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Media: Examining Bloomberg's "Segregated Charter Schools" Story

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The notion that charter schools not only don't outperform district schools but are also guilty of promoting segregation is an increasingly popular -- though far from uncontrovertible -- narrative.  Here, Charter school expert Joe Nathan rebuts the Bloomberg News article from a couple of weeks ago, “Segregated Charter Schools Evoke Separate But Equal Era in U.S.

"There’s a lot more that the Bloomberg reporter left out.  I know in part because he interviewed me, twice... Charters in Minneapolis and Minnesota enroll a higher percentage of low income, limited English speaking and students of color than the average district public schools."  

Check out the full response below and let us know what you think.  Are charter schools mirroring community segregation, or exacerbating it?  Are homogenous low-income, predominantly minority charter schools a problem if they reflect neighborhood demographics?  

FROM NATHAN:  

While far from perfect, many of Minnesota’s charter public schools are accomplishing much more than a Bloomberg article asserted.  As Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat has noted, if we are to make considerable progress in reducing achievement gaps and increasing overall achievement, we need to learn from and apply lessons from the nation’s most effective public schools, whether they are charter or district.  But readers would not know, given Bloomberg’s bias, that some of Minnesota’s most effective public schools are the one’s he criticized.  There’s a lot more that the Bloomberg reporter left out.  I know in part because he interviewed me, twice. 

1. Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper has found for the last two years that the vast majority of Minneapolis-St Paul area public schools  that are “beating the odds” are charter public schools.  In September, 2011, a graphic appear in the Star Tribune listing the 10 public schools in reading and math that had the highest percentage of students proficient in reading or math on the official statewide examination. www.startribune.com/newsgraphics/129810153.html

    The top eight of the ten schools listed in math were charter public schools, and the top nine of ten schools listed in reading were charter public schools.  These were schools that “showed the highest percentage of students scoring at grade level or better, despite having a high number of students living in poverty.” To be eligible to be on the list, a school had to enroll at least 85% students from low-income families.   

2.The vast majority of these high-ranking charter public schools enrolled 80% or more “students of color.” Many of them were schools that enrollment 90% or more from one race. Bloomberg’s reporter, despite being told about this research, chose not to include it. He chose not to write about high performing charter public schools like Harvest Prep or Hiawatha Academy that are 90% or more students of one race.  The reporter’s attitude reminds me of what Ralph Ellison wrote about in the civil rights classic, Invisible Man.  Ellison wrote, in part, “I am invisible because you refuse to see me.”

Instead, the reporter focused on two charter public schools – one mostly white, one mostly East African.  He compared their test scores to support his central thesis that having schools that are predominantly one race is inherently a bad thing.  Or, as the headline for the piece put it: “Segregated Charter Schools Evoke Separate But Equal Era in U.S.”

To examine this thesis, Bloomberg’s reporter could have interviewed an African American who for the last 40 years, has been a  civil rights leader in Minnesota.  Bill Wilson has been the director of the state civil rights agency.  He’s the first African American to be elected City Council Chair in St. Paul.  Wilson also is founder and executive director of a mostly African American charter school that is consistently on the Star Tribune’s “Beat the odds” and won an award from US News and World Report as one of the nation’s best high schools.

Wilson responded several years ago at the Minnesota legislature to the charge that charter schools such as the one he founded were “segregated.”   He differentiated between schools like his and the segregated public school he was forced to attend in Indiana.  

“We had no choice,” he recalled. “I was forced to attend an inferior school, farther from home than nearby, better-funded ‘whites-only’ schools. Higher Ground is open to all. No one is forced to attend. Quite a difference.”  

Wilson agreed that all charters are not effective, and strongly endorsed the principle, well practiced in Minnesota, that ineffective charters should be closed.

 The Bloomberg reporter was urged to talk with Mr. Wilson.  But no quotes from Wilson appeared in the story.

Part of the rationale for chartering public schools comes from a remarkable 1968 Harvard Education Review article, “Alternative Public School Systems,” by African American psychologist Kenneth Clark.  Professor Clark’s famous “doll study” was cited by the US Supreme Court in “Brown v. Board of Education.” Clark described “obstacles...to effective education” including “such fetishes as the inviolability of the neighborhood school concept.” 

Clark urged “Alternative Public School Systems... financed by states, operated outside traditional districts, that are created by colleges, universities, labor unions, business, industry....” (my emphasis) Sound familiar?   Some of the most effective charter public schools in the country have been started by such groups. 

There also are terrific examples of charter public schools in Minnesota that pull together students of different races.  The Bloomberg reporter ignored 

  • Concordia Creative Learning Academy, which also consistently appears on the “Beating the Odds” list.  The school enrolls a broad mix of African American, Asian American, Hispanic and White students
  • St. Paul Conservatory of Performing Artists, a downtown St. Paul charter that bring together suburban and urban youngsters and has won acclaim for the marvelous performances its students produce.
  • Community of Peace, a St. Paul charter that brings together African American, Hispanic, Native American and white students in a tough, low income area and helps them learn to resolve problems peacefully, as well as develop strong academic skills.  US News and World Report also has praised this school.

The charter public school world in Minnesota is more considerably more complex than Bloomberg presented.  And, there is growing collaboration between district and charter public schools.  

Enrollment in Minnesota charter public schools continues to grow – from less than 10,000 ten years ago to about 39,000 this year. This growth has occurred as enrollment in district public schools has declined.  And  charters in Minneapolis and Minnesota enroll a higher percentage of low income, limited English speaking and students of color than the average district public schools. 

Some families found their youngsters excelled in district public schools. District public schools remain an important option, as they were for our family. 

Making progress requires, in part, identifying and learning from outstanding public schools.  Bloomberg’s piece instead oversimplified what’s happening with charters, and ignored some significant success.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.