Facing South

Why the racist history of the charter school movement is never discussed

By Christopher Bonastia, AlterNet

As a parent I find it easy to understand the appeal of charter schools, especially for parents and students who feel that traditional public schools have failed them. As a historical sociologist who studies race and politics, however, I am disturbed both by the significant challenges that plague the contemporary charter school movement, and by the ugly history of segregationist tactics that link past educational practices to the troubling present. 

The now-popular idea of offering public education dollars to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.

Two years before a federal court set a final desegregation deadline for fall 1959, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall shared white county leaders' strategy of resistance with Congressman Watkins Abbitt: "We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program," he wrote. "Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with 'em."

Though the county ultimately refused to sell the public school buildings, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years (1959-1964), as taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge. Federal courts struck down this use of taxpayer funds after a year. Still, whites won and blacks lost. Because there were no local taxes assessed to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county -- unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools -- were left to fend for themselves, with many black children shut out of school for multiple years. 

Meanwhile, in less blatant attempts to avoid desegregation, states and localities also enacted "freedom of choice" plans that typically allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools, but forced black students to clear numerous administrative hurdles and, not infrequently, withstand harassment from teachers and students if they entered formerly all-white schools. When some segregationists began to acknowledge that separate black and white schools were no longer viable legally, they sought other means to eliminate "undesirables."

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned, "Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can't possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches." (Mays vastly underestimated the determination of individual black families and federal officials.)

These nefarious motives may seem a far cry from the desire of many charter school operators to "reinvent" public education for students whom traditional public schools have failed. In theory, these committed bands of reformers come with good intentions: they purport to bring in dedicated teachers who have not been pummeled into complacency; energize their students by creating by a caring, rigorous school environment; and build a parent body that is inspired (in some cases compelled) to become more involved in their children's education both inside and outside the school. And in some cases, charter schools deliver what they promise. In others, however, this sparkling veneer masks less attractive realities that are too often dismissed, or ignored, as the complaints of reactionaries with a vested interest in propping up our failed system of public education.

The driving assumption for the pro-charter side, of course, is that market competition in education will be like that for toothpaste -- providing an array of appealing options. But education, like healthcare, is not a typical consumer market. Providers in these fields have a disincentive to accept or retain "clients" who require intensive interventions to maintain desired outcomes -- in the case of education, high standardized test scores that will allow charters to stay in business. The result? A segmented marketplace in which providers compete for the "good risks," while the undesirables get triage. By design, markets produce winners, losers and unintended or hidden consequences. 

Charter school operators (like health insurers who exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to depress overall test scores. Sifting mechanisms may include interviews with parents (since parents of low-performing students are less likely to show up for the interview), essays by students, letters of recommendation and scrutiny of attendance records. Low-achieving students enrolled in charters can, for example, be recommended for special education programs that the school lacks, thus forcing their transfer to a traditional public school. (More brazenly, some schools have experienced, and perhaps even encouraged, rampant cheating on standardized tests.)

Operators have clear motives to avoid students who require special services (i.e., English-language learners, "special needs" children and so on) and those who are unlikely to produce the high achievement test scores that form the basis of school evaluations. Whether intended or otherwise, these sifting mechanisms have the ultimate effect of reinscribing racial and economic segregation among the students they educate -- as the research on this topic is increasingly bearing out.

A 2010 report by the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project, "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards," uncovers some troublesome facts in this regard. "While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, 70 percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools."

In the first decade of the 2000s, charter school enrollment nearly tripled; today around 2.5 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters. Blacks are overrepresented in charter schools (32 percent vs. 16 percent in the entire public-school population), whites are underrepresented (39 percent versus 56 percent), and Latinos, Asians and American Indians are enrolled in roughly equal proportions in charters and traditional public schools. These snapshots mask considerable variation. In the West and some areas of the South, it appears that charter schools "serve as havens for white flight from public schools," according to the Civil Rights Project.  

