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.

Advertisements

The School Headline We Won’t See

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the brave Parkland students who have done so much in the past few weeks to push for change. I’m as distressed as my friends when I hear conservative politicians belittling their activism. But whatever our political views on student activism, we’re likely to believe something about schools that just isn’t true. In spite of what all of us might think if we just read the papers, America’s schools are safe and getting safer. Why don’t we hear more about it?

school safety

Where are the cheers?

Here’s what we know: The National Center for Education released its new report today about school safety. By any measure, schools today are much safer places than they’ve been since 1992. Crime reports from schools are down, security measures are improved, staffs are better trained in safety measures, and students report less crime.

Why won’t we hear more culture-war blather about this news? Here’s my guess: Whether you’re a conservative, a progressive, or other, you want people to think that schools are dangerous places.

Let’s look at the conservative side first. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives told one another that schools—especially public schools—had gone to the dogs. For example, as Reagan’s second Ed Secretary memorably lamented, by any “index of cultural indicators,” schools had failed catastrophically.

It wasn’t only Bill Bennett who worried. Religious conservatives also warned that public schools had

grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn. . .

In most cases, if conservatives hate something, progressives will love it. But that hasn’t been the case with public schools. From the left, critics charge that public schools are abusive places, especially to students from minority backgrounds. In one recent case from Maryland, for example, activists note that African American students

are subject to daily abuse and humiliation. . . . [from] a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color.

Conservatives don’t agree with progressives about much. When it comes to school safety, however, both sides agree that public schools are dangerous and getting worse. Both sides, it seems, won’t allow themselves to be troubled by inconvenient truths.

Academic Impostors

What does Rachel Dolezal have to do with Woodrow Wilson? Her story has been poked and prodded from every angle, it seems, except one. In important ways, this is a story about higher education. Universities have always had non-academic categories that they have preferred. Students and faculty—like Dolezal and President Wilson—have always allowed schools to think they fill those categories, even if they don’t.

Dolezal then & now...

Dolezal then & now…

If you haven’t heard about Dolezal yet, congratulations. Her strange tale of a white woman passing herself off as an African American leader has attracted bajillions of comments from all over the punditocracy. In very brief form, here are the highlights: Dolezal has served as the successful chapter leader of the Spokane NAACP. She has either allowed people to think of her as African American, or has even checked that box herself. She may have performed some Facebook fakery to make her family look more African American. She attended graduate school with a full scholarship at the historically black Howard University. She teaches African American Studies classes at Eastern Washington University. Recently, her very white parents outed her as white. The family had split over Rachel’s accusations of abuse. Rachel had fought for custody of one of her younger brothers.

As journalists have noted, this story has raised tricky questions about race and racism in the United States. Conservative commentators have wondered why people can be transgender but not transracial. The NAACP has issued a statement affirming that its leaders can be from any racial background.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for a new book about the history of American higher education. To my tired eyes, one angle of this story jumps out and I haven’t heard any other nerds talking about it. As a student and as a teacher, Dolezal’s imposture has reaped significant rewards. If nothing else, her story can give us another example of the ways preferred categories have always affected higher education.

At Howard University, according to Dolezal’s father, Rachel allowed the school to assume she was African American. They gave her a full scholarship for her graduate program in art. She also teaches part-time at Eastern Washington University in the Africana Education Program. It is not certain that she lied to the people who hired her there, but the director of the program told the New York Times he thought she was black.

It seems evident that Dolezal would not have had the same opportunities at Howard or EWU if she had not been perceived as African American. Academic positions, especially in relevant areas such as Africana Studies, usually have explicit preferences for members of underrepresented groups.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against hiring preferences in higher education. I agree that personal background can be an important factor when it comes to teaching and scholarship and universities are correct to prefer some candidates based on non-academic qualifications. IMHO. Indeed, I only got my job because of my experience as a secondary-school teacher.

The interesting point, rather, is that these non-academic preferences can tell us a lot about the nature of higher education, the non-academic values of colleges. In the past, elite schools used to prefer Christian professors, for example. This is where Woodrow Wilson comes in. When Wilson, future POTUS, was elevated to the Chair of Political Economy and Jurisprudence at Princeton University in 1890, he received a forceful letter from Princeton President Francis Patton. To keep his chair, Patton warned, Professor Wilson would need to be far more explicit in his Christian testimony.

Patton worried in a letter to Wilson

That in your discussion of the origin of the State you minimize the supernatural, & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution & the genesis of the State as to leave the reader of your pages in a state of uncertainty as to your own position & the place you give to Divine Providence.

Princeton, Patton insisted, was determined to “keep this College on the old ground of loyalty to the Christian religion.”

Even at the time, as Patton’s language suggested, such Christian orthodoxy was becoming rarer and rarer in American higher education, at elite schools at least. Patton wanted to hire only Christian scholars. Wilson, for his part, allowed Patton to think he agreed, though Wilson’s later work never embodied the sort of loud-and-proud supernatural thinking Patton desired.

What does any of this have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Back in the 1890s, if one wanted a job at Princeton, one was wise to allow school leaders to think one supported orthodox Calvinism. These days, if one wants a job in a university, one is wise to allow school leaders to think one is a member of an historically underrepresented group.

Back then, conservative schools such as Princeton and Yale were clinging to an older tradition of explicitly Christian education. These days, schools are scrambling to include a wider diversity of racial backgrounds.

Wilson’s career was certainly not hurt by his willingness to let Patton believe his Presbyterianism was stronger than it really was. Dolezal—until this ugly scandal, of course—has not been hurt by people’s assumptions about her racial background.

IN THE NEWS: Faith and Race

What does it mean to be a citizen of Fundamentalist America?  For some, it means making hard choices.

For instance, the Reverend Keith Ratliff of Des Moines, Iowa recently resigned his leadership post in the NAACP.  He did so after the NAACP officially endorsed same-sex marriage.  Ratliff was forced to choose between his religious beliefs and his leadership post, and he chose religion.

Ratliff’s story highlights the changing nature of Fundamentalist America.  For most of American history, conservatives, like progressives, have been starkly divided by the color line.  The recent decisions of prominent African American conservatives, like Ratliff, to emphasize their conservative ideology and theology demonstrates this change.  Even before resigning his leadership post in the NAACP, for instance, Ratliff publicly endorsed conservative Republican Bob VanDer Plaats for governor in 2010.

As reported by Catholic Online, Ratliff defended his decision as part of his Biblical faith:

During a Statehouse rally in March 2011, Ratliff said his support for traditional marriage was biblically based, adding, “This isn’t a private interpretation, a Burger King religion, and by that I mean a ‘have it your way’ religion.”