The debate over school choice has triggered heated discussions among policymakers, educators and advocates. Denisha Allen, a senior fellow for the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the visionary founder of “Black Minds Matter,” is at the forefront of this discourse.

As a Black woman and parent, she firmly believes that school choice represents the next crucial step in the profound historical struggle for education equity for African Americans across the nation, a stance that is often met with opposition in the Black community.

The Defender spoke with Allen, who shared her insights into the ongoing battle for education equity and the vital role of school choice in shaping the future of education in Texas. She also delves into the current special session and discusses how Texas, and how the entire nation could benefit from embracing education freedom.

Defender: Can you tell us why you view school choice as the next step in the fight for education equity, especially for Black Americans?

Allen: The struggle for education equity has deep historical roots, especially for African Americans. It’s concerning to me when opponents of school choice argue that children should have limited options and be restricted to government schools. I firmly believe that we should provide kids access to the full spectrum of educational choices and let their families decide what’s best for them. Opponents of school choice often argue that this is not what Black families need, that it’s not equitable, and it doesn’t promote educational equality. This couldn’t be further from the truth. School choice empowers parents and guardians to make educational decisions that best serve their children. When parents have the freedom to choose the right learning environment, it fosters competition, drives innovation, and improves educational outcomes. African American families, like all families, deserve the opportunity to access high-quality education that meets their specific requirements.

Defender: School choice often faces opposition, with some opponents equating it with “racism.” How would you respond to such arguments?

Allen: Critics who equate school choice with racism miss the bigger picture. Public schools in America are more segregated than ever, not just along racial lines but also in terms of socioeconomic class. Minorities, especially Black children, are often concentrated in specific schools, reinforcing the historic segregation created by redlining. It’s essential to acknowledge the history of school choice, such as the fact that vouchers were used by white families to avoid sending their kids to public schools with Black students.

However, it’s equally important to recognize the history of public education, which was initially designed for white boys, not for Black people or women. It took a Supreme Court decision like Brown v. Board of Education to open public schools to Black students. Today, in Texas, only 17% of Black children are reading on grade level in public schools. We must question the racist structures we continue to fund in the public school system, not school choice. School choice empowers families by giving them the opportunity to access better education.

Defender: Could you share your thoughts on Texas’ current special session?

Allen: This special session presents a significant opportunity for Texas to prioritize education and enact meaningful change. To truly advance education equity, we must expand access to quality educational options for all families. As part of this special session, I hope to see a robust and constructive debate on school choice policies, including charter schools, education savings accounts, and scholarship programs. Empowering parents with more choices will lead to improved educational outcomes and create a competitive landscape that benefits all students. I commend Governor Abbott for his relentless commitment to this cause, even extending the legislative session to make it happen for Texas families. It’s unfortunate that it has taken this long, considering Texas is predominantly Republican and school choice is often seen as a Republican issue. In reality, it should be a bipartisan concern. I hope that this initiative succeeds, as it holds the potential to transform education in Texas.

Defender: Can you outline the ways in which the state of education in Texas could prosper with the implementation of school choice?

Allen: Implementing school choice in Texas would have several positive outcomes. It would encourage innovation and competition among schools, ultimately leading to better quality education. It’s important to recognize that education freedom benefits not only parents and students but also educators. We should consider the impact on teachers and how school choice can empower them. For example, we host a directory of Black-founded schools on our website, and one of these schools in Houston is a charter school. Ask those founders the benefits to this type of education and I’m sure you’ll get a good perspective.

Defender: What do you have to say to those who might not agree with what you are saying?

Allen: Advocating for school choice and education equity is a collective effort. Parents and guardians should be empowered with information and resources to make informed decisions about their children’s education. Communities can engage in dialogues that challenge the status quo and demand better educational opportunities. Policymakers, in particular, have a profound role to play. They should prioritize the needs of students and families over bureaucratic hurdles, be open to diverse educational models, and work towards creating an education system that reflects the aspirations and dreams of every child. I would encourage those who are undecided to consider a simple question: If you had the opportunity to receive funding to improve your child’s learning environment, regardless of your background or income, would you take it? School choice essentially offers families that opportunity. It’s about enabling families to access better education and improving the quality of education for all children.

For those who support this cause or want to learn more, I recommend visiting our website, “Black Minds Matter.” Additionally, reach out to your lawmakers. It’s vital that the voices of parents with children in underperforming schools are the loudest in this discussion. We shouldn’t let those who already have educational choices dominate the conversation; it should be those who need better options.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...