As I clicked to the last slide on my presentation to the National Association of Multicultural Education annual conference, I looked out at the audience. It was a diverse crowd — old, young, black, white. For a half hour or so, they had listened intently to my version of the history of schooling in Memphis. Now it was time for questions.

I’ve been giving talks like this for over a decade now, tracing our community’s education story from its roots in Reconstruction through segregation, desegregation and into the inequities of today. The story I tell is one of consistent repression of black education — the language I have settled on is “antipathy toward the education of black Memphians” and the oft-observed norm of separate and unequal community schools. I hope to shed light on structures that drive educational inequity here, but as I open the floor to questions, there is always one question I dread.

Where do you send your kids to school?

The question doesn’t always surface, but it does constantly haunt my mind. I dread the question because it implies the legitimacy of what I have said about over a century of Memphis education is dependent on choices I have personally made. Over the years, I have battled with the appropriate answer. My internal answers have ranged from extreme (“that’s none of your business”) to philosophical (“in what way does the answer matter to the larger problem at hand”) to honest (“that choice is something I perpetually struggle with”).

My internal answers have ranged from extreme (“that’s none of your business”) to philosophical (“in what way does the answer matter to the larger problem at hand”) to honest (“that choice is something I perpetually struggle with”).

For the sake of transparency, I will get the answer out of the way: I have sent my children, ages 13 and 9, to the following types of schools: a neighborhood public school (though not in my neighborhood), another public school connected to the university I work for, an all-girls private school and homeschool. As my daughter and son continue in their schooling, my wife and I will face additional choices. Each environment has had strengths and weaknesses, and each has its place within the broader educational landscape I critique in my work and my presentations.

But this is about what my answer says about me.

When I am describing inequities in Memphis education I have experienced as a student and parent, have studied as a researcher and worked to confront through service to the community, I imagine myself as someone on the “right” side of the problem. But when I am faced with the question of where I send my children to school, the rightness of my side is far more ambiguous.

There is a voice within that suspects, fears, knows I am complicit in this system and some of the choices I’ve made prove it. I have benefited from it in my own schooling. And the very fact that I have a choice shows my children operate from a position of privilege, so they will benefit as well.

No matter what the slides on my presentation say about schooling in Memphis, about “antipathy toward the education of black Memphians,” complicity surely says something about me.

School choice is a policy—and practical—matter

Among education policy wonks (a category I find myself in), “school choice” is a hot topic. It conjures discussions of charter schools or vouchers for private school, and transfer policies and admission criteria. There are those who see broader choice as a way of providing agency to families to direct a child’s education and competition among schools to drive innovation. Others see school choice as undermining the democratic ideals of public education by separating students and privatizing schooling.

Here in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee on March 4 announced a sweeping education proposal that in addition to setting aside $25.5 million for a voucher program for low-income families to pay for private tuition or other educational services, would double the amount of state funding to $12 million for charter school facilities. He also proposes expanding charter schools through a new independent entity that would authorize the schools.

University of Memphis Law Prof. Daniel Kiel.

But “school choice” is not just a policy topic. Each family with a student must make a school choice of their own. Where do you send your kids to school?

The first type of “school choice” is about the policies and boundary lines that result in a school landscape filled with schools that continue to represent racial and socioeconomic isolation. The second type of “school choice”—the one about my family’s own priorities — is the question I fear.

These two “school choices” are indissolubly linked. School choice policies impact individual decisions. There is no such thing as a school choice policy that is neutral. Whether a local decision about where to draw an attendance zone for a school or a state law enabling the creation of new, autonomous school districts within a county, choice policies dictate which students attend which schools to a great extent.

There is no such thing as a school choice policy that is neutral.

Individual school choices are not neutral, either. Whether a choice of a religious school or a neighborhood school, an optional school or a charter school, every school choice makes a statement about a family’s perspective on the purposes of schooling for their child.

Of course, the ability to assert that perspective through school choice is not equally available to all Memphians. Policies and practicalities constrain the choices of many, particularly those in poverty. Tuition or home prices in certain areas will make some school choices unavailable; lack of transportation or information will take others off the table. And admissions criteria or selective processes make some schools very difficult to access.

It is this inequity in choice I point to in criticizing the idea that an educational marketplace will remedy historical inequity in education. For so many Memphians, there is not much of a market at all.

But, whereas others’ school choices (or lack thereof) may reflect on the inequities built into the system, the school choice I make is less encumbered by those systemic barriers; instead, my choices reflect more directly on me.

Much of my professional work has been devoted to arguing that racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are created by the structure of the American education system and result in perpetuation of all of the racial disparities that plague the American experience. Segregation in Memphis schools has dramatically increased over the past 50 years, according to a 2018 analysis by Chalkbeat.

