Big Ideas with Chris Stewart
He discusses his essay, "What happens when the world’s largest retailer builds schools in black communities?"
Chris Stewart—some may know him as Citizen Stewart—discusses what education reformers can learn from the Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald schools initiative. Stewart is the CEO of Education Post and founder of Citizen Ed, a weekly education reader that focuses on publishing stories about public schooling from people of color.
Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy with EdChoice. And this is a part of our Big Ideas series. And I am delighted today to be joined by Chris Stewart. You may know him on Twitter as Citizen Stewart. He is the CEO of Education Post, and he is also the host of his own podcast, co-host anyway, with three other gentlemen on the 8 Black Hands podcast, which I highly recommend. Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Chris Stewart: Thank you for having me on. Happy to do it.
Jason Bedrick: Now, you have been an activist in the education sphere for more than two decades. How did you get involved in education policy, and what keeps you going?
Chris Stewart: Like a lot of people, the thing that got me into it is being a parent. I actually didn’t really have much interest in education, education policy. My story is a little different than a lot of folks that I know that work in the field. I wasn’t a particularly good student. As matter of fact, I was a bad student. I didn’t have a good education. Things didn’t work out real well for me in school. But none of that really mattered until I became a dad early in my 20s, and that changed everything. That changed the game of what I cared about, what I paid attention to. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out schools, trying to figure out the best pathway for my kid, my oldest. I have more kids now. And that really did it, that sealed it really thinking through how I was going to beat the system.
I really felt the system was against me and was against us. In my own experience, it taught me that this wasn’t my system when it comes to education in public schools. So, when I had a kid , and I had a vested interest, something that motivated me to think beyond just what was going on in my own life, but to really get into this never stopped. And the more that I learned, the more that I got involved, the more cynical and militant I became about the entire enterprise of education. Not seeing it as something that was laid out for us to be helpful in our life, but something that you actually really had to fight to get an education. And if you had a child, you had to fight to get your kid’s education.
Jason Bedrick: Why did you feel that you had to fight?
Chris Stewart: It’s really interesting because when I say I wasn’t a really good student, I had been in different kinds of schools. I had been in schools that were segregated and integrated, had been funded and not funded. I’d been in every kind of school, and what I saw was not good. Most of what I saw was, first of all, I was disengaged and I was bored. And I thought the process was kind of put upon me rather than being from my own personal development. I was always an independent thinking person. I wasn’t a great student, but I was an excellent learner. I was able to look around. But I saw a lot of people get ground beneath the wheels of education. I saw a whole schools of people, friends, people in my neighborhood and others go through these systems and come out no better on the other end.
Meanwhile, there were a lot people that were … The professionals in those systems seemed to be living pretty well. What I saw with people around me was that it was just a process that you had to go through and you came out the other end no better. Matter of fact, a lot of people didn’t come out the other end. And meanwhile, there were all these professionals who were paid every day to, I don’t know, what you would call it, process them, babysit them, give them treatment that wasn’t working over long periods of time. So, when I had my own son … I should say, I grew up in the South, my kids are Northerners. They were born in the North, so it’s a different orientation.
But when I had my first son, my thought was, “I’m really desperate to make sure that he doesn’t get on the predictable path.” The path that I think was pretty predictable for me, for my friends, for my cousins, for my colleagues, everybody around me. I wanted him to do better than that. And to me, that meant I was going to have to actually beat the system to get it because the system wasn’t set up for his success.
Jason Bedrick: Now, a lot of parents in a situation like that would feel helpless, they wouldn’t know where to begin, how to fight for their kids. You made a different choice. How are you fighting for your kids?
Chris Stewart: I would say that I did feel helpless, though, for a period of time. I needed to have some wins and some victories before I even started having confidence about what I was doing. When Josh was in, maybe Josh was going into sixth grade was the first year that we had … He had been in three schools. We had to pull him out of a couple and put them into one that was really working for him. And then he had to make a switch for middle school. And it was at that time, the first time that we felt really helpless. And the reason was because the next schools that you were assigned to, even the teachers that really liked Josh were telling me that they wouldn’t send their kids there and that they wouldn’t send Josh there. And I really didn’t have a lot of options.
