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Bruno: Why Do African-American Voters Support Charter Schools?

3075157040_6b6ac4af3e_mThese days it's popular to attribute electoral outcomes to influential "special interests", and certainly powerful individuals and groups can affect election results. Still, "special interests" can only get you so far in explaining democratic fortunes; voters aren't just blank slates upon which the rich and powerful can project their own preferences.

So consider me skeptical that strong African American support for a pro-charter school initiative in Georgia is best explained by "out-of-state money" (Valerie Strauss) or opponents being "drowned out" by President Obama (Jim Galloway). I'm totally prepared to believe that big money and popular leaders can change the way people vote, but by all accounts the move to make charter authorization easier was favored by a large majority of African American voters. 

Had the results been closer it might make sense to attribute the results to the persuadability - or gullibility - of a few marginal voters. If accounts of 2-1 support among black voters are accurate, however, there is probably more than enough informed and "authentic" support for charter schools in African American communities to deserve to be taken seriously.

The charter school movement has definitely made for some awkward political alliances (and enemies), but that makes it all the more necessary for opponents of charter schools to engage with the very real concerns charter proponents hope to address. Yes, many black leaders are justifiably worried about school resegregation, but many black parents conspicuously are not (at least to the same degree).  

What are black parents worried about? I'm not really sure and neither, apparently, are many charter school opponents. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Read Elijah Anderson's "Code of the Street," which gives a really good picture of what African-American parents are likely to be worried about. (Anderson is an African-American Yale sociology professor who writes about inner-city Philadelphia.)

Just from years of following these issues -- though my city, San Francisco, has a small African-American community -- I would sum it up this way, if it's not too simplistic: African-American voters who live in disadvantaged, high-crime communities are likely to be concerned about safety and about whether disruptive, disengaged, oppositional classmates are likely to disrupt their kids' classrooms and interfere with their education. Charters appear to be a solution to those challenges, and there's some validity to that, as charters enroll the students whose families cared enough to seek out a school.

The concern to charter critics is the bigger impact that charter schools have on other schools and on public education overall, and a long list of other collateral issues. Those issues basically take some diligent research to become apparent.

What I see in many African American communities is a desire for their children to have basic resources, small classes, functional buildings, etc. Unfortunately, the US has NEVER in our history provided equal access to quality educational opportunities to low-income students of color. Charter schools are the supposed promise of those resources, as the successful ones are invariably schools which are receiving significantly more resources than the traditional neighborhood schools. Charter school promoters bank on this desire/hope in their campaigns and advertisements. They tap into a very real concern in the African-American community and then exploit it for political/financial gain.

The same parents who vote for charters probably would not vote to lose their democratic voice in a school by having control turned over to a private board which will not be accountable to the community. They would not vote for schools which puposefully segregate out children based on special needs or language ability and further exacerbate racial segregation in schools. They probably would not vote for divides and fighting within their communities for the scarce resources offered, a situation diverting resources to charters often creates, but would prefer all families and schools to receive what they need. Parents just are responding to the real savage inequalities of their schools. If ample and sufficient resources were provided to the neighborhood schools, my guess is that parents would ALWAYS choose the local school.

I definitely agree that many African American families are interested in charter schools because they see them as safer (Caroline) or better resourced (Katie). My experience also suggests they sometimes appreciate the philosophical or cultural aspects of charter schools - like the relatively rigid discipline at KIPP or American Indian, or more demographically-specialized programs like what 100 Black Men is trying to do in Oakland.

Because some of those things are not about resources per se - they're also related to staffing and curricular requirements - I think charter school appeal also has some basis in the difficulty that public schools necessarily have in dealing with cultural and ideological pluralism. So I doubt that sufficiently-resourced district schools would actually result in families "always" preferring district schools.

I think there are examples of neighborhood schools which (unfortunately) use "no excuses" discipline policies similar to many no excuses charters. The only difference is the charters ability to quickly remove any struggling children. And when schools are actually run democratically with appropriate space for parent voice (like the Local School Council model in Chicago-before CPS watered them down)parents and communities could create programs tailored to their kids. Ultimately, there is nothing about "charterness"-something that is unique to charters-which gives parents what they want. All the good things could be replicated in neighborhood schools, given the resources and yes, with less ridiculous regulations. So this begs the question, why not just resource and give that freedom to ALL SCHOOLS? And we are back at the ulterior motives of political/financial gain.

Your "ulterior motive" hypothesis may be true in some cases, but is not consistent with my experience with most actual people working in and starting actual charter schools.

"Give more district schools the curricular, staffing, and other freedoms of charter schools" is not a position that I've seen much support for among charter opponents, so it doesn't surprise me that many parents and guardians prefer to align themselves with actual charter schools.

