Charter Schools Do Not Further Segregation
As a parent of a public charter school student in New York City, I take offense when I hear critics refer to the education reform movement as furthering segregation. That could not be farther from the truth.
What we are witnessing right now is, unfortunately, a highly-coordinated and well-funded effort led by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and the NAACP to discredit any school that disrupts the status quo. In fact, the new president of the NAACP re-emphasized its call for a moratorium on charter school expansion at a recent convention. And given the state of the education system today in America, we should be encouraging innovation in education, not stifling it, or worse, demagoguing those efforts.
But it is this constant barrage on charters that has made my work at the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition more urgent. The Coalition gives educators across the country a network to share best practices and highlight the rich learning environment that a diverse-by-design school offers.
It is also an opportunity to band together and fight back against critics that seek to mitigate the work we’re doing and, by extension, prevent students from vulnerable communities from having the same high-quality education offered to their higher-income peers.
One of their most effective weapons is to highlight the student composition of some charter schools. However, the negative connotation associated with the buzz word “segregation,” which, used haphazardly, is meant to hurt the credibility of charters. And while I am certainly a strong proponent of school diversity, I am also attuned to reality.
The reality is that many charters, as well as district schools, reflect their location and community’s housing patterns. When comparing charter schools in these areas to their neighboring district schools, you will see similar demographic patterns.
But even more important than that is the gross misunderstanding or, in some cases, the nefarious use of the word “segregation.”
Segregation occurs when government assigns you by race to inferior schools. But when black parents, for example, choose a culturally affirming school that has a similar population, that is not segregation; that is allowing parents to choose the education they believe is best for their children. And oftentimes, that decision is based on the culture of the school more than any other factor.
But what makes charter schools truly unique and special is the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In many of the communities I am fortunate enough to visit, a deliberate focus on creating a diverse and integrated learning environment is what makes many charters – and their school communities – thrive. And when we hear critics hammer away at “segregationist charter schools,” it is our responsibility to fight back against the broad brush.
The fact is that we view diversity as important to the larger school choice movement and we seek to celebrate that characteristic while understanding it is not a necessary characteristic for all schools.
In our communities, diverse schools can invigorate and strengthen urban neighborhoods by breaking down the cultural walls that divide us. And diversity can be achieved through deliberate efforts via recruitment, admissions policies and school design. The impact can be powerful, providing greater opportunities for students to learn from one another and boost achievement.
We are seeing that play out in New Orleans, a city that has witnessed an enormous transformation in education since Hurricane Katrina, and it is diverse charters in New Orleans leading the way. Three members of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition outperformed both the statewide and district averages in the 2017 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) assessments and are in the top ten highest performing schools in all of Orleans Parish. One of the schools, The International School of Louisiana (ISL) was also recently recognized by the Coalition for its academic performance and received the Achievement Gap Award for demonstrating exceptional commitment to successfully closing achievement gaps.
There are stories like the one in New Orleans playing out around the country as more and more charter schools consider the advantages of a diverse learning environment. But unlike the education establishment, it is not something we seek to force on all schools. We believe in choice – parents should be able to choose the best option they see fit for their child’s education and educators should be able to choose the school design that best fits their community’s needs. So while the charter movement continues to exchange ideas, collaborate and understand that empowerment is the key to long-term student achievement, Randi Weingarten and the NAACP can continue their march to irrelevance.
Sonia Park is the executive director of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition and also served as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education.