So, there was a sense of fear and helplessness and, “Oh my God, this is the point at which I fail as a father. This is the point at which my kid gets put behind,” and whatever. And so there was a guy named Mitch Pearlstein, I don’t know if you know Mitch. But I saw Mitch in the paper or something, he was running the American Enterprise … No, the Center for the American Experiment, that’s what it was, Center for the American Experiment. And he was on something and he was talking about choice and how parents shouldn’t be trapped in schools and all this stuff. And I just thought this guy was speaking my language. And I don’t know how it happened, but I was making a ton of phone calls. I found his phone number, I called him, didn’t expect to get him. Expected he was going to be this dude with all this pedigree who wasn’t even really going to be able to talk to me, but I didn’t give a damn. I was going to tell him my story and see if he can help me.
And Mitch picked up the phone right away, started talking to me, led me to some resources. And that’s how I found the first option that we found in Minnesota. He hooked me up with people. That was my introduction into the whole choice, knowing people who knew policy. And it never stops from there. Once I saw that there was a way to make an inquiry and to get the information you need, I never stopped after that. We got Josh into a really good school, and I became a recruiter for that school. I was just the booster. I recruited students, his friends from the school that he was supposed to go to this new school. And I got other kids opportunities. It really started to feel like this Underground Railroad type of thing. And I felt a little bit of self-importance for the first time. I felt a little bit less like the victim and less like the person that was just fear-based. I could be productive, I could be helpful to others.
Jason Bedrick: Right. And not only did you fight for your kids, you started fighting for other people’s kids. How did you get involved not just as an active parent finding options that work for your kid, but to somebody who was fighting for all children to have such options?
Chris Stewart: That was an evolution. It started the way that these things start in terms of self-interest. My very first self-interest was my own kid and one ring outward from that were the kids that were his friends that I really cared about. The friends that he had at his old school where I thought, “I’m not just going to save Josh, I’m going to save his buddies also because I’ve grown to love them since kindergarten.” And because I was able to help them, what would happen in that situation is they would give your name to other people. And before you know it, you’re fielding calls. I was really feeling like the activist guy, the guy now who was a guy you would talk to if you wanted help in this situation.
And the rings of, I don’t know what you would call it, activity or influence got further and further away from my immediate self-interest because I started to grow and I started to understand the more parents that actually find their way, the better it is for all of us. And for you to have your freedom and to be able to do what you want with your kid requires me to actually fight for you so that you fight for me also. Which is my big thing around parents shouldn’t be pitted against each other. I should have the best interest of every child in mind because the more of you that find what you need for your kid, the better it is for me because we can all just fight together for each other to have what we want not what someone else says we all should have. One system for everybody doesn’t work for me.
I now have more kids, fast forward. That was when I had one kid. I now have a total of five. So, the idea that you’re going to put multiple different kinds of kids and families into one place and it’s going to work for everybody just has never made sense to me. But we do need a bigger coalition of folks fighting for each other. And our biggest downfall, I think as a movement, our biggest downfall is being able to put parents into particular categories that don’t work together.
Jason Bedrick: Now, this theme, which you hit on a minute ago of the community being empowered, particularly the black community being powered to make decisions for itself and to take its fate into its own hands, it’s a theme that pops up over and over in your writing. And in particular in the essay that we’re going to be discussing today, which you wrote back in 2014 titled, “What Happens When the World’s Largest Retailer Builds Schools in Black Communities?” And you start it with a pop quiz. You ask which of the world’s largest retailers was the first to make enormous philanthropic investments in the cause of building new schools to educate poor black children? Now our listeners, if you want, you can hit the pause button, think about it and then come up with an answer. And my bet, like yours, is that they probably think of Walmart and the Walton Foundation and the proliferation of charter schools. But in fact, that’s not the case. What is?
