Charter Schools: What Would Dr. King Say?

It is unfortunate that the charter school industry now finds itself on the wrong side of educational progress and civil rights history, even as industry spokesmen like Nelson Smith engage in a public relations campaign aimed to minimize awareness of the segregated conditions that exist in the majority of American charter schools today. Whether located in the poorest, brownest neighborhoods of the

It is unfortunate that the charter school industry now finds itself on the wrong side of educational progress and civil rights history, even as industry spokesmen like Nelson Smith engage in a public relations campaign aimed to minimize awareness of the segregated conditions that exist in the majority of American charter schools today. Whether located in the poorest, brownest neighborhoods of the Twin Cities or in the leafiest, whitest suburbs of North Carolina, charter schools often engage in a form of intensely-segregated schooling that either contains and isolates minorities in urban centers, while offering middle class parents escape routes from traditional schools that are increasingly tainted by the burgeoning poor, which now comprise 20 percent of American children.

The segregative effects of charter schools, when compared to public schools, remains an empirical fact, notwithstanding Mr. Smith's rhetorical squirming and recycled arguments against one of two research studies from 2010 that echo other studies like the ones linked above that document the same tendency toward apartheid. Borrowing from an earlier critique that was subsequently and effectively vaporized by Civil Rights Project researchers, Mr. Smith doggedly claims that researchers missed the mark by comparing charter school demographics to all schools within the charter's surrounding district, rather than to the geographically closest public schools. In the response in April, 2010 to the charter industry's attack on the study, Choices Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards, researchers then noted that their study, in fact, included comparisons of charter schools populations to system-wide demographics and comparisons of charters to public schools that were geographical neighbors.

In system-wide comparisons, the charters were 20 percent more segregated than the public schools, and in the more localized comparisons, the charters were 18 percent more segregated than neighboring publics. In the words of the Report's authors, the "data show that we are in the process of subsidizing an expansion of a substantially separate-by race, class, disability and possibly language-sector of schools, with little to no evidence that it provides a systematically better option for parents or that access to these schools of choice is fairly available to all."

If charter schools had some pedagogical advantage to recommend them, then perhaps the social costs of re-segregation, anti-cultural curricula, and total compliance instructional methods would be easier to accept. Perhaps. But in study after study after study over the past ten years, corporate charter schools, either the for-profit or non-profit varieties, are more likely to be academically weaker or no better than the public schools they seek to replace. The largest of the studies conducted by Stanford's CREDO group included a longitudinal and peer-reviewed examination of 70 percent of the nation's charter schools in 15 states and Washington, DC. Significantly, it was funded by supporters of the charter movement, who, no doubt, got results they had not anticipated.

The study found that only 17 percent of charters do better than matched public schools, 46 percent show no significant difference in performance, and 37 percent do worse than matched public peers. Unfortunately, a very recent Fordham Institute study now finds that, despite the charter industry's mantra that "bad schools don't last-either they improve or they close," 72 percent of bad charters remain open five years after they were identified as bad.

It may be hard to imagine the FDA recommending approval for a new drug that gets better results than available medicines in only 17 percent of the cases, and yet the U. S. Department of Education has based the $4 billion Race to the Top point system largely on whether states remove restrictions on the growth of these marginally effective corporate-run schools that collect public funds to operate. On top of that indignity, the Secretary of Education and his corporate foundation advisors chose to award no RTTT points to states or municipalities to effect or even incentivize school integration efforts or inclusion models, in charters or regular schools. While it was the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that provided the carrot that effectively served to end apartheid schooling in the South, could it be that ESEA's next version will provide the most effective and perverse incentive to re-segregate America's schools 45 years later?

Why should we bother to fight segregation, other than the fact remains that Brown v. Board of Education declared 9-0 that separate schools are inherently unequal? From an economic point of view, class, racial, and ability integration offer a great bang for the buck in terms of raising achievement. In school systems that have been integrated based on keeping the percentage of poor children under 40 percent and the percentage of low performers under 25 percent, gains have been significant without increasing funding for additional resources.

