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.”
Integration activists want state and federal officials to hold charters to the same levels of compliance with affirmative-action laws as school districts under court-issued desegregation orders. In November, the Civil Rights Project released a report calling for federal education officials to essentially require charters to develop race- and ethnicity-based admissions quotas. That the report offers little evidence of charter-school students’ being ill-served by a lack of diversity didn’t stop authors Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley from proclaiming that this was “troubling.”
But federal regulations can’t compel integration; students tend to segregate themselves by race and class even within the most diverse schools. Three decades’ worth of research reveals that segregation may not even be the most important cause of achievement gaps. The low quality of instruction provided by America’s teaching corps — many members of which lack subject-knowledge competency — has an even greater impact on minority students and poor whites. As studies — such as a 2003 report by Dallas Independent School District researchers Sitha Babu and Robert Mendro — point out, teaching quality may have a greater influence on student achievement than socioeconomic background. There’s also the adverse impact of school-district practices (many of which are shaped by union contracts and state laws), which often allow the most talented teachers to flee poor, mostly minority classrooms.
Some activists also fail to realize that state laws establishing charters play a much larger role than self-selection in determining the homogeneousness of enrollments. Most states restrict the location of charters and, sometimes, even the type of students who can enroll. In Missouri, charters can only be opened in St. Louis and Kansas City, competing with school districts that have mostly black enrollment; Tennessee only allows charters to enroll students who previously attended other charters, were formerly enrolled in academically failing traditional public schools, or have failed the state’s standardized tests.
Many states’ requirement that charter-school petitions be approved by traditional school districts — a rule that often exempts schools slated for urban locales — also deters diversity. Suburban school districts, in particular, have little reason to bring competing schools into their own backyards. There are fewer charters in Maryland and Virginia, which have this requirement, than in neighboring D.C., which doesn’t — even though D.C. has a far smaller student population.
Education activists must realize integration is often less of a concern to urban families than the quality of education. Many of them have experienced integration first-hand through forced busing efforts during the 1970s and 1980s. And, like Harvard professor (and onetime integration advocate) Charles Ogletree, these parents realize that integration was little more than a “false promise,” and they also feel that integration denied them chances to interact with successful role models who looked like them. Minority parents are also dismayed by the tendency of school-district bureaucracies to regard them as nuisances and bystanders. Charters, with their demand for more parental engagement, are much more appealing.
If we end restrictions on charter-school expansion, then choice, integration, and academic quality can all become a reality. As Chicago mayor Richard Daley and his former colleague in Indianapolis, Bart Peterson, figured out, offering more charters may even lure white middle-class families from suburbs; allowing the growth of charters in suburbia may also foster diversity. But charter schools won’t solve all these problems. It is also critical to improve the quality of teaching and reform ineffective school-district hiring practices.
These steps are more likely to stem achievement gaps and achieve true racial equality than the outmoded prescriptions that activists are still peddling.
– RiShawn Biddle, the editor of Dropout Nation, is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era.