Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

School Choice and the Standpoint of African American Mothers: Considering the Power of Positionality

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

School Choice and the Standpoint of African American Mothers: Considering the Power of Positionality

Article excerpt

Scholars, educators, and reformers continue to debate the merit of school-choice reform. In this article, the author marshals in-depth interview data from low-income and working-class African American mothers to describe how they engage in the educational marketplace and construct their school choices. The mothers' data shed light on the potential of charter schools and school vouchers to offer parents equal educational opportunity. Their stories show that their positionality-race, class, and gender factors- powerfully influences their educational decision-making. The mothers are determined to seek agency for their families through their school choice making, yet they question whether charter schools and vouchers can help them. Drawing upon feminist theory, the author counters traditional assumptions about the mothers and their school choices by introducing the notion of "positioned choice."


Over the past decade, powerful educational and political groups have touted market-based schoolchoice reform as having the potential to improve public schools, while offering new choices to parents and students who have long been denied important educational liberties (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Schneider, Teske & Marschall, 2000; Vitteritti 1999). Two such reforms include the use of public vouchers for private school attendance and the creation of public charter schools that are exempt from most local and state education regulations. Charter schools and vouchers are popular and controversial school choice measures that rely on rules of supply and demand and view parents and students as education consumers.

Advocates for these policies claim that the autonomous and competitive nature of marketbased, school-choice reforms will make choice schools more accountable to the public, thus better for all parents. The reforms will particularly empower poor and minority parents to exercise choice and thereby escape failing, urban public schools (Manno, Finn, Bierlein, & Vanourek, 1998; Nathan, 1996;Peterson, 1999).

Two of the country's three publicly funded voucher programs operate in cities that are predominantly Black (Milwaukee and Cleveland). In 2000, a national public opinion poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPE) found that 57% of African Americans favor public voucher programs, including 74% of African Americans with children in their households (JCPE, 2000). Moreover, market advocates have estimated that African American parents participate in at least 42 privately funded voucher programs throughout the country that target inner-city children (Moe, 1999). Statistics regarding African American students' enrollment in charter schools are more staggering. During the 2000-2001 school year, African American students comprised one-third (33%) of the U.S. charter school population, but only 17% of the U.S. public school population overall (Frankenberg & Lee, 2003).

Both scholarly work and the popular press show that market-based, school-choice reforms appeal to African American parents across the country-parents whose children mostly populate low-performing, urban public schools (Barnes, 1997; Fuller, Elmore, & Orfield, 1996; Miller, 1992; Shokraii, 1996). This fits a pattern of Black parents seeking increased accountability, opportunity, choice, and voice within their children's schools, which they have done since the advent of public schooling (Alien & Jewel, 1995; Anderson, 1988; Levin, 1972; Shujaa, 1992).

Critics suspect that underprivileged parents are destined to face defeat in a competitive educational marketplace given their limited socioeconomic resources (Henig, 1994; Wells, Lopez, Scott, & Holme, 1999). Apple (2001), Carl (1994), and Henig (1996) further suggest that parents of color are pawns in the political games of free-market proponents. They contend that market-oriented school-choice reforms are inequitable and exploit parents of color by capitalizing on their hopes and desperation for better schooling, while advancing conservative political agendas that fail to serve the parents' interests. …

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