In fact, a recent study in Montgomery County, Maryland found that poor children in majority-middle class schools outperform poor children in majority-poor schools, even though the poor schools received $2,000 more per student yearly over a seven-year period. Other studies in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Wake County, North Carolina have shown similar results. Today approximately 70 school systems with over 3.5 million students enjoy the social and academic benefits of some form of diversity schooling based on socioeconomic integration and/or "controlled choice." These programs could be spread to other cities if federal priorities were focused once more on educational justice, instead of the advancement of corporate-friendly policies like choice-without-voice charter schools that undermine our social aspirations, moral convictions, and ethical obligations.

When then-AFT President, Albert Shanker, embraced charter schools back in 1988, it was for their freedom to seed and nourish curricular and instructional options that could be expanded or modified to make all schools better. By 1994, Shanker could see that the fledgling charter movement had been infiltrated and co-opted by the school choice advocates, with an anti-union and anti-public ideology that would henceforth steer the charter bus, to the detriment of school desegregation efforts that were already on the defensive due to Court decisions such as Milliken v. Bradley

Now sixteen years after Shanker saw the writing on the wall, what was once charter school freedom to innovate has been reduced to little more than a corporate welfare license to operate privately-run schools by over-paid CEOs at public expense without the benefit of public oversight, professional standards, or civil rights guarantees. Meanwhile, those of us still holding to the goals of integrated living and desegregated schooling are accused by people like Mr. Smith of "racial gerrymandering."

For readers unfamiliar with this incendiary term, it has been reserved in the past for attempts to create voting districts that nullify or minimize the potential power of minority-based or class-based voting blocs. To use the term "racial gerrymandering" to describe efforts at socioeconomic and racial integration is not only an affront to common sense, but it offers a sad, defensive caricature of civil rights goals, a twisted advocacy for a kind of social justice in blackface, where righteous indignation cannot disguise the underlying self-parody.

As we approach another day of commemoration for the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we may wonder what Dr. King would make of our current state of educational affairs, wherein education is declared by reformers, with no apparent irony, as the civil rights issue for a generation of children whose schools are more racially segregated by race and class than those of thirty years ago. We can only guess how he might respond to business and political leaders who offer segregated total compliance schools run by corporations as the only other choice for parents who desperately want something more than the malignantly-neglected public schools that have recently had the remaining trust and human caring squeezed out of them under the weight of test and punish reforms. Indeed, we may wonder what Dr. King would say to those federal officials and corporate foundation heads who view children principally for the future capital they will generate to maintain a corrupted anti-worker political economy and corporate welfare system that threaten to undermine democracy, equal opportunity, and free enterprise, itself.

For the charter industry to accuse those who advocate for economic and racial diversity in schools of "racial gerrymandering" is a prime example of the iron pot calling the copper kettle black. The conscious creation of cheap, segregated containment charters for minorities in the northern cities and privileged white flight charter academies in the South and West is not the work of socioeconomic integrationists or the Civil Rights Project. It is the work of self-labeled bold reformers and disruptors of the "status quo," whose engrossment in "market solutions" and bringing "efficiency to scale" has left them no less blind to the effects of their amoral enthusiasms than the well-meaning eugenicists who came onto the stage a hundred years ago during another Gilded Age.

Aside from the offensiveness of Mr. Smith's labeling, the weakest part of his defense of the charter industry is the failure to acknowledge that the success of any education reform will be directly proportionate to our success in mitigating poverty in neighborhoods continuing to struggle against malignant neglect, isolation, and racism. As long as poverty remains the too-big-to-fix (or even see) issue, education reformers' efforts in this new decade will suffer the same fate as the ones in the last and the ones before that. In the meantime, our society will have become further polarized by race and class, public education funds will be siphoned off by corporate welfare schemes, and the gains of the Civil Rights Movement will become a fainter echo from a bygone era.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way. In the coming years, if corporate foundations like Gates, Broad, Fisher, and Walton, along with the political establishment whose favor they curry, would put as much economic and ideological weight behind rebuilding a stronger and more equitable public system of schools, rather than tearing down a system that took almost 200 years to create, then the ideals of American democracy would have a much better chance to survive these difficult times and, perhaps, one day flourish in ways we have yet to witness. I believe Dr. King would agree.

This commentary was previously published by Miller-McCune.

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