I grew up poor and white in the southern United States in the 1980s. My father pastored many small rural churches in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. We moved on average every 3-4 years throughout my childhood. In December 1991, we moved from Star City, Arkansas, population 2,000, to Nashville, Tennessee, where I began the second half of my freshman year at Hillsboro Comprehensive High School, with approximately 1,200 enrollment. By the time I graduated from high school, I was the product of four public school districts in three different states.
At each transition, we have always lived well below the poverty line. When we first moved to Tennessee, we lived in two upstairs rooms in an upscale neighborhood in Nashville where my mother was a caretaker for a wealthy elderly widow. This unique arrangement complemented my “MASH” paper fortune teller experience of living in a mansion, apartment, cabin, and house (we also lived in several mobile homes growing up).
“School Choice” was something not many people talked about in the 80s and early 90s. Every time we moved, I enrolled in the local public school. That was all we knew. Since church was not a weekend activity but a way of life for my family, it seems very possible that my parents would have chosen a private Christian education for me and my sisters if such an education became geographically and financially available to us. At the same time, we were generally satisfied and felt connected to our local public school. Sometimes my parents both worked in the public school system. And our poverty has never been an obstacle to the involvement of my parents in my education.
Today, proponents of school choice like to argue that vouchers and college savings accounts are designed to primarily benefit families of color who are “stuck in failing urban schools.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true, however, that some families of color pursue school choice policies in search of better perceived educational opportunities. Additionally, I have written elsewhere that public school advocates should exercise caution, especially when criticizing communities of color seeking charter opportunities.
Overall, however, school choice is a movement by and for white people. There are two distinct classes of white people in the school choice movement: architects and sleepers.
The architects are white men in power suits in right-wing think tanks like the Oklahoma Public Affairs Council. The Architects are white lawmakers who change the same failed school choice bills year after year. The Architects are emboldened suburban white parents who live for the retweets of national school choice peddlers like Corey DeAngelis. Architects have the most to gain from school choice policies, the middle class and wealthy white families who already have their children enrolled in private schools. The choice of school was and always will be entirely focused on promoting the interests of architects.
The second class of white people in the school choice movement are families just like mine growing up. Sleepers are those blanks whose existence allows architects to sleep at night. The Architects find it comforting to know that their interests align with those of poor white parents who, given the chance, would have the time and privilege to navigate the complications of accessing savings accounts- studies. Architects don’t really want better educational opportunities for communities of color. The Architects of School Choice are happy to freely share benefits with poor evangelical white families and are willing to tolerate benefits that trickle down to a select few families of color.
Unfortunately for the architects, so many sleepers live in rural areas where the local public school is the center of community life. Currently in Oklahoma, rural schools are mobilizing against renewed push for school choice policies in the Oklahoma legislature. And private schools simply don’t exist in large swathes of states like Oklahoma. Still, some sleepers can really (and selfishly) benefit from school choice policies. I believe that the poor in general have a heightened sense of community and an intrinsic understanding of what the word “public” means in public school. I will be eternally grateful that my family’s white privilege (which still exists for poor white people) did not manifest itself in a private education for me, subsidized in part by public money.
Aaron Baker is a high school social studies teacher, organizer, and musician in Oklahoma City.