What is the real reason some parents support charter schools? It is an opportunity, they hope, for their children to escape from other children. This attitude has driven a rift in black communities as reported by the New York Times.
No one wants to send a child to a ‘failing’ school. In many inner cities, the only thing failing about a school, is the failure of some parents to ensure their children get to school. As a result, a disproportionate number of children fail state tests. The school and teachers may operate well. No doubt there are cases where the concentration of poverty is so high that even the school staff gets overwhelmed and order breaks down. Parents who care want out. Charters become a patch for the fester of social ills. The question is whether some children should escape or all children should integrate.
As charters proliferate, segregation increases both racially and economically. Charters disproportionately leave behind those who need help the most. They ‘counsel’ out those who find the rigid curriculum and military style discipline too difficult. The NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives have called for a moratorium on charter school expansion. Yet, another black advocate group: Black Alliance for Educational Options disagrees. In their view it is a way for some parents to escape. The charters may not be perfect but they are at least orderly. Kids who cannot behave leave. Charter suspension rates, according to federal data, are four times higher than in public schools.
A few charter chains garner substantial private funding from corporate donors. Those schools can add staff and supplies the public schools cannot. Most charters do not have access to extra funding, so they rely on skimming money from teacher salaries and benefits to fund school programs. The result is that, due to high turnover, they have inexperienced teachers. The schools, moreover, may be orderly but their students’ achievement lags behind expectations. Parents consider it a ‘something is better than nothing’ approach. It tears communities and sometimes even families apart when some are included and most excluded.
What is a better alternative? We have to redefine what a quality education really is. An “A’ school is not one that simply enrolls students from more affluent families. Schools should be a place where children learn to live together and grow in their understanding of how best to function in a diverse world. Test scores may not average out to warrant an ‘A’, so we change the meaning of an ‘A’ grade to one where all children make good achievement gains.
Yet, our communities have become more and more segregated. Physical distances are often so great between black, white and Hispanic areas that busing is not really an option for most families.
Cities are changing, however. White flight to the suburbs is beginning to shift back to cities. The opportunity exists to create diverse, high quality schools if their very diversity is part of the definition of high quality. If it is not, these returning high income families will likely create private schools just to remain secluded from the world around them. This is the challenge facing regentrification movements.
Our city, Gainesville, is beginning to shift back from the suburbs. The impetus is the University’s drive to develop areas close to campus that will attract the innovative businesses of the future. The University is expanding well beyond its borders and redefining whole neighborhoods. It remains to be seen if current residents will simply be driven out to become problems for some other places. With a definition of high quality community that includes a diverse population, however, real opportunity can be visible and accessible.
Opportunities to impact how our communities are defined happen all the time in big and small ways. Where low income housing is placed, how school zones are drawn, how children are assigned to schools by lotteries, where senior living complexes are located, where new schools are located have a huge impact on the cohesiveness of communities. If we want cohesiveness, we have to plan for it. It means citizens have to participate in city and county planning meetings, lobby elected officials, and voice a vision that inclusive rather than exclusive. It means sharing resources, not dividing them. When money is available to support quality, the vision for quality is not an all white “A” school but a school that gives access to high quality programs for all of its students.
These are not just academic social policy issues. Alachua County minorities are restive as evidenced by the results of last week’s primary election and the campaign leading up to it. The communities are divided; even traditional alliances within political parties are splintered. When people feel shut out, even if it is not by design but by happenstance, it matters. We need a community wide conversation, not just one in local neighborhoods.
The latest effort to provoke thoughtful discussion in Gainesville is a three part film and discussion called: Race – The Power of an Illusion Film/discussion Series lead by a U.F. anthropology professor. It’s a start.
Some schools are succeeding with their diverse student populations. What is going on in those schools? How are students assigned to classes? What support is there for students with reading problems? How is discipline handled? We need to know what works. The legislative intent for charters was to experiment and to innovate. Let’s reward those schools that work with children of all races and income levels. We need to change the image of what high quality schools really must be. An ‘A’ school is one that works for all children.