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The Republican Party Doesn’t Own the School Reform Movement. People of Color Do.

The Republican Party Doesn’t Own the School Reform Movement. People of Color Do._5fbe36a525d68.jpeg
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The Republican Party Doesn’t Own the School Reform Movement. People of Color Do.

The Republican Party Doesn’t Own the School Reform Movement. People of Color Do.

On Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump delivered his fourth State of the Union Address (SOTU) to the 116th Congress and the nation. The annual address was broadcast live across the airways and meticulously dissected by a wide range of media outlets. Trump’s speech was overwhelmingly described as “partisan” in nature, with a number of “reality show reveals.” Candidly, I’m in full agreement.

Trump and his Republican associates have a history of using Black citizens as well-placed human props in their efforts to pander to Black voters when it’s convenient, and when it’s crucial for them to win elections. To be fair, Democrats partake in this mischievous social scheme, too. 

Trump knows he needs some portion of the Black vote to seal his ambitions of “four more years” in the White House. He has gone so far as to use iconic Black celebrities such as musical artist Kayne West, former professional basketball player Dennis Rodman and boxing promoter Don King as a means of boosting his street cred among the Black community. I find it sickening and hope my people do not fall for his bullshit—especially when it comes to school choice. 

It’s clear that Donald Trump, a man with a long history of controversial, dog-whistle, racist politicking, wants to be seen as an education reform leader and a strong proponent of school choice, but he seems to be missing one very important detail: The Republican Party doesn’t own the school reform movement—people of color do.

In response to Donald Trump’s SOTU address, president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) Shavar Jeffries said:

What the Trump administration is selling is no choice at all, but a false promise for families that risks exacerbating inequitable outcomes for historically underserved students through a system that is wholly devoid of accountability.

Jeffries doesn’t trust the Trump administration—and neither do I. So when the president says: 

The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.

I find it unbelievable that Donald Trump and his administration are serious about building an inclusive society. You can simply look at the lack of diversity in Trump’s presidential cabinet and intern pool as evidence. A political leader of an administration devoid of diversity, with people seated in positions of power and influence who govern a nation that encompasses multiple ethnicities, couldn’t possibly take a sincere interest in sharing power. Because that is the inevitable end with an educated populace.

Or, you can recognize that he chose to celebrate Black History Month by awarding a Medal of Freedom to one of America’s loudest and most prominent racists

Nevertheless, he continued:

Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 States have created school choice in the form of opportunity scholarships. The programs are so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists … One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom Stephanie is a single parent.

Full disclosure: I’m a supporter of great schools—be it traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools. I also believe that access to better educational opportunities is a civil right for all kids—including Black, Brown and low-income kids facing barriers to opportunity and upward mobility.

Donald Trump’s position on school choice is probably the closest alignment I’ll ever have with the “Grand Old Party.” However, while claiming to champion today’s school choice movement, the lack of diversity across the GOP is troubling. I can’t trust a president or a political party that personifies a White savior complex

Speaking of White savior complex, there’s one thing about those opportunity scholarships that Donald Trump didn’t tell you. According to Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill, Secretary Betsy DeVos “… will be directly providing the scholarship for Janiyah.” Too bad charity for one is not an adequate substitute for public policy to lift all children.

No matter how wealthy or educated, neither Republicans nor Democrats can presume to know or understand the needs of Black and Brown communities unless we are at the table to influence the policies that will inevitably affect our potential for generations.

Do I believe the educational market should be saturated with charter and private schools? No! Every child doesn’t learn in the same environment and shouldn’t be forced to attend a school where he or she doesn’t feel welcomed, supported or nurtured—that can be traumatic for the child and a complete waste of time for all parties involved. 

Meanwhile, pandering to African American voters by seemingly exploiting a single Black mother and her Black child, Trump publicly awarded this Black scholar a tax-credit to the school of her family’s choice. 

I’m not quite sure how Secretary Besty DeVos defines educational freedom, but what I need her or the next secretary of education to do is fight for educational justice for Black and Brown children because that is what our communities need. Justice looks like equitable funding and implementation of policies that close academic gaps, address trauma and thoroughly and accurately teach Black and Brown kids about their rich cultural histories. 

I have to stop and interject that I cringed when Trump stated to the nation that Janiyah’s mother was a single parent because the public could visibly see that Stephanie was a Black woman. So why is this problematic? Black children carry a stigma of coming from fatherless homes. 

As a former principal and teacher at a community-founded charter school, many of our families had fully intact, two-parent households with Black fathers who were actively involved in their children’s education. Because Trump’s administration and social circle lack diversity, he inadvertently reinforced and echoed that racist stigma at his address.  

She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children. Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice! Now, I call on the Congress to give one million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received.

While teachers unions and many Democrats fear that Republicans are trying to destroy traditional public education by claiming today’s school choice movement, I worry less about parents’ choices and more about the one million American children locked out of the opportunity to receive a quality education.

I’m convinced that President Trump hasn’t bothered to dig beneath the surface—into the deep racial tension that continues to burst through America’s seams. And he hasn’t even begun to consider how Black and Brown children continue to perform academically behind their White classmates, often in double digits and even in progressive cities. When it comes down to actually implementing diversity and inclusive practices, both political parties still have much work to do—but Republicans have more.   

A high-quality education in American schools will never be accessible, equitable and equal for Black and Brown children until this nation identifies, discusses, faces, and collectively plays a role in dismantling the culture of White Supremacy. Until that happens, Black and Brown families will continue to be tossed around in the machine of American politics. 

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