This isn't widely known, but when Arlene Ackerman was superintendent here in San Francisco, she chose several struggling public schools for an experiment and called them Dream Schools. She solicited private support so they would get extra resources, and (though it was never stated this way) attempted to make them into a KIPP-like model.

The schools were immediately controversial, because Ackerman made all teachers reapply for their jobs, and the union was outraged. It was a pretty good example of how hard it is to make a "reform" work without teachers' approval and cooperation. Long story short, the experiment was not a success.

I didn't have any contacts from my actual life in the Dream Schools, but once at a public event I met a teacher in one of them (I don't know if she was one who had reapplied successfully or a new one). She told me forcefully that they would never succeed until they were able to throw out disruptive kids the way KIPP does. I couldn't get a read on her overall attitude about all the implications of that.

The problem is, it's impossible to allow all public schools to throw out or block or simply fail to recruit the most challenged students, which is the situation with charter schools. Some schools somewhere have to teach children with disabilities, turbulent/abusive/deprived home lives, limited English, emotional and behavioral issues, etc. And that's the genuine difference between charter schools and public schools.

I feel like this conversation is revolving around what charter schools were supposed to be, not what they actually are. The reason millions were dumped into charter ballot intiatives has to do with the potential profit of the sector, not improving schools. The people who ultimately staff the schools may have good intentions, but the millionaires and astroturf groups promoting the ballot intiatives have their own agendas.

I am tired of working in a system which purposefully sets up nieghborhood schools for failure while resourcing and promoting charters. Asking parents to choose in this context in not fair. It is a false choice: You can have these resources, but only if you give up democracy/community input. Yesterday I learned that Chicago Public Schools sent home a map of nearby school "choices" to all parents during report card pick-up day. They listed all schools in the area simply by a number, 1, 2 or 3 and color-coded the numbers. Those numbers were based off of test scores, making no distinctions for amount/need of special education students, percentage of ELLs, or percent of students coming from poverty. There was no mention of powerful programs, community involvement,or successes in the schools. Just a number. This was yet another deliberate attempt to sabotage schools which accept ALL students, while pushing parents towards the "choice" schools which get higher test scores through purposeful attrition. Luckily, thanks to powerful activism here in Chicago, more and more parents are aware of the slimy tactics of pro-charter supporters. They are revolting against the privatization schemes.

Here is Chicago we have been literally filling the streets SCREAMING to have fully-resourced schools and an end to top-down decision making. Parents and community members have taken to the streets repeatedly yelling things like "No More Charter Schools" or "Fund Neighborhood School Now". Two weeks ago, there was a sit-in in front of the mayor's office where 10 parents, community members, and teachers were arrested in protest of the Mayor's charter expansion and school closures. These actions are occuring around the nation. So if you have not heard of Public School Advocates begging for resources and community control of schools, then you have not been listening.

CaroliineSF,

Actually, as I'm sure you are aware, firing the whole staff is just an example of a "turnaround" strategy. That is simply more top-down, authoritarian, corporate reform and NOT giving schools and communities what they need. Here in Chicago, that type of turnaround is very common. In fact, the head of our school board used to run the most popular turnaround company, AUSL. And now-surprise surprise-AUSL gets all the new contracts (the cronyism, graft, and corruption of this town--and the education reformers here--is astounding. And they don't even bother to try and hide their agendas.) When schools are given actual Democratic control of their schools, plus extra resources, you see much stronger improvement than charter or turnarounds, without firing the staff, getting rid of difficult-to-educate-children, or bringing in private management: http://designsforchange.org/democracy_vs_turnarounds.pdf

Totally agree with you about charters throwing children out. I work on an inpatient psych unit in Chicago, and my students with emotional/behavioral dsiabilities are being seriously damaged by corporate eduation reform. The kids in the charters who are allowed to stay are, WITHOUT EXCEPTION (and I've worked with hundred of students)stronger academically with fewer outward behavior problems. There is nothing at all miraculous about what happens in the charters. Plus, my charter kids tell me horror stories about abuses, rigid authoritarian discipline (being told to sit still for three hour dententions, having to pay fines,etc), and cover-ups of the same sorts of problems as plague many urban schools.

It is all a big marketing lie. There is nothing innovative happening at these schools. But what is real is how the schools are diverting funds for my kids who need much much more support in the neighborhood schools. There is no excuse for how my kids with behavior problems are being disinvested in and then thrown away like garbage. Charters and privatization, including the purposeful sabotage of schools, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods, are directly responsible for great human suffering. Something tells me that is not what voters were sold on these ballot iniatives.

So this begs the question, why not just resource and give that freedom to ALL SCHOOLS??