There are also preliminary indications that some charter schools under-enroll students qualifying for free lunch and English-language learners, thereby reducing the enrollment of low-income and Latino students, but data is limited in these areas, as it is on non-test-related factors such as graduation rates and college enrollment. How can we compare the performance of charters versus traditional public schools if we don't know whether they are enrolling the same types of students? At the national and state levels, policymakers are pushing for the rapid expansion of charter schools on the basis of hope rather than evidence. 

This points to a larger historical issue. The widespread enthusiasm for and rapid proliferation of charter schools also appears to mirror a persistent issue in American education: expanding new programs before we know if they work, and how successes might be replicated on a larger scale. As the historian Charles M. Payne observed, "Perhaps the safest generalization one can make about urban schools or school districts is that most of them are trying to do too much too fast, initiating programs on the basis of what's needed rather than on the basis of what they are capable of." As charter schools face the uncertainty of contract renewal (which occurs typically at the three- to five-year mark), they may be tempted to overlay a multitude of seemingly innovative instructional strategies without sufficient monitoring of effectiveness.

Some schools do adopt approaches that seem to help students make demonstrable gains in achievement tests. (There are ongoing debates about the extent to which increases in test scores reflect authentic hikes in skills and knowledge, as opposed to a mastery of test-taking techniques.) But even when we identify charter schools that appear to improve performance in relation to students with similar characteristics in the public schools, the question becomes one of scaling up. The concept of charter schools is that they will all be distinctive, with different mixes of students, teaching philosophies, school environments and so on. In theory, other schools -- traditional public and other charters -- will learn what works, and replicate these innovations.

This has proven terribly difficult to do with successful public schools; doing so with a small, idiosyncratic charter school geared toward students who love the cello poses even greater hurdles. When researchers from the RAND Corporation studied charter schools in Philadelphia, they noted that "with so many interventions under way simultaneously…there is no way to determine exactly which components of the reform plan are responsible for [any] improvement" -- though ultimately they found that privately operated schools produced no more successful outcomes than their traditional public counterparts. 

As important as applying successful techniques to other schools is an issue at the other end of the spectrum: when to conclude that a charter has failed. Policymakers such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have sold charters as the route to educational salvation may be reluctant to pull the plug on failures. The Big Apple has closed roughly 4 percent of charters since its first one opened in 1999, well below the national closing rate of 15 percent. The appropriate rate of charter revocation is anyone's guess.

By all appearances, charters will remain on the educational landscape for the foreseeable future. While charter skeptics can't merely wish them away, they can push for greater accountability -- after all, isn't this the whole point of charters? Anyone who blindly accepts that competition will improve education for students in charters and traditional public schools alike should remember that other articles of faith about the market -- like cutting taxes on the rich will make all of our yachts and rafts rise -- have proven illusory.

The market is not a self-regulating mechanism: players need rules to guide their behavior. Educational history offers some valuable lessons to keep in mind. First, when public schools have great influence in selecting their student body, this can either lead to greater diversity and opportunity while retaining choice (as in some magnet schools), or it can exacerbate persistent problems of racial and economic segregation. Businesspeople respond to incentives, and the impetus for charter-school operators is to "skim the cream" and avoid undesirables. Tangible rewards for charter schools to offer free transportation and lunches, and to craft racially and economically diverse student bodies, could be a step in the right direction.

Educational history also teaches us to be wary of the deep and authentic desire to find the "secret sauce" that produces hard-working, high-achieving students and committed teachers. It is not easy to identify the factors that make a school great, and it is even harder to disseminate these reforms widely. If, for example, we discover that Charter School X produces exemplary outcomes because of exceptionally talented, committed teachers and unusually industrious students, how do we go about replicating that -- and at what cost? Are all teachers and students capable of reaching these heights, or is there a limited pool? It would be nice to think the former, but evidence for such optimism is scarce.

There is no magic elixir that will fix our educational system. Of course, we should continue to be open to fresh ideas about improving school organization, teaching and learning. But if we continue to ignore important historical lessons about the dangerous consequences of educational privatization and fail to harness our desire to plunge headlong into unproven reform initiatives, we may discover that the cure we so lovingly embraced has made the patient sicker.

