Roy Lee Johnson, M.S.
In September 1958, I entered the first grade of a segregated elementary school in a small rural town in the southwest corner of Arkansas. The area in which I resided was aptly called the “Ark-La-Tex” because of its proximity to both the state boundaries of Louisiana and Texas. Born in 1952 as the twelfth child of hard working and loving parents of African-American descent, I entered school with little or no knowledge that I was supposed to have a choice of schools in which to attend. Actually, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had no choice of schools – my race, the income level of my parents, the geographic location in which I lived were some factors which determined which school I would attend. More importantly, the defiance of state and local educational systems to issues of equal access and opportunity, and other societal factors served to limit, if not nullify, any alternative to choosing a school other than the one designated.
Nearly 36 years later, I wonder whether parents and children from minority and low-income backgrounds have a “real” choice of school in spite of all the attention surrounding the concept of school choice. My impression is that not much has really changed.
Just two years after my birth, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared that the doctrine of “separate but equal” access to educational facilities and opportunities was unconstitutional. The overturn of the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896) which had earlier established the doctrine of separate but equal education paved the way for the choice-based desegregation of schools to achieve racial balance. In 1955 the U.S. Supreme Court, commenting upon the initial Brown v. Board of Education case, declared that equal access and equal opportunity for education should be carried out with all deliberate speed. Despite the court case, schools in the South, and in Arkansas where I lived, remained segregated for many more years. One year before I was to enter school for the first time, in September, 1957, the governor of Arkansas challenged the right of African-American parents to enroll their children in the school of their choice (Little Rock Central High School) by calling out the state national guard. Only after intervention from the President of the United States were the small number of African-American students allowed to attend the school of choice, and not without a further array of obstacles.
Not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was there any effort or movement in the desegregation of schools in the South, particularly in my hometown. Not long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act (approximately during the 1964-65 school year), an African-American activist-preacher in my hometown enrolled his two sons in a previous all-White school as an exercise of his right to choose a school for his children. Needless to say, the school that I attended remained segregated as no White parent chose to send their child to our school. With the graduation of the minister’s youngest son in May 1969, the previously desegregated school returned to a segregated all-White school.
Personally, my own opportunity to choose the school of my choice did not come until my senior year in the 1969-70 school year. During my sophomore and junior years in high school, I, along with a small number of other African-American students, had attended selected advanced classes at the desegregated school; however, I really didn’t have much to do with the decision. One week prior to the beginning of school, I, along with other Afrian-American males who had practiced football during the heat of the summer, were faced with deciding to (1) attend the White school and play football or (2) return to our segregated school and forfeit football. For those of us who were seniors, the decision was to return to our segregated school to become the last graduating class. Beginning the 1970-71 school year, the town’s schools were desegregated.
My most recent experiences with choosing a school of attendance involves the schooling of my own children. As any parent, I would like to believe that my wife and I have the right to send our children to the school or schools of our choice. But again we are faced with some of the same old obstacles that I faced so long ago. Decisions about where my children will attend school are again tempered by such issues as the neighborhood where we live, our income level, and a number of other issues.
As I look at the reality of school choice today, I see little difference in the real opportunities for parents and students of poor and minority backgrounds to select a school of choice. School choice or the right of parents to select the schools that their children attend are not a new phenomenon, particularly when the cost of schooling is at the parents’ expense. It would be downright un-American to say or believe that we do not have the freedom of choice for anything. But in the final analysis, school choice plans continue to provide choices for more affluent parents and students.
The rationale for public policies supporting school choice are vast. Traditionally, the rationale for the public support of school choice has included: (1) to allow parents to send their children to schools which reflect their religious beliefs, (2) to desegregate schools to achieve racial balance, (3) to allow parents to select schools based on quality and effectiveness, and (4) to preserve unique and distinct elements of various cultural and linguistic groups.
With growing concerns about the quality of public school education and the need to restructure schools, the issue of school choice, though controversial, has gained momentum as a strategy for school reform. More recently, however, there has been a growing demand that alternatives to public schools be supported partially or fully with public funds. Proponents of school choice argue that: (a) parents will be able to choose which schools their children will attend and what services their children will receive; (b) competitive principles of the free market will increase the quality of schools by weeding out ineffective schools; (c) low-income and minority families will be able to attend better schools of their choice; and (d) parent involvement in their child’s education will increase. Opponents of school choice have argued that: (a) only children of more affluent parents will benefit while children of low-income and minority students will not benefit; (b) claims that market forces will improve the quality of education are unfounded; (c) issues of distance and transportation will be barriers to low-income and minority students; and (d) choice programs discriminate against low-income and minority parents who may be less informed about how the educational system works.
As I look back and see how little things have changed over the years, I cannot help but wonder whether school choice in its many forms is the panacea its advocates claim it to be for improving the quality of educational systems for our children. There is little or no disagreement with the general concept that parents should be able to select the school of choice for their children; however, there is much disagreement as to whether public funds should be utilized to pay for private schooling. Additionally, there are several questions regarding school choice that remain unanswered: What are the effects of school choice? Do parents and students really have a choice of schools? Will school choice benefit parents and students, particularly those who are poor and minority? What support mechanisms (i.e transportation, etc.) have been established to facilitate the implementation of choice plans? These questions are as relevant today as when they were first posed 30 years ago with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Roy Lee Johnson creates and manages research design projects as part of the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
[©1994, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]