The Troubled History of School Choice

Protest of the appointment of Betsy DeVos, January 2017. Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr.
Protest of the appointment of Betsy DeVos, January 2017. Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr.

One of the most contentious debates in contemporary education reform is school choice. With the president’s $20 billion campaign pledge and the secretary of education’s commitment to school choice unparalleled by any of her predecessors, the issue is poised to remain a key point of contention in the fight for educational equity for years to come.

Advocates and critics alike invoke the history of segregated schooling to justify their positions on the issue. Whether it be the creation of private white academies to resist integration in the segregated south, or the creation of independent Black schools as a stand-in for what public schools failed to deliver, these historical narratives are deployed to lend legitimacy to arguments for and against the proliferation of school choice policies. I find the latter most intriguing. As legal scholar James Forman Jr. argues, “choice has deep roots in liberal educational reform movements, the civil rights movement, and black nationalism.” Indeed, Black educational history is rife with examples of alternative institution building, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet we cannot overlook the context in which these schools emerged when juxtaposing them against contemporary public policy. (Look no further, for example, than the secretary of education’s ill-informed discussion of HBCUs as the “real pioneers” of school choice.)

This article locates a poignant example of this history in the pursuit of primary and secondary educational alternatives in Boston, Massachusetts. Paradoxically revered as the “Cradle of Liberty” and the “Little Rock of the North,” Boston bore witness to the most violent protest against school desegregation in 1974. But before the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of white protesters attacking a Black man with a flagpole went viral, Boston’s Black community had spent decades deploying a multitude of strategies to combat the inflexibility of school officials. As historian Jeanne Theoharis and others have demonstrated, the city’s small Black community mobilized and protested the disparate conditions in majority white and Black primary and secondary schools: they exposed the differences in curriculum, the quality of educational materials, per pupil expenditures, facilities, and vocational and college-preparatory tracking.

After years of fighting for integration and community control of predominantly Black public schools, parents and activists were fed up with the limitations of the public school system, yet doubly optimistic about the promises of grassroots mobilization. So, they turned to another avenue of redress: the creation of primary and secondary schools outside the traditional apparatuses of public education.

Protest of appointment of Betsy DeVos, Washington, DC, January 2017. Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

The predominantly Black community of Roxbury became home to a series of alternative schools in the late 1960s, one of which was the Highland Park Free School. With the help of a federally-funded educational research laboratory, a group of Black parents gradually pieced together a blueprint for what they envisioned as a “community-inspired and community controlled” school.1 Their vision was two-fold. First, as an “urban community school,” the Highland Park community would control the decision-making process, staff hiring, and the curriculum; conversely, the school would serve the community’s needs by attending to the “social, physical, political, and economic factors which contribute to the community’s educational health.” Second, the school would be an “experimental urban school” committed to “seeking new solutions to urban educational problems through constant experimentation and innovation.”2 The parents did not aim “to tranquilize or bring calm to embattled frustrated parents”; rather, the group hoped

to bring forth what we believe to be a realistic hope that all children can be educated; that we can defeat the present problems besetting our community…that we can help change the way people feel about their ability to effect change within their communities, and indeed, within the Boston public school system.”

In 1968, referring to itself as a “black school” with “non-black students,” the Highland Park Free School opened its doors to 114 students.3 The school sustained itself on donations from local residents, churches, and private foundations. But within a matter of years, Highland Park closed due to a scarcity of funds, as did a host of other independent schools with similar reform impulses spanning urban areas across the country.

Although the history of the Highland Park Free School and institutions like it resonate with contemporary school choice debates, a neat comparison of relevance does not suffice unless the goals of Highland Park—to function as a community-controlled institution—are rightfully accounted for. As the debate about school choice inevitably rages on, it is important to remember that the legacy of alternative institution building was not an exercise of choice, but of resilience. These Black community schools were erected in spite of the confines of discriminatory laws and practices that barred African Americans from equitable education.

  1. Danice Bordett, “Free School – Kids Learn What We Teach Them,” Bay State Banner, October 10, 1968, Folder 32, Box 3, James P. Breeden Papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.
  2. “The Highland Park Community School: An Independent Experimental Community School for the Children of Highland Park,” Box 3, Folder 41, JPB.
  3. Non-black students totaled 16% of the student population. “Breeden – Confidential (?),” December 8, 1968, 4, 10, Folder 39, Box 3, James P. Breeden Papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College; Michael Andrews, letter to Kevin Smith, October 31, 1968, Folder 33, Box 3, James P. Breeden Papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.
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Erica Sterling

Erica Sterling is a doctoral student in the history department at Harvard University. Her research interests focus on the intersection of race, rights, and the privatization of education reform in twentieth century U.S. history. She is originally from California.