The Only Percentage that Matters in Charter-School Politics

It seems like it should be a pretty straightforward equation, right? If charter schools are better for more students, they should be supported. If not, not. As today’s battle in California makes clear, though, those numbers and calculations are never as simple as they appear. For one thing, there has always been a huge hidden absolute value in educational politics that wonks tend to ignore. By paying attention to that hidden number, politicians will have a clearer path forward.

CAcharterrallyMarch13-320x215

Justice, yes. But how?

The racial politics of charter schools in California has gotten confusing. A basket of bills to limit charter growth has stalled. They seemed like a slam dunk at first. They were supported by the state NAACP and introduced by an influential member of the state’s California Legislative Black Caucus. Recently, however, three local NAACP chapters came out against the charter limits.

It has become extremely unclear if the African-American community in California supports or opposes charter expansion. Why?

Both sides can point to powerful statistics. African-American leaders who oppose charter expansion can cite the 2016 national NAACP anti-charter resolution. Charter schools, the NAACP charged, lack transparency; they divert funds from public schools; they expel and suspend African-American students at unfair rates; and they promote a

de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

For their part, charter supporters can point to their own powerful data. From Brookings, for example:

there is a subset of charter schools serving overwhelmingly black and poor students in large cities using a so-called “no excuses” education model in which students have experienced dramatically higher achievement than comparable students attending regular public schools.

And from CREDO at Stanford:

Black charter students in poverty have 36 more days of learning in reading and 43 more days of learning in math than their counterparts in TPS [Traditional Public Schools].

So are charter schools good for low-income African-American and Latinx kids or not?

credo increasesThe numbers and calculations can mask the most important statistic of all. Parents don’t wonder if 15% of local students will attend charters or public schools. They don’t fret if only 72% of children in their district are meeting reading or math goals, or if 81% of students are graduating from high school. No, for families dealing with crappy local schools, there is only one percentage to worry about: What kind of education is available for 100% of my kid?

This hidden number is the most important and explosive educational statistic of all. People who support charter expansion can’t wait for someday. They can’t trust sclerotic school boards to change things overnight. They need a better school today, and they need it to have room for their kids.

This 100%ism explains why support for charter schools differs by race among members of the Democratic Party. White Democrats tend to oppose charters at higher rates than do African-Americans or Latinx ones. Moreover, support for charters has dropped fast among white Democrats, but not among non-whites. This fact led the editors of the Washington Post mistakenly to chide leading 2020 Democratic politicians to support more charters. As the WaPo editors concluded,

We hope candidates keep in mind the polls that consistently show support for charters among black and Hispanic voters. It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools. We hope we will also hear from candidates who know about the value of charters from their experiences — including as a mayor who used them to begin to turn around a failing district, as a partner in an administration that promoted charters, as a schools superintendent who made a place for charters.

support-for-charter-scools by raceThere’s a better way.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we agree wholeheartedly with parents’ rights to demand better public schools today, not someday. We support students’ rights to have a high-quality education in their own neighborhoods, surrounded by their friends and support networks. Most of all, we agree with the idea of doing what works to help students become better people and better scholars, instead of merely doing what has always been done before.

But none of that means we should ignore the equally desperate problems of charter schools. School districts have other options besides charters to turn to. Most notably, magnet and specialty programs within traditional public-school districts can accomplish the same things as charter schools, while still allowing transparency and public oversight over the schools and without draining funding from the public-school system.

There is no simple answer to racism, segregation, and poverty. But taking money out of the public-school system is not the way to start. Instead, politicians need to remain aware of the most important statistic in education and find a way to provide families with good schools right now for 100% of their kids. They just don’t need to do it with charters alone.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
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