School Choice Debates Shouldn’t Forget Rosenwald Schools

Earlier this week my colleague Andrew Rotherham wrote about the complex history of school choice efforts in the United States, and highlighted how current debates about school choice often obscure the wide diversity of school choice advocates and their motivations. Andy notes that, while some voucher and private choice efforts have been motivated by a desire to preserve segregation in education, others have been led by African American leaders and their white progressive allies seeking to expand opportunity for African American children historically underserved by public school systems.

Indeed, there is a long history of African American leaders and their white allies responding to inequities in or exclusion from established education systems by building their own institutions outside those systems. That’s the impetus behind some charter and private schools today, but has much deeper historical roots. The Freedom Schools movement during the Civil Rights Era is one example. Prior to that, the Rosenwald Schools — built with funds from both philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and matching resources and efforts from local African American communities themselves — played a crucial role in educating African American students in the first part of the 20th century. By 1928, one-third of African American children in the rural South were educated in such schools.

Rosenwald schools fell out of use following Brown v. Board of Education and the (sadly far too slow) progress of desegregation that followed, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation named them one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. Yet those that remain are a powerful reminder that when groups of Americans are denied access to public education systems or feel those systems are not respecting their values or serving their children well — from Catholic immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, to rural African American communities in the 1920s, to Black and Latino charter founders today — leaders within those groups will find ways to create opportunities outside established systems. Those efforts aren’t perfect, but they deserve our respect and attention to the lessons they offer — even as we seek to address inequities in established systems.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Rosenwald Schools, you can visit Fisk University’s searchable database of Rosenwald Schools or read the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Guide to Preserving Rosenwald Schools.