Friday, January 11, 2013

The strange union between black leadership and school choice

It was a difficult conversation.  I listened as Marcus Brandon, NC’s representative of the 60th District, passionately gave his pitch in support of charter schools.  I left wondering if the goal of diversity is dead.

It’s one thing to contend with conservative Republicans backed by the big pockets of the Koch Brothers. How does one discount the funding of rightwing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and other groups supported by the Koch brothers? They have made clear their goal to dismantle public education and run schools like a business judged based on the data taken from standardized test scores.

Brandon pitched the importance of parental choice, and argued that it’s a right protected by the Constitution.  He claims school choice is critical in narrowing the achievement gap in North Carolina. Brandon thinks there’s a correlation between black parents taking control of schools and academic performance.  I suggested that parental involvement doesn’t necessitate the opening of more charter schools.

Why not improve what we have prior to throwing the sink and the rest of the kitchen out the door?  This is especially true in lieu of mounting evidence proving that charter schools aren’t a sure remedy to poor academic performance.  A 2009 Stanford study found that only 17 percent of charter schools provided better education than regular public schools.

 “I think [racial and economic] segregation is the sinister subtext [of school choice].” Brian Jones, a New York City teacher and activist with the Grassroots Education Movement, stated on the blog Salon.  “Very wealthy benefactors are going into Harlem and promoting segregated schools as a solution. But the Civil Rights movement saw racial justice as bound up with economic justice. The school choice movement claims to be about racial justice, but distances itself from questions of economic justice. Under the banner of ‘school excellence,’ school choice advocates would like for us to forget about equity.”

I asked Brandon to address the consequences of supporting a system that ultimately dismantles the hard work that went into integrating public education.  North Carolina is at risk of turning the clock back to the days of separate and unequal schools, but this time it’s being pushed by black Democrats who buy into the message being fed by wealthy, white conservatives.

In North Carolina, Art Pope and the Koch brother push the privatization of education as a way to personally profit.  Karey Harwood, ethics professor at North Carolina State University, says the application of the business model to education “pits schools against each other in a competitive market, and that’s really not the best way to go about improving school quality. In fact, it’s very counterproductive.”

I talked about the vicious campaign to take education out of the hands of administrators and teachers.  The end result will be the formation of competing education system that profits from parents disillusioned with public education.  It’s a slippery course, destroy what is left and create an alternative aimed at making a profit.

I talked about the myth of school choice.  The tactics used reflect the strategy of a hostile takeover.  It begins with seducing parents with promises that can’t be fulfilled.  It’s followed up with rhetoric blasting teachers and their unions.  Parents and teachers are systematically divided against one another as a way to further promote school choice.

Parents are encouraged by the promise of being heard after years of being discounted.  They relish the potential of participating in a school that offers more parental input.  They’re not told that charter schools offer less involvement. 

“Historically underserved groups may see it as a solution to inequality. I can understand why some parents buy into it at first. If you feel like your child’s education has been neglected or if you’re a member of a group that has historically been underserved, you feel like finally someone is paying attention. But, in fact, school choice often disempowers parents,” Jones stated on Salon.

Brandon points to Barack Obama as proof that school choice is a bipartisan issue.  Obama is a critic of teacher unions and has pushed for the expansion of charter schools.  Obama’s support of school choice isn’t enough to offset the real backers of destroying traditional public education – the Christian Right intent of keeping their children out of public schools. They want school prayer and a place less tolerant to the LGBT community.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Tea Party, Heritage Foundation, Alliance for School Choice, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, Reason Institute, and many other right-wing groups are all behind the plan to dismantle public education in American in favor of school choice.

Public education in Durham is under attack.  11 applications to open new charter schools in Durham made their way to the state Department of Public Instruction.  Durham currently has 10 charter schools.  Brandon argues the high number reflects disenchantment among parents in Durham.  I contend the public opinion related to public education is the result of a calculated campaign to destroy the image of Durham and its schools.

The train must be stopped before it’s too late to slow the efforts of people intent on taking us back to the days when everyone in a classroom shared the same race, class and interest.  We learn best in diverse settings.

No, our schools aren’t perfect, but I trust those in charge of the Durham Public School system to find a way to improve what we have.  It’s hard to do that when so many are committed to defeating every plan to remedy what is wrong.

It’s a lesson some refuse to hear.  We’re in trouble when black Democrats can’t support public education.

We haven’t overcome when too many want to go back to the plantation. 


  1. Great post - this crystallizes everything I cannot articulate myself about why I am so uncomfortable with charter schools. I hope you send in it in to the local papers for an op-ed.

    I am very happy with my child's diverse neighborhood school and I fear my choice to go to a neighborhood school will soon be taken away from me by the politicians and the billionaires who control them.

    Thank you for your blog.

  2. "They have made clear their goal to dismantle public education and run schools like a business judged based on the data taken from standardized test scores" This blanket allegation requires some factual backup. Billionaires, whether the conservative Koch brothers or the liberal George Soros, have become the new bad guys allegedly causing everything we fear (in the old days it was the Russians, and before that the Jews).

    You give a rousing defense of public schools and the existing administrator/teacher system. As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that workin' for ya'?" For many, the anwer is, "It's not." Our public schools continue to act without any accountability, keeping incompetent teachers and adding administrative staff at a rate far beyond the number of students in the school. No wonder the good teachers get fed up and quit after 1-2 years.

    All parents want their children to have the best education to prepare them for their life ahead. If the public schools provide that, then fine. In many cities, the economically deprived areas find that their educatonal system is broken. One of the first suggestions was to ship white students and middle class black students to diversify these schools, assuming that would raise the standards and increase capital improvements. Some mild improvements were seen, but no changes in teacher accountability ocurred. Hillside has the best facilities in the county, but suffers from other factors existent in DPS.

    The theory of low expectations assumes that students from economically deprived homes could not be educated. That statement was made by the Chicago teacher's union last year as an explanation why their schools were failing. Places like Harlem Academy and Success Academy proved that theory wrong. Their success has been replicated elsewhere, giving both minority and economically disadvantaged students hope that there are schools that will care for them and be accountable.

    No Child Left Behind was a flawed attempt at finding out just what disparities in education existed so that communities could find out what schools were performing poorly and remedies offered. And, yes, that involved testing to see how the students were doing. The Teach for America program, however, was the first organization to try and codify exactly what made a good teacher. They found reproducible metrics, derived from student testing, that could indentify those teachers, even in disadvantaged inner city schools. President Obama has strongly endorsed this type of school system accountability. Michelle Rhee proved it worked in D. C. until the teacher's union had her replaced.

    Yes, some early church and charter schools were racial segregation academies. Yes, Durham Academy, which started as on of those, still has some economic segregation, althought the racial aspect is long gone. Some of today's charter schools want to try things that the public school system doesn't allow, such as same sex classes, performance stratification, non-tenured teachers, uniforms for students, etc.. Recent statements from succesful charter school leaders that they want the performance standards for all schools, including charters, raised is laudatory. That way we can weed out the weak charters.

    You decry "black Democrats that can't support public education." But these are parents that care for their children and just want options to improve their education. The color of their skin doesn't change those aspirations. When the public schools rise to the task, charters won't be needed. So far they haven't.