Racial distrust and educational freedom

A partly understandable but wholly destructive combination

Better Ed billboard
Better Ed billboard

A number of years ago (a dozen actually), Rick Hess, one of the nation’s most insightful and prolific education scholars, wrote an essay for American Experiment titled, “‘Trust Us,’ They Explained: Racial Distrust and School Reform.” The reason for recalling it has to do with a recent editorial in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a venerable newspaper in the African American community in the Twin Cities and beyond, that spoke (let’s just say) poorly about the Center’s efforts and those of another local organization, Better Ed, to increase educational options for all children, but especially low-income children. Which is to say, disproportionately minority boys and girls.

Here’s a passage from Dr. Hess’s article.

[School] Choice proponents point out that their proposals primarily benefit minority children trapped in poor urban schools. As one ardent choice organizer recently said to me, “We’re breaking our pick trying to offer solutions to these families, and the numbers show that the people we help are really satisfied. But the unions and their friends just sweep in and tell the papers we’re racists, without offering anything that will help, and lot of people believe them. Sometimes you just want to rent a bunch of billboards that tell the community, “We’re the ones on your side.”

Dr. Hess, who is a Harvard-trained political scientist and American Enterprise Institute scholar, closed with suggestions for “small and careful steps” aimed at closing gaps between reformers and minorities. This, for reasons as I might put them: There generally is not much of a reservoir of trust and warm feelings in minority communities towards largely White, especially conservative activists perceived as announcing (caricaturing matters): “We’re from the burbs and we want to help your kids.” Suffice it to say, I grasp history and understand the distrust and worse that oozes from such a dynamic.

But that definitely is not to say that such cynicism and animus on the part of choice opponents, whoever they may be, is in the best interest of low-income boys and girls in any way whatsoever. Fully the opposite is the case.

The August 19th Spokesman-Recorder editorial said unsubstantiated and simply inaccurate things such as:

“One thing seems clear enough to us: Better Ed has little or no genuine concern for the well-being of African American children.” (How, exactly, do they know that?)

“To the best of our knowledge, Better Ed is a White organization operated by Whites under the direction of Whites claiming to be oh so very concerned about the welfare of failing Black students in Minneapolis. Does anyone see something terribly wrong in this picture?” (I learned long ago not to question, much less condemn anyone’s motives without really knowing what they are. And no, I don’t see “something terribly wrong in this picture.”)

“Standing to benefit most from school vouchers are wealthy parents already paying hefty tuitions to educate their children in high-cost private schools.” (I don’t know of a single voucher program in the United States for wealthy parents, as they all focus on dramatically less affluent families.)

The editorial had less to say about American Experiment, though it did associate us with proverbial “right-wing interests,” a term which, to many left-wing and progressive ears, is instinctively associated with “fascistic,” and of course, “racist interests.”

To be clear, the leadership of Better Ed — which is an American Experiment spin-off of which we’re very proud — is profoundly interested and concerned about the well-being of all students, particularly those flailing in often failing school systems. Frankly, the people who run Better Ed fear for such young people, as well as for our state and country, because of what they’re not learning and the abridged lives they’re likely to have because of it. Let’s just say I’ve known and collaborated with Better Ed officials for a long time and know what animates them.

Also clear is rigorous research showing that minority children, especially African American kids, tend to do better — thanks to school choice programs — in newly chosen private schools than in the public ones they leave. Their parents, not incidentally, tend to be thrilled by such moves for reasons of improved school safety if none other.

And speaking of parents, I certainly haven’t read every survey about vouchers and tax credits in recent years, but I don’t recall a single one in which majorities of African American parents haven’t supported them. Better yet, I don’t recall any survey in which African American parents haven’t supported them more enthusiastically than White parents.

How to square promising and encouraging findings like these with an editorial that somehow likens education freedom to educational fraud and racially slurs its proponents? Can’t be done. I say believe in good research and good people, not bad editorials.


Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.

Read the seven-part series on Better Ed:

First installment: Public schools foe Better Ed campaigns for school choice

Second installment: Better Ed: People want out of public schools

Third installment: Better Ed: Let parents choose the best schools — and cultures — for their child

Fourth installment: MPS: School choice will not close achievement gap

Fifth installment: Vouchers offer no solution to achievement gaps

Sixth installment: The pros and cons of ‘school choice’

Seventh installment: More ‘school choice’ pros and cons

MSR Editorial response to article series: Educating our children: There’s got to be a better way

MSR response to “Racial distrust and educational freedom” editorial: Black people must decide what’s best for Black people.