Due to a variety of reasons, many thoughtful Americans are revisiting the entire question of school desegregation and educational choice. As I reflect on my personal experiences with a large urban school system (Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County, Tennessee), I am reminded of first-hand experience in the defense of offering parents choice in their children’s schooling.
I saw the Nashville school desegregation order implemented from a very interesting vantage point. You see, my father, a leading NAACP lawyer and whose name I share, represented the plaintiffs in the court case that desegregated public schools, along with his first cousin, Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights icon who would later serve our nation on the Supreme Court.
At age 11, I had been attending Peabody Demonstration School (now University School of Nashville) for four years, but by September of the next academic year the size of my class tripled in number. The dozens of new faces provided a thrilling freshness to the prospects for the new year. But I was quick to discover that many of these transfer students became angry with me as soon as they learned my family connections and name. I became the lightning rod for all of the animosity generated among those affected.
These new kids wondered why my dad had “ruined” their schools, while he sent his own son to an exclusive private academy. I tried to explain that when I started there my parents had chosen for me the only integrated non-parochial school in the city. They, like most parents, felt that I deserved the best education they could afford. And part of that meant learning in a racially diverse school to prepare me to compete in a racially diverse world. Eventually many of those new kids, once they knew me, the human being, and not me, the symbol, came to understand the logic of my position and accepted my friendship.
I am lucky.
Lucky because I have benefited from access to some of the best educational opportunities our country has ever provided to anyone: a top flight private-prep school, a first tier ivy covered Eastern college and a world-renowned law school.
Lucky because my parents worked hard so they could send me to these schools.
Lucky that they had the basic determination to provide me with the best education available. Lucky because my parents, always picky consumers, chose, and taught me to choose for myself, the optimal educational environments for me. They chose, with their dollars, to ensure that my schooling take place in a racially integrated, socially diverse and intellectually challenging atmosphere (they even, effectively, chose to pay double because parents who use private schools don’t get back the taxes they pay to support public ones.)
Most of all, I am lucky that a private school such as Peabody existed in Nashville for my family to choose for me to attend. Peabody/University school existed because of our most basic human instinct. Adam Smith described it as “the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition” and, by extension, the condition of his children and his children’s children.
Our best private schools existed and thrived and compared favorably with the public schools in scholastic excellence (often at less overall cost per pupil) long before the busing order came down. They competed with each other and had the autonomy necessary to compete effectively. Their continued success proves that when the market rules, when parents and teachers have control– instead of well meaning but misguided bureaucrats, nonplused politicians, and childless voters– real results must be had.
I do not argue that a city’s private schools surpass our best public schools in quality or tradition. Certainly public schools have long lists of distinguished alumni. I submit only that the private schools have, in a market context, proven that they can do the job just as well, and sometimes better and more efficiently.
Why not let our public schools do the same thing, open competition with the private schools and with each other, and let the government settle back into a more passive role (always a top priority in a truly free society).
I realize the idea carries some serious baggage. As desegregation orders began to dominate Southern urban school systems, the word ‘choice’ became a familiar and distasteful code used to ennoble and legitimate the agenda of the crypto-resegregationist– unreconstructed racists sanctifying their bigotry by invoking the sacred tenets of liberty. Eventually many of these demagogues, and the understandably fearful parents who reacted to their apocalyptic ravings, chose to move out of the urban school district or to enroll their kids in the so-called “segregation academies.”
We’ve come a long way since then. Those who still believe that separate but equal is the way are probably a distinctly small minority. A far greater number of parents, both black and white, wish to let bygones be bygones and get on with the essential task of educating our children. And ‘choice’, the loathsome code word, must be reconsidered.
I not only believe, I am dead certain that a system of ‘choice’ and vouchers can be crafted for our public school systems that would enhance our liberty as parents, improve the education of all our children and actually save us money. All without resegregating our schools. Such systems are already in place in several school districts around the country.
Due to the efforts of a courageous black state legislator by the name of Polly Williams, the parents of inner-city kids in Wisconsin have obtained the freedom of choice to use private and suburban schools in the area. Better-off parents already had a choice: move or go private. Now poor kids have a choice, too. And the results seem extremely promising.
Vouchers, as a way of publicly financing private choices have a good track record. The GI Bill provided each participating World War II veteran a voucher good only for educational expenses at the school of his choice so long as the school satisfied certain standards.
The optimal standards for a viable and constitutionally sound voucher plan would have to include racial non-discrimination at participating schools; administration of standardized minimum testing in math, science, English, history and geography; and a provision to cover those who fall through the cracks in the placement process.
Of course children with special disabilities or special learning problems must also be specifically accommodated. But even here the principles of choice and competition should prevail.
Because of its co-option by racism and political opportunism, the simple and obvious logic behind the idea of educational choice has been tragically obscured by eminently justifiable fears. And yet, ironically, we end up fearing our greatest strength: the time tested ability to derive efficiencies from markets. If we commit together, in advance, to eliminating the distorting effects of racism and class division, the entrepreneurial approach can make tomorrow’s public schools the best in the world.
Avon Williams is a graduate of the University of Texas Law School. He has a BA from Williams College. He has also completed post graduate work at Harvard College, Fisk University, Vanderbilt University and Emory University. He serves on numerous boards and committees and is the recipient of several honors and awards. A former member of the U. S. Department of State, he currently serves as General Counsel for the Tennessee Department of Safety. A frequent writer in print media, he is a recognized political analyst with major-market television and radio experience.