Charter Schools, a Choice for Black Parents?

“Why Don’t Suburbanites Want Charter Schools?” —Laura McKenna; The Atlantic Magazine;

Probably because they prefer real choices for their children!

First, let me say I deeply respect those Black charter school parents, who are operating out of the best instincts and interests on behalf of their children. I have nothing but admiration for those parents, who are fighting with whatever weapons they can get a hold of, to save their children from the demoralizing ant-Black academic achievement public school systems of this nation. And in particular those parents who have come to understand that our public school systems, have neither a plan nor interest in providing an appropriate education for Black students who are either “on, or above grade level.” The world of public education is the opposite of NPR’s Garrison Keillor’s students who attend the mythical Lake Woebegone school district; as far as US public education is concerned all Black students are all incapable of high academic performance; and the tricky thing about education, is that you tend to get what you expect.

But I hesitate to call Black parents “choice” of charter schools, an educational choice in the way I understand the words: “education” and “choice”. While reading this article I wanted to at least start with a little honest vocabulary, and say: White communities and parents, instead of the, “nice”, safe and careful word: “suburbanites”! I fully understand that the average American (including journalist and commentators) would rather spend 5 minutes in the ring (or is it a cage?) with Ronda Rousey, then to have a painful, honest and authentic discussion about race and education in this nation. But on this topic, and others like it in education, “race” as a main discussion focus, is desperately needed. The fact that charter schools are presented as a “choice” for Black parents (Can we also be honest and agree to call Black kids: the “targeted population” of the charter movement?) is itself misleading. White parents (our “suburbanites”) may be actually choosing to pass on charter schools; but for sure the optional choice in Black communities to “select” these schools is not an example of a ground swell of affirmation that emerged naturally and independently from the Black community. It is in many ways like poor people without health insurance having “a choice” of receiving primary care in the hospital emergency room, or nothing; some choice!

And so when is a choice not really a choice in the full meaning of the word? What is an educational “choice” apart from an informed decision; without self-determined-defined-developed options? How does it feel to have a “choice” that is disconnected from power? To experience a “choice” that is in fact a result of a decision made outside of the Black community (“You can choose but you can only pick option A or B of two bad choices”?)
And let us not forget the racial apartheid that characterizes the profile of the funders and ownership class that controls charter schools; and how does that reality affect the cultural and self-esteem needs of the children and the community where they live. The charter school movement leadership; seems to in many ways to mirror the racial makeup of public education’s ‘reform’, and ‘anti-reform’ uninformed folks in the traditional public school system. In an interesting way the limited choices Black parents are forced to make, reduces them and their communities to live in a culture of constant compromise; never really being able to practice and project their true humanity; to affirm their parental ideas as to what they think their children need. And perhaps, if given a real choice Black people, may in fact choose charter schools, but that is not what is going on here; the real choices are only being made by the “suburbanites”!

Why don’t we call charter schools what they truly are; beyond their commercial importance in a slowly recovering economy. They sadly represent a surrender, a failure and a cowardly choice on the part of our political, education and civic leaders to confront, and dispense with a public education system that fails children of color by maintaining the primacy of adult employment and happiness in our public schools. Why can’t we get rid of restrictive and anti-academic rules and regulations, right now in our public schools, and save millions of children, right now! Why can’t Black parents have the political power to insist that their schools not become liberal carpet-bagging training centers for drive by educational saviors, on their way to lucrative consultant contracts and “suburban” school districts? Why are the schools that serve the poor and children of color allowed to be essentially controlled by labor-organizations (who generously fund and own politicians) that treat public schools as if they were some type of factory producing inanimate “widgets”; rather than a place that is charged with nurturing future animated and willing human being that we care about? Why can’t Black educators and communities have a say in what is the best ways to educate their children; why can’t they have a say like “suburban parents and communities”?

Over the years I have seen so many examples of this false educational choice made by Black parents: theologically committed Baptist and Methodist sending their children to Catholic parochial schools; Black parents living down the block from a low-performing public school, scraping together their very limited resources to send their child to a private school; and finally the latest growing wave of Black Homeschoolers; who are trying to save their children from both charter and traditional public schools. When will these people really have a choice, like their White counterparts, to just send their child to the neighborhood school knowing that they will be safe, academically challenged and cherished as essential human beings?

My experience as a teacher, principal and superintendent has taught me that Black parents, like most parents are pretty much focused on the bottom lines of:

-“Is my child safe?”
-“Can my child learn and progress academically in this school?”
-“Is the school committed to high standards and high expectations?”
-“Is my child’s success a requisite priority in this school”
-“Do the adults who are in charge of the district, and those who work in the school honor, and really care about my child?”

Missing from the list; and something I have never heard in more than three decades in public education, from either Black or White parents is: “I wish for my child to be turned into a commodity and sacrificed on the altar of conservative political expediency, and educational entrepreneurship!” “That the only way to improve a school is to close it!” Or, “that my child should be the product of the never-ending policy and organizational churn (masquerading as reform) that characterizes public education in communities of color.
I think that Black children, parents and communities, could really stand a long period of absence of both liberal and conservative “educational reformers”; whose political wars continues to leave huge numbers of an entire population of young people firmly in the classroom to cell block pipeline. I tell parents that if either a liberal or conservative walks into a room and says: “I want to help your kids”—Duck and Run!

Black parents want what suburban parents enjoy–the ability to choose a good option for their child. Or the choice between two good options, like a TAG program and a very rich non-TAG school program. The real choice between a specialized-magnet school; and a really good neighborhood school! And this real choice (if we chose to make that choice possible) could exist without the need to create a brand new school system; that has even less accountability, then the first school system; and is based on a profit motive; after all, based on recent events, it is not like the business community has such a stellar record of achievement! And if you can only produce modest gains by skimming children of the most active and aware Black parents; by removing “troublesome” and low performing students; excluding large numbers of ELL and special education students; then clearly this latest experiment in “privatization” is not the answer.

There are some very good reasons that public education in any society, is not a profit making enterprise, and that is because the education of a society’s young people is viewed as an investment in the future. When we as a nation (well, at least large numbers of us) decide that Black children have a place and role in the future success of this nation; there will be an end to wasteful and non-productive experimental projects; that in the end always seem to leave some people in our society a little richer; while at the same time leave the children and parents of color with a lot of impoverished hope.