There’s a Reason the Movement for Black Lives’ Education Platform Rejects Charter Schools

You can also read my colleague Hailly Korman’s coverage of the Movement for Black Lives’ education platform in this post from yesterday.

BLM image for post

Student march in Minneapolis, MN via flickr user Fibonacci Blue

The Movement for Black Lives’ K-12 education platform has only been public for a few days, but it’s already a success in one sense: It got people talking about the education of black students. Perhaps no part of the education platform was more provocative than the call for a moratorium on charter schools. It forced this uncomfortable question: Why – if so many black families are choosing charters – would the Movement reject them?

Looking at the data, it’s a hard position to explain. It’s no secret that traditional public schools are failing black students. Nationally, the eighth grade black-white achievement gap in public schools is 29 points in reading and 32 points in math. Only 72.5 percent of black students graduate high school on time, almost 15 points behind their white peers. On the other hand, many charters appear to be doing better. A recent study found that nationally urban charters provide higher levels of growth in reading and math. Furthermore, the majority of black parents report supporting charter schools.

So, why would the Movement for Black Lives want to stop the expansion of charters when the evidence seems to suggest that they should want just the opposite?

They might oppose charter school expansion because some charters push out students of color and have a history of severe school discipline practices. Another reason could be that charters can contribute to the decline of neighborhood schools.

Some advocates and wonks argue that the Movement’s education platform demonstrates that they have been coopted by the teachers’ unions. Dr. Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, CT complains that the platform is out of touch with what’s happening in education today and what parents want.

All these explanations are too simplistic. And, I think they are wrong.

Instead, I think that the resistance to charter schools stems, in a large part, from the Movement for Black Lives argument that public institutions systematically and chronically fail the black community. That’s their message on criminal justice: rather than protecting black people, the police habitually victimize them. The theme is similar in education. Rather than providing black students with a high-quality and equitable education, schools reproduce inequality.

They’re right.

At the national scale, education is a public good to which black students have an equal right but that has effectively been denied to them. Black students are habitually and systematically disadvantaged within a foundational institution that all other people in this country enjoy. This means they are denied full participation in American society. It means that equal education guaranteed after Brown v. Board is still a dream.

The question is not whether for black students a charter would be a better choice than a traditional public school (even though in some cases charters do indeed provide a higher quality of education than the school that students otherwise would have to attend). That obscures the larger problem of race-based inequities in: school funding, access to effective teachers, and access to college-preparatory curricula. The list  goes on and on.  

The more important question is whether expanding charter schools helps to dismantle the larger inequities of our public education system. It might for individual students. But, at the systems level, the answer is no.

Instead, the good charter schools are a treatment and not the cure. Adding more charter schools to the School District of Philadelphia would likely help some students. But it would do nothing for the broader problem: the state continually underinvests and undervalues the city and its largely black student population.

I want to be clear. There is significant evidence that some charter schools provide a higher quality education to black students than the traditional schools in the same school district. I’m not debating that. I think parents should continue to send their kids to any high-performing school to which they have access. For families suffering now within a system that fails to serve them adequately, waiting for large-scale change is just not a viable option.

At the same time, though, more charters — high performing or otherwise — will not solve the bigger problem of the structural racism embedded in our education system. Spending considerable time, money, and energy to expand charter schools are investments that fail to affect the larger issue.

Therefore, by calling for an end to the expansion of charter schools, I believe the Movement for Black Lives is demanding we instead deal with the root cause of systemic education inequity: racism and disenfranchisement.  

Fifty years later, the Movement for Black Lives has updated the Black Panther’s 10-point program. Many of their demands are similar. They want to be treated justly by the police. They want to have opportunities to work. And, they want schools that are worthy of their children.

Hopefully this time we will have the courage and humility to engage with their voices constructively and in good faith. It is only by working together that we can diagnose and reform the systems that perpetuate and reinforce inequality.

One thought on “There’s a Reason the Movement for Black Lives’ Education Platform Rejects Charter Schools

  1. Greg Van Houten

    Great article. Could the treatment (as in, charters providing individual equity) be the cure here, though? Unlike popping a pill for a virus, high-performing charters seem more like a blood transfusion. And, if enough individual inequity (in education) is dismantled, then hasn’t the system inequity (in education) been dismantled?

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