Christopher Bonastia is associate professor of sociology at Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia" (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

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Facing South
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Hmm.. Lots to respond to

Hmm.. Lots to respond to here, but will name just a couple.

The most problematic sentence in the entire piece is at the end: "Are all teachers and students capable of reaching these heights, or is there a limited pool?" That entire paragraph refutes the argument of the broader piece, as it presents the key reasoning behind the need for different schools in the first place! There is no secret sauce: a great school is dependent on great leadership and a learning culture. Understanding that to be so, why would the author argue for just be one monolithic method of delivering education if the author agrees there is no one magic way? Every child is different; every child has different learning needs. Increasing the opportunities for lower income students and minorities to find the best learning environment for their children is in itself social justice, as your rich and wealthy can move with their feet and wallet. Similarly, a true "civil rights warrior" (what the author seems to strive to be) would argue that all students, regardless of starting point, income, color, disability can learn and progress through the public school system. It seems like this author is doubting that, which is in and of itself, troublesome.

The author also slams charter schools because folks are "expanding new programs before we know if they work.." The reality is we know what DOESN'T work, yet, the same teachers and principals that have failed to educate entire populations of kids are protected by asinine things like LIFO (last in, first out), salary schedules, and tenure. North Forest, one of the worst districts in the state of Texas, received cohort and cohort of students for about 30 yrs, even though its dropout rate and test scores were the the most abysmal in the state. Public charter schools, if anything, are held much more accountable than traditional public schools, as they need to maintain high scores to remain open, seek their own funding for facilities, recruit families to send their children to the school, among others.

Last, the beauty of these schools are that parents get to decide whether the "risk" is worthwile or not. Forcing a family to send their kid to North Forest is the true injustice when they can take their kid and public dollars on down to KIPP Sunnyside Academy right down the street.

Also, if the author truly wanted to speak about the "racial history" of charter schools and the choice movement in general, he should have started with a nod to reconstruction era Sabbath schools, Louisiana's private schools owned/operated by slaves, and the other activities of past slaves through the Freedmen's Bureau circa 1850s.. Minneapolis' charter law in 1991 was some 140 years after Black slaves first created alternative school options to educate their kids...

Home Schooling, Private Schooling or Public Schooling

I wish I had the means to have been able to Home School my son. Times are so bad now, two people have to work to make ends meet.
My son did not learn anything in Public school, he was all ways picked on & bullied, so he hated school & was terrified to go.
All he learned was how kids can be so cruel to one another & hate their own peers.
School was just a social place where kids could hang out & try to be cool. If you were not one of the cool kids, you were an outcast.
School is also a place where your kids learn how to become racist.
I raised my kids to never think they were better than anyone else, we are all the same. The color of a person's skin does not make a difference.
If I could do it over again, I would have lived poor & Home Schooled both of my kids. School is a place to learn hate not compassion for each other.

choice and equity

Civil Rights Project research shows that choice programs without civil rights provisions (parent information, diversity plans and recruitment free transportation and no admissions restrictions for EL, Special Ed. and other students) have a strong tendency to produce severe segregation and inequality. See our new Univ. of California book, Orfield and Frankenberg, EDUCATIONAL DELUSIONS? WHY CHOICE CAN DEEPEN INEQUALITY AND HOW TO MAKE SCHOOLS FAIR or reports at civilrightsproject.ucla.edu

Markets are full of win

Markets do not "produce winners and losers". Markets produce winners. When you get to buy something you want, the thing you buy pleases you more than the money you spent to get it. When somebody sells something you wanted, the money they get pleases them more than the thing they sold you.

When two people buy similar but different things, they *each* are made happier by their choice, AND they win by having a choice. The sellers both win because they prefer the money.

When two people buy the same thing even though they had a choice of something else, they both win because they get something that pleases them. The seller wins because they prefer the money. And the seller who wasn't chosen wins because they get to find out that they should be doing something different. Society wins because the seller who wasn't pleasing people tries something else.

Markets are full of win.