Chris Stewart: Well, actually the case is it was Sears, Sears and Roebuck. And it specifically was the president of Sears, Julius Rosenwald working with Booker T. Washington. Together, they made a massive investment across the American South. They created over 5,500 schools that were built in black communities, built by black people. It wasn’t totally donative, philanthropic. The black community put in money, and Rosenwald put in money, and it was a joint project. But if you think about it, 5,500 schools is not significantly different than the number of charter schools that we’ve built or the number of magnet schools that we’ve built. That is a substantial number of schools. And back then, you could say that the number was even bigger because these were all black schools. So, this was a black school system that was built across the American South with Booker T. Washington and Rosenwald working together to make it happen.
Jason Bedrick: Right. And to take a step back, obviously we’re talking about a period of segregation. The public schools are not really public, there are white schools and there are black schools. How did those schools differ?
Chris Stewart: They differed I think in some ways that are really key to us now in terms of the lesson that we should learn today, which is that they were built by the community. The floor plans even were designed for the optimal education of children even down to details like the way that the sunlight came in the building. These weren’t just shacks that were thrown up, the community has lots of pride and ownership of these schools. There was lots of black ownership of the school itself and community ownership. They hired the teachers, they housed the teachers. They had a lot of control over what was taught and how it was taught. Kids were taught to vote and they were taught how the democratic system works. Not as an academic lesson, but as a sense of survival.
And I think all of those ingredients together are a lot of what’s missing in schools today that are for us, are supposed to be for us, is this sense of ownership, the sense of responsibility, the sense of investment. These schools weren’t free. The communities had to put together nickels and quarters and dimes to make everything happen, including getting wood for the burners and making sure that the teachers had a place to live. These were real investments into the education, into the intellectual development of black children. I think what happens after that, with the publicization of education after that, is a long period of infantilizing parents and black people. And over the period of 150 to 200 years, you start seeing a loss of ownership, a loss of responsibility, a loss of communal and collective input into what the school is and how it’s done.
And all of the means of production, for instance, are now turned over to the state, and the state has never been our friend. The reason those schools were set up was because the state itself was not interested in educating black children. And there hasn’t been a time since where I think that has reversed itself.
Jason Bedrick: So, even though schools that were for black students were not actually… The public schools that were for black kids were not actually controlled by the black community, it was white people who still had power over hiring and firing and funding and all the really important questions of how a school is run. The black community had no ownership over until they had these private schools that Julius Rosenwald and others were funding but were run by and controlled by the black community. Is that right?
Chris Stewart: Yeah, that’s true. And I would say these schools turned out to be a hybrid themselves, a public-private hybrid because in some cases the demand was that the local school board, for instance, had to pitch in a third to make it happen. So, Rosenwald would put in a third, the black community would put in the third, and the local school board would put in their third. So, in some ways, this might even sound like a charter school. Some of these schools were run, I think by churches, black churches in cooperation with Rosenwald or whatever. It was a real mix of the way that these schools were run, or I shouldn’t say run, they were all run pretty much the same way. The way that they were funded was a hybrid in many places.
Jason Bedrick: So, at this point I think I’m legally required by the law of education policy wonks to ask, but do we have any data showing that they worked?
Chris Stewart: That is the most important question that everybody would eventually get to if you’re in this area. I wrote about this and thought about it a lot deeply before I found something that was tangible to hang onto until it was actual data around how it worked. And what I found was there was a federal reserve study on the outcomes, what happened with the students that came through those schools, did it make a difference? And it’s been a while since I’ve touched that data, but it’s in that essay that I wrote, the actual study that was done on it by the federal reserve. And it turns out, it did work. It turns out that it did accelerate the growth and the development of African-American students and communities, though.