If you want to give the same freedom to all schools, that would mean essentially turning an entire district into charter schools, a la New Orleans. As Paul says, it isn't obvious that the folks who oppose charter schools think of New Orleans as the ultimate goal, so it's hard to know how sincere you are here. But assuming you are indeed sincere, you'd find much agreement amongst charter supporters -- they aren't looking for special treatment, they're just trying to escape from bureaucratic regulations (including some of the top-down accountability requirements that a lot of public school teachers don't like either).

By the way, according to the most recent Census data, Chicago Public Schools are spending $12,857 per student every year (including facilities). Can you be more specific about how much extra money is needed before schools can finally get around to the (onerous and unfair) task of teaching children how to read, etc.?

You do not need to turn a district into New Orleans to allow more freedom. I am talking about giving autonomy and democracy to our neighborhood schools instead of the current top-down, authoritarian, scripted, test-obsessed, micro-managed system in place now. Hire professional teachers, allow for democratic community/parent input (such as Chicago's Local School Councils), fund all schools adequately and equitably, and then let schools be. But there is no political will for this model as no one will profit, nor will there be the type of "freedom" charter advocates are really talking about: freedom from unionization, workplace rights, and pay minimums.

As for the question, "how much is enough?" That's easy. When every school gets the same types of class sizes, facilities, resources, fully prepared teachers, libraries, art, music, science labs, and support services like social workers, counselors, psychologists, and school nurses as the schools of the ruling class.

For the record, Illinois is dead last in terms of regressive school funding (the schools which need the most receive the lease $). This leaves the Chicago neighborhood schools as some of the most underfunded and unequally funded in the country (See more here: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/americas-most-screwed-city-schools-where-are-the-least-fairly-funded-city-districts/ ) Equity in school funding is a necessary (though not sufficient) step in improving our nations' schools.

This comment still seems, honestly, kind of delusional:

" If ample and sufficient resources were provided to the neighborhood schools, my guess is that parents would ALWAYS choose the local school."

Haven't you noticed that people have lots of different tastes about education? Whether it's the level of discipline or the nature of sex ed or the size of a school or the progressiveness of the pedagogy, you'll find people all over the spectrum. To say that everyone could ever be happy in the same school is in denial of reality.

People are diverse, and they like having options. Until the anti-choice movement comes to terms with that reality, they'll continue to make delusional comments like the above.

What is delusional is thinking that charter schools provide that diversity. As a parent, you have no say in a charter school's curriculum/discipline other than choosing whether or not to go to a certain school. If you enroll your child in a school and later discover you do not like/agree with anything in the school, your only voice is to unenroll. Public schools which allow democratic process and parent voice, something being DENIED schools by top-down mandates, are much more able to tailor learning to communities and specific school needs. We need well-funded, autonomous, responsive public schools which are open to all children. Just like is provided in affluent communities.

What is delusional is thinking that charter schools provide that diversity.

They provide more diversity to the system as a whole, that much is undeniable.

Actually, charters have increased segregation in the system as a whole: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/choice-without-equity-2009-report Brown v. Board and the civil rights issue of integration are distant memories. We are back to separate and unequal.

Even if your response was relevant in any way whatsoever, it's based on a report that no one believes is true. I mean, they were comparing charter schools to statewide averages, which is as dumb as it gets! (Hint: charter schools are more likely to be in minority urban neighborhoods, so complaining that they're less white than the suburbs is silly.)

The "diversity" argument, that charters give more "choices" to parents, means allowing schools to be set up to purposefully segregate by race, SES-status, religion, culture, disability, or language. (See example here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-22/segregated-charter-schools-evoke-separate-but-equal-era-in-u-s-education.html ) In fact, the original idea of "choice" was thought up to give whites a way out of being forced to integrate their schools after Brown v Board. Today, it is being used to give low-income kids supposedly "better" schools (which by and large they are not), but on the cheap, without having to fight for true integration or equitable funding formulas, and certainly without addressing poverty, income inequality, or racism.

Besides, all that aside, a vast majority of charters are franchises which follow the same no excuses, test-prep, completely uninspiring formula. Not much of a choice at all.

The beauty of the public school is that all are welcome, regardless of ability, language, special needs, race, or SES. Charters by definition are created for certain children and will deny certain children (especially students with special needs, English Language Learners, kids with behavior problems, kids living in deep poverty). It is true that many neighborhood schools are segregated as a result of the surrounding segregated neighborhood, but charters are segregated ON PURPOSE, even the ones which have no attendance boundaries.

Now, I gave you a reasoned, thoughtful response. I have all the patience in the world, I am a special education teacher after all. Let's see if you can respond without insults or condescension.

And for a good laugh: http://edushyster.com/?p=1122

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