December 5, 2017

Concerns Over Charters and School Segregation are Misplaced

By Brandie Burris-Gallagher

An Associated Press article over the weekend and a Minnesota Public Radio segment this morning revealed how often conversations about charter schools lack nuance (not to mention voices of charter parents). These pieces point to charter schools as a driver of school segregation, and imply that closing down these schools would lead to more integration and better student outcomes. This implication is as oversimplified as it is unhelpful—and also not supported by the evidence. We need to re-set the conversation, be honest about the realities facing students of color in both district and charter schools, and work towards real solutions to provide these students with the great education they deserve.

Integration is important, but so are other factors.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried introducing nuance in conversations about school choice, only to be asked, “Wait! You don’t think integration is important?” Of course integration is important, but in my own experience and conversations with Minnesota parents and students, I’ve found that most people of color don’t usually see it as an end in itself.

For example, as a black woman, although I value integration, other factors will be more important as I pick a school for my child. For example, how are her would-be black peers doing academically? Are there teachers on staff who look like her? Does the school offer programs and curriculum that will play to her strengths and affirm her identity? Of course, for some families, including some families of color, an integrated setting is at the top of the list. But this simply isn’t true for all parents, especially for those who have had negative, even traumatic experiences in their more “integrated” district schools.

I recently spoke with a Somali parent thrilled to enroll her children at her neighborhood charter school. Among other reasons, she was overjoyed that her school scheduled end-of-year celebrations (along with the cookies, cakes, and sweets) to avoid conflicting with Ramadan. This relatively small example of the school’s willingness to respond to her culture and needs—a willingness she never saw in her zoned district school—meant the world to her.

In addition to seeking out safe and affirming learning environments, I also know countless parents of color (including my own!) who have exercised school choice because of academics. Despite frequent claims that, overall, charters aren’t performing better than district schools, the fact of the matter is that many Minnesota charter schools consistently beat the odds for students of color. Yes, too many are underperforming. We must fix that, and many of us are organizing to do just that (more below), but we can’t let that overshadow the fact that the space for innovation in the charter sector has led to changing-the-odds models we ought to defend and replicate.

If the end goal is truly integrated, quality schools, there are many strategies we should exhaust long before we even consider taking away choice from families of color.

1. Ask parents of color in charters that serve mostly students of color: Why are you making this choice?

Too often, I see assumptions made about parents of color who choose charter schools. People suggest these parents are selfish or misinformed, or would all rather bus their kids to majority-white district schools, etc. These generalizations are not only offensive, they’re also simply untrue. If you don’t believe me, ask parents of color who send their children to charter schools. And if you don’t know any, perhaps ask yourself why you think you’re in a position to make assumptions about them.

2. Improve opportunities for students of color in district schools.

After step one, you’ll probably find that families of color are choosing charter schools because they want a better option for their child. That’s key: School integration only matters if the resulting schools are high-quality for all students. Too often, we conflate whiteness with quality, and assume that students of color will miraculously do better simply by being around more white kids. This is paternalistic and false. In district schools that appear integrated on paper, students of color are routinely disproportionately identified for special education and removed from school through suspensions and expulsions, held to lower expectations, and less likely to be academically proficient. The bigger and harder conversation we need to have is how to confront, and dismantle, segregation and disparities within school walls.

3. Improve charter quality.

There is no doubt that too many charter schools serving predominately students of color are falling short. While this problem is not unique to charter schools, as communities of color and their schools have been neglected by both the charter and district school systems, we have a unique responsibility—and opportunity through the state’s charter law—to intervene and close or turn around low-performing charter schools (which, it’s worth noting, are public schools). If you’re concerned about charter quality, please join me in pushing for stronger charter school oversight and accountability (Seriously: Please email me at bburrisgallagher@edalliesmn.org), instead of advocating against charters altogether in a way that would actually harm kids in great schools.

As families, especially families of color, increasingly choose charter schools because they work best for their children, our reaction should not be to attack that choice. Instead, we should try to understand it, and pursue strategies that support their needs. Doing anything else in the name of “integration” would be a disservice to students and families of color.