When we talk about the black middle class today, we usually blame the black middle class on a lot of things. And by blame, I’m being facetious. We basically give credit to the growth of the black community to things like unions and federal programs. And it’s not to put down the fact that there was some benefit to that. But if you want to go back to what became the first class of educated black people that was the prototypical, what became the black middle class, which was the founding of black America. It was those 5,500 schools built by Booker T. Washington and Rosenwald. And in connection to those, also the colleges that came out of those new universities, so that historically black colleges. Which I think actually was really the brilliant thing of Washington, he had an interest in higher ed and getting more black people through vocational industrial and higher ed education. But he knew he couldn’t do that without a feeder system of K–12 schools to get people there before they even get to the college level. And, yes, it did work. So, if people are interested in the data, it’s in the essay. There were outcomes that we still feel today.
Jason Bedrick: Right. Actually, it significantly shrunk the black-white achievement gap, and the federal reserve attributes at least 40 percent of the narrowing of this gap to the schools. That’s a very large effect size for a school system like that.
Chris Stewart: You would know better than me because you’ve got the quant experience on that. But I will say this: This is why it’s important to some of the contemporary debates. When we have people who are talking about integration today as like the only thing that ever worked and they talk about the period of time in the 1970s and 1980s when there was this upward trajectory of black achievement and everything, the world was going great. It’s really a lie to say that that was… First of all, to say that it works because it didn’t, and to say that it was one of the… They don’t even say it was one of, they say it is the biggest narrowing of the cap ever. And what you just said actually is the biggest narrowing of the gap ever. It’s kind of ironic, but the biggest narrowing of the gap and the biggest upward trajectory of literacy happened for black people underneath the most segregated circumstances. I just want to make, it’s an unpopular point, but I have to make it.
Jason Bedrick: But it’s an important point to make. You fault policymakers and wonks and commentators today for failing to learn from history. It’s amazing that under a horrific regime of segregation, the black community was still able to come together and take matters in their own hands and be incredibly successful. So, what can today’s education reformers learn from the Booker T. Washington-Rosenwald schools initiative?
Chris Stewart: They can learn so much. But I do think that the idea that we build new schools that we build them specifically for communities that need them, that we ask for a lot of investment for people to save their own lives. And that we put the bar pretty high on self-determination and self-preservation and ownership of your own intellectual development. These are things that are missing from a lot of the reform. Matter of fact, a lot of the reform efforts shared between people that we classically call reformers and then the people who traditionally are traditionalist but they want to see some reforms. The thing that they usually miss is that they’re trying to save people in spite of themselves. They’re trying to save kids and families in spite of themselves. And actually I don’t know how you win the reversal of our negative educational problems without it requiring lots of responsibility of the people we’re trying to save—the responsibility, investment, ownership.
If you can’t do for self and others are doing for you, you’re always at their willing mercy. And I think we can’t have reforms that work in spite of people. We have to have reforms that put parents in power, not empower parents. The idea that we’re going to involve parents or empower parents or give power or lend power to the parents is the wrong goal. Parents have to be in control and in power. One last thing I’ll say on that, there’s a book by Cutler, I don’t know what Cutler’s first name is, I think it’s called Parents and Public Schools. It traces a 150-year transition from the onus of education being on parents to being fully having parents professionalized out of the process, out of the school building, out of schools and education completely by administrators and professionals and that whole thing.
And it’s really a fascinating history to look at because what you really want is to start working your way back to the beginning again if we want reforms at work, back to when the onus of education was literally on parents because I don’t think you fight for great education until you feel like you’re completely responsible for and on the hook for it. I don’t think parents feel that way right now. I feel like a lot of parents drop their kids off at school and hope magic happens.
Jason Bedrick: And certainly defenders of the public school status quo, too often you hear the language from them, “Well, if you had a system of school choice.” There are some parents who just can’t cut it, there are some parents who just aren’t interested in their child’s education. But there’s also some element of paternalism that you find even among the education reformers. And you’ve got harsh words for both sides. I want to read one paragraph from your essay, which I found particularly striking. You were talking about parents being in power.
