Greg Forster, Ph.D. | November 26, 2018

Racism and the government school monopoly

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

A story about racism in Edmond public schools points to the role parental choice can play in protecting vulnerable students and strengthening school discipline policies when it comes to racism. For too long, defenders of the government school monopoly have smeared school choice with the claim that choice empowers racism. In fact, what protects racism is taking power away from families. That is especially true for families who are less able to afford to pay for their kids’ education twice just to get access to a school where their kids won’t be preyed upon by racists.

Rhonda Robinson, a grandmother of three public school students in Edmond, has shared the story of their experience. Hurtful racial jokes had been part of their experience at Edmond North High School—they made recordings to prove it. But things came to a head when other students at the school made one of her grandchildren a target on social media.

Reporting from KFOR, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, confirms this was not an isolated case. They spoke to multiple students who described a climate of racism at the school. Maurice Franklin, who came to Edmond North from another school with a different institutional culture, comments: “If you're at a different school, you know Edmond North is like this. You know. It's very natural for white people to say the n-word.”

Robinson’s case attracted wider attention, threatening to make the system look bad. So, Robinson was able to get permission from the guardians of the government school monopoly to transfer her grandchildren out of Edmond North.

But most cases of racism, harassment, and bullying don’t make media headlines. Those families are stuck. They have to keep sending their children to school to be preyed upon, day after day.

Don’t listen to me, listen to Robinson: “The students still there, they feel helpless, they feel like their hands are tied and they just have to tough this out,” she told KFOR. “No kid should have to tough it out.”

She’s right. No kid should have to “tough out” racism. But coming to their aid in an effective way involves giving all families the same power Robinson got—the only power that ultimately matters in education, the power to decide where their children will go to school.

Robinson shouldn’t have had to see her grandchildren scarred by racism to get that power. It should have been hers from the beginning. Justice demands we protect a families’ right to protect their own kids. And not just Robinson but all families should have that power.

Unfortunately, the monopoly has successfully spread the canard that school choice empowers racism. They almost always back this up with nothing but wild speculation about what might happen if we took the chains off and let families make their own decisions. On rare occasions, they remember to mention that for a brief moment during the Civil Rights era, southern states considered whether school choice policy might allow them to maintain segregated schools after Brown v. Board.

But we have had school choice programs for a generation, and none of the nightmare scenarios have come to pass—or anything even remotely like it. Of the 10 empirical studies examining segregation in choice programs, eight find they have actually improved integration, and the other two find no difference. No empirical study has found that school choice made segregation worse.

Movies and media have taught us to think of private schools as snobby, exclusivist academies for the rich, but this is simply not the reality. The typical private school is religious and serves students who are not much different from the general population. These schools aren’t trying to keep students out, they’re trying to get them in—to serve as many students as they can while paying the bills.

Today, a majority of U.S. states have school choice programs. They serve hundreds of thousands of students. Where are the segregated schools?

I’ll tell you where they are: they’re public schools, which are dramatically segregated by ethnicity, as well as economically and in other ways. The reason is clear: Where you go to school is determined by what neighborhood you live in, and neighborhoods tend to be homogenous.

There’s no escaping the deadly logic of the monopoly. Assign students to schools by residence and you assign them to segregated schools. Choice is not only the only effective protection for students, it’s also the only path to integrated schools. It breaks down the barriers between neighborhoods, disconnecting school assignment from residence in a way that makes integration possible. And it looks like parents are making choices that cause integration to happen.

​“Who was the defendant in Brown v. Board? The government school monopoly. Public schooling is where we find the long and shameful history of segregation.” —Greg Forster

After all, who was the defendant in Brown v. Board? The government school monopoly. Private schools didn’t build Jim Crow and are not implicated in its legacy; public schooling is where we find the long and shameful history of segregation.

America continues the struggle to build a genuinely pluralistic society. That means overthrowing the continuing power of racism, our great national original sin. To pursue the American principles of equality and freedom, we must labor diligently to dismantle the structures of racial oppression.

The government school monopoly was created in the 19th century to consolidate the power of social elites. They wanted to homogenize what was, in their eyes, an unacceptably diverse population. A society where differences are valued can only emerge when the monopoly they built is broken.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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