Thursday, February 11, 2010

Charter Schools and Civil Rights

I ripped it on Sunday (, but the UCLA Civil Rights Project's report deserves another ripping, this time courtesy of Nelson Smith, the ED of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who calls it "a remarkably shoddy job":

Charter Schools and Civil Rights

Submitted by Nelson Smith on February 4, 2010 - 9:19am

This morning Gary Orfield's Civil Rights Project (CRP) releases a report portraying charter schools as "a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system."  For those of us in the movement, the CRP's arguments are a trip through the looking glass. Where we applaud the charter founders who set up inner-city schools to serve the kids in greatest need,  the CRP sees only a geographic concentration "that skews the charter school enrollment toward having higher percentages of poor and minority students."   Where we brim with pride at the million or so minority parents who choose to send their kids to charter schools, the CRP – well, it pretty much ignores them. Where we know high-quality charter schools are addressing a profound civil rights issue –the denial of educational opportunity – the CRP sees them as part of the problem.

For a group with Harvard and UCLA pedigrees, it's a remarkably shoddy job, with page after page of tables comparing charter school demographics to those of entire metropolitan area school systems – as if the charters were evenly distributed among Chicago, Joliet and Naperville, in one example. (Next time you visit an inner-city charter school, stroll down the street to the neighborhood district school – the kids will look pretty similar.)

The CRP's analyses are based almost solely on demographics -- for example, showing the percentage of minority populations in charter vs. other public schools, and the "exposure" that students of one race have to students of other races based on these numbers. But in the era of NCLB and disaggregated data, we know that schools and  systems with neatly aligned proportions of ethnic and racial groups can still have appalling achievement gaps among them. Take a look at David Whitman's Sweating the Small Stuff to see how some of our great charter schools actively prepare their mostly-minority students for their future in a diverse and competitive culture – taking their students to college visits, consciously modeling and stressing middle-class values, and so on. These schools produce achievement and confidence through relentless focus and consistent, high-expectations culture – which most of their students did not experience in any prior setting, whatever the demographics.

What's most painful is that we all share Dr. Orfield's aspiration for cities and school systems full of vibrant diversity. There's even some interesting conversation going on within our own movement (as in Petrilli's recent post) about working for more diversity in charters.  We know the federal government can do a better job of collecting good data on charter and other public schools, and we certainly want authorizers to be vigilant in assuring that charter schools reach out to diverse populations when recruiting students. And we're fine with expanding magnet schools (which the report advocates)  -- so long as we realize that they are often selective and do not replace charters' open-enrollment approach that works especially well for kids who wouldn't make it into the magnet pool.

But this kind of broadside won't get us there, if only because it so defies the actual reality of our day. The report actually suggests that states deny charters to CMOs that operate racially isolated charters. So, in the name of diversity, the CRP would forbid even our best CMOs from opening new campuses in the inner city -- despite their track record of producing spectacular gains for the very minorities Orfield and company purport to serve.  Astonishing.

Early press here.

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