You said, “It’s a power missing from every school reform discussion we have a century later. Anti-reformers argue with a logic that results in them remaining in complete control, overseeing the perpetuation of the traditionally oppressive educational apparatus. Reformers counter with a logic that results in them owning the new and improved apparatus, and then offering subleases to marginalized community members. Neither ‘side’ of the debate is ready to envision a world where black and brown communities are the mortgage holders of their own system of schooling.So, how do we get to a system as you so evocatively describe where black and brown communities are the mortgage holders of their own system of schooling?
Chris Stewart: It’s a tough question, and I think the answer lies in always making that the lens of which you pull new policies through, who own the process of the intellectual development of the people when your policy is put in place? So, whatever the policy is, whatever the reform is, that to me is the optimal question, like how do we continue to walk closer and closer and closer to the actual individual owning all of the keys to the house of their own intellectual development? Now, I think this is why you and I and many of us will agree, even though we come from different cultural understandings of the world and backgrounds, we’re going to all agree on choice. And not just limited choice or controlled choice or quasi choice or many choice or a little choice, whatever. We’re going to agree probably, and tell me if I’m wrong, you can disabuse me, we’re going to agree on universal choice for different reasons.
For me, it’s the ultimate way of getting all the way back to who owns the thing, who owns the reform, the policy, who’s in power at the end. And I think universal choice is an absolute declaration that I own it for myself and everything that comes out of that comes out of my self-determination.
Jason Bedrick: So, a part of this podcast series is we’re interviewing a bunch of people about ideas they put forth in their books, in their essays about why they support choice. And people come at it for all different reasons. Some philosophically from first principles, others because of… Milton Friedman came to support school choice because he studied economics. He understood certain economic principles, and then he applied those to education. You have others that come at it from, Myron Lieberman, for example, was a public school teacher and stumbled across public choice economics and said, “Oh wow, all the problems that I’m seeing in the system are explained by these ideas out here, and it also gives me a roadmap for a solution.”
You’re coming at it from a perspective of a parent experiencing and a student experiencing what it’s like to be in the system and then studying history and seeing, “Wow, there actually is a better way.” But there are a lot of civil rights leaders in the black community who have come to embrace choice but only embrace choice for low-income families. You came to a different conclusion where you say, “No, we have to embrace universal choice.” So, the argument on the other side is often, “Look, it’s a matter of social justice, there’s limited resources. We need to prioritize those who are least well off. Those who have resources, they’re going to be OK anyway. We need to focus on just the least well-off.” That seems to be a very compelling argument. Why are you pushing for universal choice instead of just choice for low-income families or families that are assigned to low-performing public schools?
Chris Stewart: Wow, that’s little lot in that question. First of all, let me just say that the reason I think that those civil rights leaders do that is because I think that’s the easiest way to sell choice to their own people. So, I just want to be real. As a former politician, I just have to be clear about the fact that I think that there’s a smart reason. If you’re going to be for choice and you want to sell it to marginalized communities. It’s easier for you to sell it as a thing that’s just going to benefit the poor or the least well-off or whatever. I get it. But actually the way that I look at it is more universal than that. Just in general, I believe in human rights. I don’t just believe in some human rights.
When I talk about the intellectual development, that is a pathway that every human being is going to undertake between childhood and adulthood. That’s going to happen for everybody. So, it is a universal concern, period. It doesn’t just concern one group of people, it’s everybody. But the more pragmatic thing that I think, too, is the longer we bicker about what right I should have and what right you should have and the third person or whatnot, the less chance I’m going to be completely free. The moment that we fight for freedom for everybody and we fight for everybody to have what they need in terms of self-determination, the ability to drive their own car, the ability to kind of drive their own lives, the better off it’s going to be for all of us because we’re going to not have the pit parent against parent and bicker about who gets what.
