John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reflects on the split between the NAACP/Black Lives Matter on one hand, and defenders of the charter movement.
Long before teachers were dragged into the corporate reform wars, we understood the need to speak diplomatically and see multiple sides of the charter school issue. Our union leaders made it clear that the AFT’s Al Shanker had supported the first generation of charter schools. We were reminded that charter opponents and supporters were all needed in the “Big Tent” coalition to promote civil rights, economic and social opportunity, and justice. Besides, who could criticize a poor, black parent who enrolled a child in a charter which provided an escape from a disorderly, dangerous, and failing neighborhood school?
Then charters were increasingly transformed from a way to promote innovation into tools for defeating unions. The “creaming” of students by charters left even greater concentrations of troubled kids behind in under-resourced traditional public schools. And the damage grew far worse when charter management organizations used bubble-in metrics as the ammunition in the campaign for the mass closures of schools. Even though there were not nearly enough high-quality charter and/or traditional public schools available to take their places, market-driven reformers rushed to close as many schools as possible. Presumably all the shortterm pain imposed on educators and students would lead to a time, somewhere over the rainbow, of “disruptive” transformation.
In decades of discussions with parents, I’ve developed a sense of how they will unfold – at least when conducted in a polite manner. It often takes a while before all stakeholders get into the give-and-take of trusting conversations, but until recently I’d mostly witnessed difficult but constructive communication among patrons. All sides recognized the vexing dilemmas and lamented society’s failure to offer holistic and respectful learning conditions for all. (Lately, as charters have doubled down on expansion, I’ve seen how these talks degenerate and how close we’ve come to fist fights among patrons.)
Many charter parents have other children whom charters would not accept or retain, so they see firsthand how the proliferation of choice has damaged our most vulnerable kids. Patrons witness the harm that out-of-control choice can do to one or more of their children, but they have no magic wand that would make charter advocates settle down. So, many accept the charter offerings to their children who were so favored, while mourning the damage done to the most disadvantaged kids.
Even parents who resort to No Excuses charters are likely to protest that they should not have to choose between a charter that offers a second class education, focusing on basic skills instruction, as opposed to the rich learning environments bestowed on suburban students. Usually, we were close to unanimous in resenting the choice between sending kids to charters or to often-violent and dysfunctional neighborhood schools – that were made much worse by the over-expansion of charters. The universal question remains: Why give up on providing an equal educational opportunity to all kids?
Kate Zernike’s New York Times account of the charter wars, pitting civil rights advocates against civil rights advocates, and liberals and neo-liberals against liberals and parents from all political perspectives, concisely summarizes the educational issue, as well as the emerging edu-political twist. While few question the benefits that charters have bestowed on some poor children of color, nobody should dispute the costs to our most disadvantaged traditional public school students.
Although charters are supposed to admit students by lottery, some effectively skim the best students from the pool, with enrollment procedures that discourage all but the most motivated parents to apply. Some charters have been known to nudge out their most troubled students. … The groups supporting a moratorium (on charter school expansion) say, [excessive choice] concentrates the poorest students in public schools that are struggling for resources.
I would add that we should probe more deeply into what the winners in these charters win, and the magnitude of the harm inflicted on kids in schools who lose in these no-holds-barred conflicts. How much do students benefit when test-driven, competition-driven reforms help them post some higher test scores? Much (though not all) of the time, the growth of a few points represents increased learning. But, how valuable is that knowledge to the relative few who gain it? In contrast, how destructive is the harm to the majority? When some actually gain more basic skills, that’s fine, but how does that output measure up in comparison to the increased segregation and teach-to-the-test malpractice that is imposed on many more neighborhood and charter students?
I’ve heard testimonials by students who fled our inner city’s neighborhood schools. I’ve also listened to many, many more kids who describe the humiliation they felt, and how their education was stolen from them by test-driven, competition-driven reforms. Whether a steady diet of worksheet-driven instruction was imposed by charters or by traditional public schools threatened by charters, adults placed competitive bubble-in accountability over their educations.
And, that leads to the second issue implicit in Zernike’s article. She describes the vehemence of charter advocates who oppose the N.A.A.C.P.’s call for a moratorium on charter expansion, and in doing so she allows choice advocates to speak for themselves in their uniquely unfiltered manner. Zernike cites the pro-charter blogger, “Citizen Stewart” who “said a moratorium on charters would effectively make black parents ‘wards of the state.’” This Trump-style logic is not atypical of true believers in choice. Stewart illustrated the type of attacks on opponents that is the norm for so many corporate reformers. We who disagree agree with him supposedly take positions that are “just stupid.”
Zernike then cites Howard Fuller, who “argues that the criticism of charters ignores the patterns of racism in the United States.” Fuller blames traditional school districts, housing policies, and other institutions for creating educational and other problems. We who question silver bullets like charter takeovers cite those same realities as reasons for more holistic, aligned and coordinated, “win win” solutions. When civil rights advocates criticize charters for making conditions worse, however, Fuller says that that “is beyond the pale.” Fuller then adds something about himself that I don’t doubt, “I don’t understand it. I literally don’t understand it.”
In other words, Zernike gives us a glimpse of the pro-charter mindset that Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., describes as “hyperventilating.”
Stewart and Fuller aren’t alone in being unable to grasp their opponents’ side of complex issues. Corporate school reformers have been notorious for their inability to listen and respect alternative viewpoints. It’s not just that these charter supporters are devoted to competition and high stakes testing. Too many of them believe that we who disagree with them are evil. When education disputes become publicly intertwined with racial tension, however, the press gives them a higher profile. The public is now seeing what teachers have long had to deal with, ideologically-driven reformers who can’t handle the clash of ideas.