Just Full of win

And the people who can afford neither to buy nor sell, or who have no real clout because of some other circumstance win because they find out that the system really is stacked against them. Win Win!

Charter Schools

Loved the article and charter schools do a lot more damage to students who attend them for it sets them up as social outcasts from those students how couldn't get into them, and they suffer outside the school setting. DC's history of charter schools was put into place by a black person and by doing so destroyed the rest of the school system...making the DCPS pay for two systems with duplication of administration and other aspects of running a school system...suck money out of one and the other fails and black and latino children have suffered tremendously. When I run into this person from time to time, I used to ask her how much was the soul of a child today? She would ignore me, but my point also dug in deeply, for she knew she sold her soul and many innocent children's soul to the devil of corporate interests. May she rot in Hell.

Interesting Article

I have long been frustrated with our public school system. My kids started at a private Christian school which we could afford but without many "extras"...vacations were small, cars were old, and some home improvement projects tabled for a later date, etc. At some point we found that school was still school...smaller class size, Christian values taught, and discipline consistent and gracious...but it was still subject to "curriculum" and test driven teaching. So we opted for homeschool for first our son and then our daughter. Our daughter is an advanced learner and I found keeping up with her challenging while also maintaining a more rigorous science curriculum for our scientifically gifted son. So we entered a lottery for our local Charter school and were put on a waiting list. When they called mid way through the year, we jumped at the spot.

We chose our charter school for several reasons for our daughter. It is more rigorous, it is actually more diverse culturally, smaller class size and the curriculum is based on Core Knowledge sequence, not Common Core. While tests results are coveted (and promised to be higher than the public schools in our system), teachers do NOT teach to tests. I'm impressed with the teachers who make LESS than teachers at the other public schools. Our school runs on a budget that receives 80% of state funding per student and NO Federal funding. Our parent group off sets that budget with fundraising activities through out the year and an optional recommended annual fee. Clearly our Charter School operates much differently than your area...we are in the Pacific NW.

What makes our school different is that parents have done what you said...they are more involved in their kid's education. They had to go out of their way to enter the lottery to be selected for the school. They support 45 minutes a night of homework (at K and 1st grade levels) and they drive their kids to school and pick them up...no bus service. And like I said before, the participate in fundraising activities throughout the year including an auction, restaurant nights, discount cards, holiday gift purchases and a jog-a-thon. Our teachers choose to teach at the school despite the lower pay because they see the quality of our curriculum choice and they are free from teaching to tests. They teach effectively and hands on and the kids learn and the test scores happen.

As good as our school is, I truly believe that the home education my son is getting is better for him than ANY school could provide. And when it gets down to it, that is the foundational problem with education be it private, charter or public...it no longer starts with student and his or her individual interests and learning styles. It is a canned, one size fits the average regurgitation of facts. While my daughter's school does school well, it is not for every child and there are still musts and have to's that can rob a child of the gift of learning.

I recently heard that there is a movement saying that homeschool is racist. Good grief. I suppose it has to do with average or assumed socio-economic indicators that limit the number of homeschool families by race or culture. You have no idea how many times I am asked about how I "socialize" my son...he has friends, I don't keep him locked up in a closet. What I do have is a boy who is learning and dare I say enjoying learning. I realize that I am fortunate to be able to stay home and educate my son. But like the sacrifices we made for Christian school when he was younger, because I don't work, we simply live with less.

I would like to see every family empowered to make educational choices that are right for each of their children. But given the "system" we have now and the mindset of many parents that since they suffered through school their kids can too...I don't see this happening any time soon unless major changes are made to how we view education. Throwing more money at a broken system is not the answer.

So what happens to the kids

So what happens to the kids (and there are millions) whose parents can't or won't be so involved? In California, many schools in wealthy areas have been converted to charters so parent monetary contributions can go toward paying teachers more! Charter and magnet schools generally cherry-pick the best students - again, what happens to the rest?

Why is it always considered a

Why is it always considered a virtue of these schools that teachers are underpaid? I know of no other profession where the lack of adequate pay is considered proof of the employer's quality.

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