There is no scarcity of freedom. The reason we get into these arguments is because they’re based on scarcity. There’s only so much that can go around. But there’s just so much freedom that should be able to go around, just so much parental rights that should go around. These aren’t things you can triage or put on a sliding scale. And I just think it’s a maturing of choice theory and thought for people who come at it from a civil rights point of view. And I don’t want to get off track, but when we talk about education as being the civil rights issue of our time or whatnot, I’ve always disagreed with that. And I hope this doesn’t pull your podcast up, man.
But here’s the bottom line. Actually, I used to think that, and at some point I figured out the difference between the abolitionists and civil rights people is that civil rights believe that the system is essentially good, and with some tweaks and fixes it could be made great. The difference between them and abolitionists is that abolitionists never thought that the system was good, just needed some tweaks. As a matter of fact, from day one, they realized that the system was not good and it needed way more than just fixing for civil rights. No one ever talked about slavery reform, nobody ever—
Jason Bedrick: We’ll just make it more humane. We’ll just have a more humane—
Chris Stewart: Yeah. Let’s just make it humane. Instead of 12 hours a day, let’s just make it 11 and a half hours a day of work for free. This is where I get in trouble and you and I and a lot of us, we’ll bump up against people’s romanticism about the system. I actually don’t believe state-run, state-governed, state-delivered education systems is anything other than dangerous. If you are trying to raise a free people who are free to bring their grievances to the state and to fight the state and make the state bend to the wheel at the consent of the governed. To allow the state to be the sole controller of how minds are developed in the country is a deep and important thing to point towards in all of these discussions. That goes far deeper than what civil rights activists want to talk about when we talk about education.
Jason Bedrick: But it sounds like what you’re talking about is privatization, that’s how the other side calls it. Isn’t that a bad thing? We want public. We don’t want private.
Chris Stewart: I say it all the time, and it’s kind of a quip. I worry more about the publicization of education and the intellectual development of people and human beings than I do the privatization. There is nothing more private than your brain and the brains of your children. And the development of those brains so that they become the full person that they’re supposed to be, that God put them on earth to be. And to hand that over wholesale to a state that has proven to you in many ways, empirically has proven to you that actually they are more about the will to power than your own power. That makes no sense, it really makes no sense. I get it, I understand that there’s some very government loving people in the world. But the history and the track record and everything that is documented should tell an intelligent person, this is probably not the entity that you turn your brain over to.
Jason Bedrick: One of the funny things is, it’s some of the same people that I hear saying that society is irredeemably racist and the government is irredeemably racist, but we should also hand over the education of black children to the government entirely. And that if we empower African-Americans to make decisions for themselves about their schooling, well, this is privatization and this is segregation. And when African-Americans self-select into higher performing schools that they believe are serving their kids and are desperate, there’s waiting lists to get into these schools and to get out of the schools that they’re assigned to, we say, “Oh well, this is segregation. Well, you need to go back to that other school that’s not doing well for you because there’s a higher percentage of low-income white kids in that school.” It boggles the mind.
Chris Stewart: Yeah. It’s a little more Jim Jones in that, too. It’s really, you should do that for the public good. You should send your kid back to a place of intellectual depth and the diminishment of their bright lights because it serves the public good of some sort for us all to be together in the same container. And oh by the way, my kid is not going to be there with you, but you should do it. That’s really what we’re being told often.
Jason Bedrick: Literally. There was a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center a few years ago against Alabama’s tax-credit scholarship program. And they were making an equal protection claim. And why? Because it could only serve a certain number of kids, not every kid, not every low-income African-American child was going to have access to this program. And even those who might be lucky enough to get a scholarship, there might be transportation issues. They might not be able to figure out how to get their kids to school in the first place. So, because it couldn’t help everybody, we can’t help anybody. And so all you other African-Americans that… And primarily, that’s who was benefiting from the program. You can’t get access to this program because we can’t save everybody. But we never say that to white families, we don’t say that to whites.
