Curbing charter school growth robs black and brown students of options

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Black leaders across America should be paying attention to the educational assault on people of color under way in the Golden State, where the legislature is set to all but outlaw the few schools there making progress on educating black children.

Several bills are expected to pass and be signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, allowing local school districts — often governed by union-endorsed board members — to block the creation of new public charter schools, close down existing ones, and deny them a pipeline of teachers who are proving that black and brown kids can compete.

Their reason for doing so is clear: successful charters are popular with parents and they shine a harsh light on the traditional district schools that are unable to match or exceed charter results in the classroom with students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

Showing support for these bills is the California Teachers Association (CTA), the 300,000-member union representing the state’s traditional public-school teachers that is a powerful lobbying group with legislators.

Across America, some 7,000 charters schools in 44 states educate approximately 3 million kids. They have become safe havens for black, Hispanic and poor students stuck in our country’s shameful education deserts. While not all of them are academic powerhouses, solid research shows the best of them dramatically outperform traditional public schools serving similar populations.

Charter schools typically get five-year contracts to operate and they are held accountable by authorizers who can extend or end a contract when they come up for renewal. The current legislation in California will cut renewal periods down to as little as two years. That is a clear attempt to destabilize these schools and the students they serve.

Charters also put district leaders and principals on the spot. The original bipartisan idea of charter schools was to create attractive options for parents trapped in undesirable schools, while also providing little laboratories for innovation to inspire and inform improvements in schools and districts. In practice, when local charters outperform their districts, school bureaucrats resist pressure to adopt their approaches.

The saddest part of the story is that black and brown politicians across the country have been complicit, if not active, in denying choice to parents of color. Three years ago, urban black leaders supported legislation to keep a cap on the number of charter schools in the state, despite strong demand for charter seats among black parents in Boston, where the charters are among the best-performing in the country.

In Newark, where high-performing charters are knocking it out of the park, a black mayor, who is a former high school principal, was elected on a promise to limit charter schools. He even partnered with a Democratic governor to limit charter schools, even though they have boosted the district’s graduation and college enrollment rates.

In New York City, the current chancellor and his predecessor, both Latinx, have allowed the Democratic mayor to demonize a charter sector that is getting stunning results. Meanwhile, the district’s magnet schools marginalize the city’s black and brown students.

And today in California, Latino politicians such as Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) and the black state superintendent of schools, Tony Thurmond, are backed by education unions and leading the charge. For Durazo, the stakes are low: she sends her kids to private schools.

It’s important to note that the oldest and largest black education organization in the world, the United Negro College Fund, consistently calls for a broader set of K-12 options to get our students to college. In California, the only voices raising concern about the push for charter school elimination are grassroots members of NAACP branches that are challenging their state bosses, and all the chapters of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Urban League.

As California moves ahead with these changes, look for the unions to replicate their approach in other politically blue states. The question for elected officials of color is this: will you hold out your palms for political donations, or will you raise a fist in defiance?

Chris Stewart is CEO of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He previously was chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation; the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum; and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education. Follow him on Twitter @citizenstewart.

Tags Alternative education California charter schools Gavin Newsom New York School choice

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