It’s no longer surprising to see Al Sharpton team up with New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to cheer on the growth of the charter-school movement. After all, it is one of the few innovations that have improved the quality of education for minority students in America’s urban communities. Last month, three charters with mostly minority enrollments — KIPP Houston, Animo Leadership, and the Preuss School — landed on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of best-performing high schools. A study released this past March by the RAND Corporation shows that children attending charters in Chicago and Florida are 7–15 percent more likely to attend college than those attending traditional public schools.
This success, along with the movement’s near-messianic zeal for improving the conditions of education for children, has won over parents looking to keep their kids out of the nation’s dropout factories. There are now 38 urban school systems in which 10 percent or more of the students attend charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, charters now account for more than half of school enrollment.
But according to education activists such as Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg and Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, charters represent “racial isolation” and “minority segregation,” and their presence “enforces unequal educational opportunities.” Why? Because few white children, especially those from middle-class households, attend them.
This argument ignores the reality that quality of teaching, rigor of instruction, and economic status are far bigger factors in shaping a child’s academic achievement than is the racial makeup of his school.
Unlike the Sharptons of the civil-rights movement, these activists are more comfortable strolling along the manicured lawns of Harvard than standing on the gritty street corners of Cleveland. Charter schools have never been their cup of tea. What’s set them on edge this time is Pres. Barack Obama, who has made charter-school expansion the cornerstone of his school-reform agenda. Through the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, pronouncements from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and even his own bully pulpit, Obama is successfully coaxing states such as California to eliminate restrictions on the number of charter schools and to finance charters at the same levels that they finance traditional public schools.
Orfield, Kahlenberg, and other activists feel that Obama is betraying his campaign promises to focus on poverty and integration. They are particularly displeased with the administration’s unwillingness to pour federal dollars into expanding magnet schools, even though magnets themselves have done little to foster integration or improve the academic performance of minority and poor students. So the activists — normally reflexively antagonistic toward anything the public-education establishment holds dear — find themselves working hand-in-hand with school districts, teachers’ unions, and other charter-school opponents. At a conference held this past November at Howard University, civil-rights groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund chided the administration for focusing less on integrating charters than on creating more of them.
At the heart of their opposition is the very concept of choice that underlies the existence of charters. They note that this can lead to self-segregation, which to them is as much an anathema as state-enforced Jim Crow discrimination. Minorities and the poor, according to this view, can’t receive the same quality of education as their white middle-class peers unless they attend school with these peers. Declares Orfield: “Choice can be either a path toward real opportunity and equity or toward segregated and unequal education.”