Chris Stewart: It’s a very clever argument though. You have to admit, it’s super clever. The idea that we should all be together rather than the individual being empowered is a super powerful argument even for the people that don’t believe it but they’re just using it for policy purposes. The whole public good, we should all be together, all kids rather than just some kids. It’s dishonest, one of the more dishonest arguments, but it’s pretty powerful. It makes you feel selfish, it makes you feel selfish for doing what you need to do for your own kid. And dammit, I don’t care about being selfish if I’m predicting, if I’m a smart person and I’m predicting that putting my kid in a certain pathway is going to lead to them being economically disadvantaged or intellectually disadvantaged in the future or not meeting their full potential. We have all the statistics in the world.
We have all the numbers that tells us where people go when they don’t learn at grade level, for instance, or what they should be learning when they learn it or whatnot. We have all the data in the world that tells us how to predict what happens to you. So, you can make whatever argument you want that I should not have choice in Alabama. And then I should just go into some of Alabama’s crappiest schools that I know for sure put the majority of people on the pathway to nothing good, that’s for sure. But we’ve got to figure out a way to combat these arguments that are seductive and sexy and wrong and immoral.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. And I think one way to do it is to point out that we don’t apply it equally across the board. When a white family moves to the suburbs, we don’t say, “No, you’ve got to move back.” Because they say, “Oh, well my kid is still in the public school system.” “Oh no, you can’t leave to go to the suburbs until everybody can leave to go to the suburbs.”
Chris Stewart: Why don’t we say it?
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. It’s a good question.
Chris Stewart: Why don’t we shut down the suburbs? Let’s just put forth some proposals. Let’s just say that we’re super integrationist. Let’s get some of our elected officials who are really good on our issues to start putting forth some bills that make people live up to their declared values.
Jason Bedrick: Right. And see how far they go.
Chris Stewart: Let’s put a bill down to shut down the suburban schools now and send all those kids back because for integration purposes it’s needed, it’s what’s needed. And let’s start with the progressive suburbs first.
Jason Bedrick: And, of course, it’s not going to get off the ground at all because once people who are in power talking about their own kids. We can be virtuous with other people’s kids, with our own kids, we’re going to do what’s right by them in terms of their education. Well, shouldn’t we allow other communities to do that as well? It’s essentially draining lower-income, especially African-American communities of social capital because those families that could be rising up, those families that could be those community leaders instead of going to schools where they can reach their full potential and then can turn around and help more and more members of their community reach the same state that they’re in. We say, “No, no, no. Until we find a system that helps all of you, we can’t help some portion of you achieve your full potential.” And then it’s generation after generation of the whole system not allowing children to reach their full potential.
Chris Stewart: Yeah, I think that’s right. Here’s something that has to be called out about this argument. This is where the rub really is. So, when people want to take a look at this social capital argument, for instance, like we build up social capital in black neighborhoods and communities when we have things like vibrant co-owned schools that are indigenous and homegrown to our institutions. And integration and desegregation oftentimes requires us to wipe that away so that we can send our young people out of the communities that they live in to other communities so that they can get an education.
There is a negative tail on that in so many ways. But—and this is a big important but—but there are going to be people that are going to resist that argument for no other reason because they think it’s in service of racist segregationist to make that argument itself. So, I want to be clear about the fact that what I am saying, I’m seeing a selfish self-interest benefit for the community that I love and I think needs to develop power over time and get out of marginalization. But people will be leery of that argument because they think it’s the same argument that is made by people that want to purposely segregate black people into inferior conditions for racist reasons.
Jason Bedrick: I think that’s a very important point. So, what would you say to those who are concerned about that? It’s a valid concern because it looks like the policy mechanisms might be similar. There are those who point to… And I should step back for a second. One of the reasons I really wanted to do this particular essay, you proposed a few essays to me, but this one I think is important for today is because people talk about the racist history of school choice. It’s hilarious because if you look at the whole context, you’ve got a government-run school system that is segregated for a century. And you have private schools that end up getting public funding like a public private charter, but it came from the private initiative, private philanthropy and private money from the black community itself that created these schools that were actually serving African-Americans.
