Four tough questions about charter schools

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Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, has some important questions about charter schools. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African American History, urban history, and the history of sports, and he is a founder of the Badass Teachers Association. A version of this appeared on his blog, With a  Brooklyn Accent.

By Mark Naison

The powers that be in the Democratic Party, including President Obama, have made charter schools their main vehicle for educational renewal in low-income communities, and there are more than a few civil rights leaders and elected officials in black and Latino communities who view them as a chance to give families in their neighborhoods better educational opportunities. We have now had six years of strong support for charters from the Obama administration, backed up by Race to the Top money.

It is time to ask some hard questions. In the past six years, have charters:

1. Narrowed the gap in educational achievement by race and class, whether measured by test scores, high school graduation rates, college completion rates, or  more holistic measures?

2. Helped to stabilize and improve inner city neighborhoods and protect them from gentrification, displacement and demographic inversion (moving the poor out of cities into the suburbs)?

3. Created a stable force of talented committed teachers in inner city communities, many of whom live in the communities they teach in?

4. Helped reduce neighborhood and school violence or disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in any important way?

If the answer to all or most of these questions is no (and it is), advocates for public education need to have an honest conversation with the civil rights community about charters, understanding the basis of community support for these schools while respectfully pointing out how real-estate interests, profiteers and ambitious politicians have taken what began as an experiment and turned it into a scorched-earth policy that may well be doing more harm than good.

In all too many cities — New York City, Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Philadelphia– the creation of charters during the Obama presidency has not been a slow,  incremental policy crafted and implemented with careful community consultation, but rather a dramatic transformation of the educational landscape made possible by the mass closing of public schools that have served communities for decades, often over the protests of neighborhood residents.

The sheer number of these closings — 168 in New York City over the last four years, 47 in Chicago in the last year — as well as the speed with which they have occurred, have been unprecedented in the history of U.S. education.. The result has been destabilization of neighborhoods, weakening of teachers unions, and mass firings of veteran teachers — many of them teachers of color — all done with the support of the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Race to the Top policy. Though these measures have been justified as advancing educational opportunity in inner-city communities — and have been indeed promoted as a “civil rights” measure by Obama administration officials — we need a careful evaluation of the results on students, families and communities before closings and charter formation on a grand scale are brought to other cities.

To date, they have not produced the results they promised.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 27, 2013