The Battle Over Charter Schools
NAACP declares opposition and is criticized by charter supporters like Howard Fuller.
The NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, a group of 50 organizations assembled by Black Lives Matter, have recently passed resolutions declaring their opposition to charter schools, as the New York Times and other publications have reported.
The NAACP resolution is scathing in its criticism as is that of the Movement for Black Lives. They charge that charter schools have contributed to increased segregation, use discipline in a way that violates student rights, waste money and erode local control of public education.
“They portray charters as the pet project of foundations financed by white billionaires, and argue that the closing of traditional schools as students migrate to charters has disproportionately disrupted black communities,” the Times summarizes. The resolution by the Movement for Black Lives assails charter schools as a “systematic attack…coordinated by an international education privatization agenda, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family, and Eli and Edythe Broad.”
But Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent and the founding president of the national Black Alliance for Educational Options, which encourages support among blacks for charter and choice schools, told the Times he couldn’t understand these attacks, and defended charter schools. “You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist,” he said.
“Studies have shown that charters — which are financed by taxpayers but privately run — have improved on traditional public schools in cities like Newark, Boston and Washington,” the Times noted. “But they have made little improvement in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, where a large proportion of students attend charters.”
In Milwaukee, as Urban Milwaukee’s Data Wonk columnist Bruce Thompson has reported, there is evidence that charter schools tend to have more success with low-income students than traditional public schools.
Nationally, the argument against charter schools is that “some effectively skim the best students from the pool, with enrollment procedures that discourage all but the most motivated parents to apply,” the Times noted.
Charter schools “are allowed to get away with a lot more,” Hiram Rivera, an author of the Black Lives anti-charter schools resolution told the Times.
“Charters are slightly more likely to suspend students than traditional public schools, according to an analysis of federal data this year,” the Times reported. “And black students in charter schools are four times as likely to be suspended as their white peers, according to the data analysis, putting them in what Mr. Brooks calls the ‘preschool to prison pipeline.’”
The NAACP resolution also stands in opposition to what average black Americans think. One summary of public opinion noted that among African Americans about 47 percent support, 29 percent oppose and 24 percent have no opinion of charter schools. That, however, was less supportive than white respondents, who tended to support charter schools by a two-to-one margin.
In Wisconsin, a Marquette University Law School poll by Charles Franklin (in 2013) found the opposite pattern, with blacks more supportive (49 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable) of charter schools than whites (39 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable).
Milwaukee might be considered ground zero for choice and charter schools. About 27,000 students attend choice schools in Milwaukee, in essence creating the state’s second largest school system.
Milwaukee also has a lot of charter school students. It ranked 15th among the top 50 school districts in the number of charter school students, just over 18,000, as of 2014, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That was about 23 percent of all students, 16th highest among the 50 top districts, and far behind the two districts with the highest percentage: 93 percent of New Orleans students and 53 percent of Detroit students attend charter schools.
The issue of choice and charter schools has long divided black officials in Milwaukee. In the recent spring election, two supporters of choice and charter schools won election: incumbent State Sen. Lena Taylor defeated a challenge from Rep. Mandela Barnes, while Jason Fields defeated Darrol Gibson and thus was returned to the state assembly district he had held until his defeat in 2012 by Barnes. Both Barnes and Gibson opposed choice and charter schools.
The choices when it comes to the best education approach to favor are not easy. While it may be true that charter schools are increasing segregation, there is little doubt that most big city public school systems were re-segregated since the court-ordered integration of the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee the public school system has an increasingly higher percentage of special education students as other students gravitate to charter and choice schools.
Another complicating factor is that the per-pupil spending of choice and charter schools is far lower than that for public school students. Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce leader Tim Sheehy is pushing for the state legislature to increase this funding and decrease the funding gap.
In short, the recent NAACP resolution is unlikely to settle the battle over urban education in Milwaukee or the nation. Short term the only likely result is to create further division among black leaders on the critical issue of how best to educate their children.