Now, fast forward to the desegregation efforts and the Landmark: Brown v. Board Decision, which says that the public school system can no longer be segregated. And some segregationists decide, “Well, if we have a voucher system, then we can still have our segregated schools.” Now, the fact is the segregationists were using when they could use… These are two tools, school choice is a tool, public schooling is at tool. Segregationists were trying to use both tools, and anti-segregationists were trying to use both tools. But there’s a certain group of people today that want to say, “Oh, well, school choice is inherently segregationist and the public school system isn’t.” That’s just not the case. And in terms of which system did far more damage, that Virginia voucher program that was proposed never actually got off the ground. It was the public school system that was and is still to this day highly segregated.
And we’ve got all this research showing that given that we are no longer by law segregated, but the fact we’re segregated by where we live, if we have a school system that’s based on residential assignment, you’re going to have a highly segregated school system. And so when you allow school choice, you actually achieve greater integration. But there will still be those that look at this history and they remember how some elements of the massive resistance movement… Although I should point out, too, there were teachers unions that were opposed to the voucher programs for segregationist reasons. They were saying, “Oh no, no, that means that if too many whites leave, then the blacks are going to take over our public schools.” We have to remember that part of the history, too. But what do you say to those folks who have legitimate concerns about racial stratification if we had a system of universal choice?
Chris Stewart: Well, I’ve put those the ones that have valid concerns versus the ones that are making this argument about the racist history of school choice. I split those in two. Because I think the folks who like the Center for American Progress that joined with the American Federation of Teachers to put out these papers around the racist history of school choice, I think are completely dishonest. I think the Center for American Progress is groveling at the grantee pro of the American Federation of Teachers. And they’re finding an opportune moment to do it with Trump winning in 2016. And it’s a good turn of pace. And I’ve argued with them about this specifically to say you can start school choice at that period of time if you want to, but school choice existed before that, for one. Well, the oldest public provisioning of private school tuition is in Maine, and that far dates all of this other stuff by far.
So, let’s just start there. You can start at any point in time that you want to where it’s convenient, but I think they’ve chosen a point in time that’s convenient for their argument with those segregation academy programs. But the second thing is if you want to be racist and you want to be in power, any tool, including a school board or elections or democracy or any apparatus can become the tool of your racism. So, to point out school choice could possibly become the tool of racist is ridiculous, anything could be. You put the hammer into the hand of a carpenter and he builds a house, you put it into the hand of a killer and he hurts people. So, the idea that choice itself or choices themselves are doing the negative thing like segregating people is ridiculous. Because even under desegregation plans that are supposed to be for the good for integration, you emptied out entire cities like Detroit of white people.
And that wasn’t choice or anything like that that made that happen, that was desegregation that made that happen. That was desegregation orders, court orders from courts and from the state to desegregate that made that happen. So, you’re not going to stop racists from doing what racists do. Racist is going to racist. That’s just the way that that works. But I don’t care. At the end of the day, what I care about is we have to make intelligent choices as people who want to be free, specifically with black folks. We have to reverse our history. We have to reverse things that are working against us. And sometimes they come in pretty packages, and sometimes they don’t. We live in a system of ironies where sometimes slavery looks like freedom and vice versa. Where sometimes our friends look like allies and sometimes they’re actually enemies.
That’s just the irony we live in, we have to be thinking people. And there’s no system that ever will be proposed to me that says, “you should have fewer choices than everybody else, and that’ll be good for you.” There’s no world in which that will ever make sense to me. You are the only human population that does better with fewer choices in the world, and let me tell you why. That’s not for an intelligent person to consider.
Jason Bedrick: Chris, it’s been great having you on the podcast. My guest today has been Chris Stewart, the CEO of Education Post and co-host of the 8 Black Hands podcast. You can find him on Twitter @citizenstewart. If you have any ideas for our Big Ideas series, if you have any book authors or authors of essays that you want us to interview, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t forget to subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice and sign up for email on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you very much. We’ll catch you next time.