescension, Parents Remain Undeterred

Parents want choices. Black or white, rich or poor, moms and dads all share one simple truth: they want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing the right school, the best school, for their children.

PBS News Hour recently highlighted the increasing division within the black community around charter schools and school choice. 

As we all know, monopolies don’t go quietly into the night and no place is that truer than in public education. While families clamor for more and better options, powerful interest groups who benefit from there being no choices are pushing back. We see it with unions at the national and local level. We see it with the NAACP. And we see it in states like Massachusetts and Georgia where myths about money have crowded out honest conversations about quality.

Cue the Audacity and Arrogance

We hear all the time that parents aren’t engaged enough. It’s often a default response from status quo protectors looking to make excuses for the subpar performance of their schools.

But as the PBS piece confirms, when parents’ engagement comes in the form of a demand for choice, they are insulted and caricatured as somehow being unfit to make decisions about their own children’s education. The powers don’t want real parent engagement. They want parent compliance.

Meet Mr. Keith Williams, the Executive Director of Tennessee’s largest local teacher’s union. His comments during the following exchange are appalling but sadly, also very common. The damage that people like him do is incalculable.  

Keith Williams: I don’t think they have the full understanding and exposure of what a proper, adequate education is for their children.
Reporter:  But it sounds to me like you’re saying parents shouldn’t have a choice, aren’t smart enough to know where their kid should go to school.
Keith Williams: I’m saying that some parents are not capable of determining venues that will be the most advantageous for their children. And that’s a fact.

Sarah Carpenter is a parent and grandparent who lives in North Memphis and her voice is a powerful one. In her role as leader of Memphis Lift, she brings passion, wisdom, and experience to the conversation around school choice; she and her organization are fighting people like Mr. Williams and others like him to ensure that parents (and grandparents) like her -- black and poor -- are able to access high quality schools for their children (and grandchildren.)

I feel so sad, because we shouldn’t have to fight for our kids to get a quality education. Why do we have to keep fighting as a race of people, black people? And what’s wrong with us wanting what’s best for our kids? Just because we are black and poor do not mean that we don’t want what’s best for our kids.

Kimberly McNeal is a mom who has made her choice for her daughters and it is not the local district. In fact, she moved just so they could attend Vision Prep, a nearby charter school.

Me coming from a Memphis city school, I wanted something different, something more challenging for my children.
It’s important for anybody to have a choice, whether it’s public, private or charter. Everybody should have a choice in where they feel like their children would do better and succeed.

It is difficult for the families caught in the divide that has taken shape within the black community. But Sarah Carpenter doesn’t really even see herself in the black people or black organizations against whom she finds herself fighting.

Most of these people live in suburban areas. They look like me, but they are not connected to me.

If one thing is clear, it’s that neither the Memphis parents featured in this PBS report nor the dissatisfied parents across the country are going to stand down on the issue of accessing the best possible school for their children.

And that’s a good thing. That’s America.