Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Using race to inflame the charter school debate

Reposted from TN-Edu.Independent - Many here in Nashville and Tennessee continue to engage in mud slinging and innuendo campaigns against charter schools.

The latest attack strategy involves race and claims of segregation. One article now making the rounds is the following from liberal website Salon. The quiet whisper is "See, look, charter schools segregate, they're so terrible aren't they?"

The ugly segregationist history of the charter school movement 

What better way, at a point of heightened racial tension in our country, with Ferguson, MO and Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others to capitalize on this tension and accuse charter schools of segregation?

I work in the state's charter school sector, and am continually disheartened by the attempts made to discredit the work and effort of school leaders and teachers. The overriding focus of the work in the charter sector is on raising the academic achievement level and future opportunities of students. At present, most of the students enrolled in charter schools are minority and/or students identified as eligible for free or reduced lunch. And that work and movement - to provide disadvantaged students with a stronger education and an opportunity for a brighter future - is strong and growing even stronger and expanding to more students as thousands of families continue to choose charter schools. Families continue to choose charter schools and demand more of them in Nashville and Tennessee because these schools are serving students well and delivering on the mission of providing a strong education and preparation for the future.

I'm disheartened not really because many of these people being attacked are my friends and colleagues, but mainly disheartened because it's such a huge distraction and waste of time and energy to dispel the misinformation being put out publicly from these critics.  Charters enroll about 6% of the student population in Nashville and a little less than 2% of all students statewide. I think "why all the attacks when we need to be figuring out how to better educate the 100%?"

Forget the "We Are the 99% campaign" (against the 1%). In education, I'm going to propose we have the "FOR 100% campaign" (and not continually attack the 6%).  We should all be working to further professionalize teaching and learning communities or figuring out how to improve instructional quality in all schools - charter and district alike - rather than spending time trying to spread a false narrative of how charter schools are out to re-segregate our country. It's not true. It's stupid reasoning and it's counterproductive to intentionally mischaracterize other people's motives.

I have found no charter school staff member or school leader or a governing board member or a philanthropic supporter of charter schools, I repeat absolutely nobody who has ever come off to me as segregationist.  Not even remotely close. In fact, my experience is the exact opposite. Many in the charter movement in Nashville and Memphis work exhaustively on issues of equity and justice for minority and disadvantaged youth, and have very intentional and deep desires to improve communities and neighborhoods.

A few things to keep in mind when articles like this come out:

1. Charter school laws and experiences are very unique to each state.

Generalizing things about charter schools - their successes or their warts - is somewhat a waste of time when done on a national level or simplistically across states. Critics do this often.

Every state that has charter schools has its own charter law. This means that each state has a unique set of guidelines around charter school issues, things like enrollment (who can attend charters), who can operate charters (for profit or non profit providers), things like charter school authorizer oversight and accountability or even who can authorize charters (many states let colleges and universities, state boards of education AND local districts authorize charter schools).

Tennessee passed its charter school law in 2002. The first charter legislation was passed in Minnesota in 1992. So Tennessee had 10 years to learn from other states before implementing its law. They crafted a strong law that was mindful of lessons learned based on mistakes and strengths of other state laws.  The law has continued to be updated.

2. It's worth examining actual history and experience in Tennessee charter schools

Critics capitalize on the fact that most people are into the one minute news cycle. Read 1 article on Salon or a social media opinion post and you've got all the facts.

Not quite.

Tennessee passed its charter school law only in 2002 largely because there were many years prior of very strong opposition to charter schools by the TEA, one of the most powerful forces year in and year out at the State Legislature. Look just south of us for something similar. Alabama still does not have a charter school law mainly because of the very very powerful teacher's union in Alabama.

TEA's fervent opposition to charter schools has continued over the years and continues today (although it's a bit ironic when you think about it because charter schools give their teachers more coaching and support and often better pay, core issues the TEA is regularly supporting).  When the law did pass in 2002, TEA opposition was still heavily present, and so the original charter law contained a cap on the number of charter schools that could exist statewide, and charter schools were only allowed to enroll a very small subset of the overall student population in Tennessee.

Charter schools could only enroll students assigned to schools that failed to meet AYP (remember NCLB?) or enroll a student that failed to test proficient or advanced on TCAP math or reading. The law was later amended to allow students who qualified for free and reduced price lunch to enroll. Only in 2011 did the law change to allow any student in Tennessee to attend a charter.

So for nearly a decade - charter schools served those students that the TN charter law said they could serve. Students that went to schools that didn't meet AYP, weren't proficient or advanced on TCAP or those that qualified for free and reduced price lunch. And you guessed it, those students were and are predominantly minority students. It was these students, and only these students, who could attend charter schools in Tennessee for a long time.

So if we remember actual history from our local context, and understand the effects public policy has on school enrollment patterns, it's fair to say that the legislative efforts backed by the TEA over the years in Tennessee were a driving force in concentrating a higher population of minorities and free and reduced lunch students in the state's charter schools.

It's true that today TN charter schools serve a higher percentage of minorities and students eligible for free and reduced when compared with traditional district schools.  Again, that largely reflects the legislative constraints in the law that existed on charter school operators for many years, and not Tennessee charter school operators intentionally trying to cordon off poor and minority students into charter schools.

In the few years since 2011, charter schools on the whole are becoming less concentrated with minorities and high poverty students. Or put another way, charter schools have become less "segregated" with a fully open enrollment policy. This is a good thing, as many education policy studies and research show that concentrating poor and minority students in any type of school - district run or charter - concentrates the challenges of educating this subgroup of students and on the whole, achievement levels are often lower when disadvantaged students are highly concentrated in the same school.

I'd also make the case that when we see segregation of race in our schools (it exists in a number of traditional district schools), that is largely reflective of housing patterns and city zoning policies (not charter operators trying to segregate students).

Concentrating minorities or high poverty students into schools, district run or charter, via public policy at the state or city level is often a recipe for low student achievement. In spite of this experience and very damaging effect, many Tennessee charter schools have been able to defy the odds over the years even while serving concentrated minority and high poverty student populations. These charter schools have shown strong graduation rates and very high achievement indicators. Students leave these schools more rounded and better prepared for their futures. Yes, there have been low performing charters, but the charter school concept and the key element of accountability associated with charter schools has allowed these low performing charters to be shuttered or quickly reformed.

Charter schools are not out to segregate students. They are in fact out to prove that demography is not not destiny.  So let's move on from empty arguments and inflammatory race based claims, and focus our work and efforts on improving all of our schools for 100% of the students that need to be served.

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