There was once an ideal in American education, which held that the community public school would be a place where children of every background would meet, learn together, and learn to live amicably. This ideal was supposed to promote a sense of American citizenship, a realization that regardless of our origins, we are all Americans.
That ideal, as we all know, was frequently violated. It was violated by racial segregation, which assigned black and white children to attend different schools. It was violated–and continues to be–by class segregation, in which the children of the affluent live in communities with elegant facilities while the children of the poor attend cinder-block schools lacking the playing fields, the small classes, the arts programs, the foreign language classes, the laboratories, and the beautiful libraries found in the schools of the outer ring of suburbs.
And yet the ideal is not dead. There are schools that are racially and economically diverse and that are much admired in their communities. It is important not to forget the ideal, the belief that the common school would bring us together, teach us about what we share as human beings, and teach us the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. The ideal teaches that we are all in the same boat and that we have mutual obligations to one another.
Now we live in a time of growing racial and class segregation. Charter schools are facilitating that segregation. Where the media would once look askance at a segregated black or white or Hispanic school, they are now more than willing to celebrate the “success” of segregated schools.
Sacramento now has a charter school designed for the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In their early years in Sacramento, members of the region’s fast-growing population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union clashed with public schools. Children had a hard time communicating with teachers, and parents, many of whom were evangelical Christians, expressed alarm over sex education, Halloween and laws forbidding religious instruction.
Today, these families have a public school of their own.
The Community Outreach Academy, an elementary school built inside the former McClellan Air Force Base, is open to all students, but its pupils come overwhelmingly from families that emigrated from the former Soviet Union. The children attend Russian language class twice a week. There’s a Russian library that serves parents as well as children. The principal, a Belarussian refugee, frequently appears on Russian radio.
School administrators say they don’t teach religion, and they follow state laws on sex education. But they’re cognizant of parents’ sensibilities. Halloween, for instance, is not promoted as a school celebration.
The school has high test scores.
Community Outreach is also one of California’s most segregated schools. About 98 percent of its 1,231 students are white. No other school in the state with more than 20 students had a higher percentage of white students in 2013, state data show. In a district with 4,800 black students and 12,000 Latino students, Community Outreach Academy enrolled three black students and six Latinos last year.
Futures High School, a Gateway school that also serves the area’s Slavic population, is 95 percent white, data show.
Charter schools are booming in California; more than 515,000 students attended them last year. And like the Outreach Academy, a growing number are drawing most of their students from a particular ethnic group.
During the 2008-09 school year, roughly 34,000 students attended California charter schools in which at least nine of every 10 students belonged to a single ethnic group, according to the state Department of Education. By 2013-14, that number had nearly doubled to 65,000.
Let us not forget that the public schools were supposed to make us one nation, not to provide a setting in which each ethnic, racial, and cultural group could self-segregate. That was the meaning of the Brown decision. It seems to have been forgotten.