Note: The racial demographic data of Memphis schools comes from the Tennessee Dept. of Education for Shelby County Schools and Achievement School District for the 2016–17 school year. Courtesy of Chalkbeat.

“A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, in which 90 percent or more of students are black,” Chalkbeat found. “That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971, when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation. Add in Hispanic children … and more than 80 percent of schools are highly segregated.”

And there is no obvious change in sight. After all, according to Chalkbeat, “Without a re-entry of white families into the city school system and massive policy changes, the segregation will only worsen, say academics who have traced Memphis African-American and education history.”

Memphis student racial makeup, courtesy of Chalkbeat.

Though there are examples of success at individual schools and for individual students despite this segregated reality, the only systemic solution has been to intervene in the structure so schools are less racially and socioeconomically isolated.

The only systemic solution has been integration. I am in favor of virtually any policy that seeks to create genuinely integrated schools that mythical place reflecting the diversity of a community in its student body and teaching corps. This includes gaining from that diversity rather than forcing an assimilation of one group into another’s norms, and creating a new generation of tolerant citizens whose futures will be determined by effort and talent.

But how does that abstract support for policy change translate into the concrete choices I make about my own children’s schooling? I must confess that integration has not been my highest priority.

‘My choice upholds the system I critique’

In describing her own school choice for her daughter, journalist and 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow Nikole Hannah Jones wrote, “It is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system.” From this perspective, my choice is upholding the system I critique.

A corollary to Jones’ comment is the choices of individual parents could also tear down the system.

Though I had an opportunity to attend an excellent private school when I was young, I insisted on staying with my friends at an optional public school. That choice was formative for me, and few days go by when I do not appreciate the exposure to diversity those schools provided, imperfect as they were.

Indeed, families of all races do make choices that create greater integration. Black families may opt out of the vast majority of local schools that are more than 90 percent African-American, even where that might mean putting their children into psychologically burdensome environments in which they will be an extreme minority. White families may opt for a school with greater racial or socioeconomic diversity, including the handful that actually reflect the demographics of our broader community.

But these choices — admirable and powerful as they are — are not a strategy for broader change.

School choice forces families to consider a primary question: what is best for your child, and distracts from consideration of what is best for a community. That some families have concluded that integrated environments are best for their children is wonderful. But other families — including mine — may not make that the highest priority.

Indeed, the history of education in our community demonstrates most families will not. The premise that a family’s choice should primarily be about what’s best for their own children is embedded in our school choice policies and dominant in how we think. That is what upholds the system.

Perhaps a strategy based entirely on parents behaving unselfishly is doomed to fail, but so long as parents like me continue to take advantage of the opportunity to protect privilege through school choice, there is a low ceiling on progress.

I’m back to complicity.

The mythically ‘perfect’ school does not exist

As a scholar, and from my own schooling, I know there is no “sacrifice” in choosing to send a child to a school with greater socioeconomic diversity; there is much to be gained. I know as well the way in which school quality is typically measured — test scores, college admissions, facilities — is more reflective of the raw material that enters a school than of what the school does with that material.

Yet when I hear others describe their children losing a love of learning due to incessant testing and overly strict discipline, I recognize the potential effect, at least in the short term, of the “wrong” choice. I have given up on finding that mythical perfect school, but I still face a choice.

Providing the appropriate balance between smooth seas and experiences that push children out of their comfort zones is a great challenge of parenthood. As a South African proverb says: Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. I know this to be true, yet I am often tempted as a parent to use the tools I have to smooth my children’s seas. The choice of school feels like an important manifestation of that search for balance.

Where I send my children to school is none of your business. It does not affect the accuracy of my critiques of the inequities in our education system. And it is something I struggle with massively.

And I am not excused from that responsibility merely because I struggle with it.

The weight of the laws, policies and structures that perpetuate school inequality does not fall upon any individual family, mine included, to fix on its own, but the choices of individual parents do help to uphold an unequal system. And I am not excused from that responsibility merely because I struggle with it. Working through my own guilt is not a strategy for change.

If our unequal educational landscape is to change, those with the means to make genuine school choices must think critically about the impact each individual school choice has on the system and make their choices with that in mind. And those with the power to impact the policies that shape everyone’s choices must work intentionally to generate a system that pushes toward greater equity.

Until then, I’ll continue giving my talks and waiting anxiously for an uncomfortable—but important—question.

Daniel Kiel is a professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, where his research focuses on race and education. He directed the documentary film “The Memphis 13,” and in addition to his scholarly work, his writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, and several local publications.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.