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Are Charter Schools Good or Bad for Black Students?

As Black History Month kicks off with a focus on “The Crisis in Black Education,” the debate has gotten a lot more complicated.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Black History Month began Wednesday, and this year’s theme is “The Crisis in Black Education.” According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the group that founded BHM—this crisis “has grown significantly in urban neighborhoods where public schools lack resources, endure overcrowding, exhibit a racial achievement gap, and confront policies that fail to deliver substantive opportunities.”

Delivering those opportunities is one of America’s unfinished civil rights imperatives. But it will require resolving new divisions within the racial justice movement over one of the great hopes for extending educational opportunity: Charter schools.

President Barack Obama championed these publicly funded but independently run schools, whose promise is that freedom from traditional bureaucratic regulation will allow educators to innovate, thus improving student outcomes. Unlike vouchers—essentially publicly funded passes for select students to attend private school, which Democrats typically oppose—charters are a public form of “school choice” that enjoys bipartisan support. In particular, supporters see them as a lifeline to poor and minority families; most are located in urban and other low-income areas across the country.

But the charter movement was dealt a devastating blow last year when both the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter–aligned Movement for Black Lives called for a moratorium on these schools. With its resolution, the NAACP listed four conditions under which the nation’s oldest civil rights group would support further charter proliferation:

(1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools

(2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system

(3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and

(4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

The Movement for Black Lives had many of the same concerns. In August, a coauthor of the group’s education policy platform, Jonathan Stith, told The American Prospect that charter schools are used to pull funding from other schools, they destabilize traditional public schools, and ultimately lead to their closures.” Yet as the Prospect noted, the group diverged from the NAACP on one key issue:

The NAACP’s new resolution calls out charter schools for having “contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.” The Movement for Black Lives policy platform makes two references to Brown v. Board of Education, but notably does not mention segregation or integration.

Hiram Rivera, the executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, another co-author of the Movement for Black Lives education platform, told The American Prospect that segregation did come up in discussions over the past year as the coalition groups hashed out their platform language, but that “folks had different opinions” on the value of school diversity...

The question of integration is a central one in the larger debate over how well charters are serving black students. A recent Brookings Institution study, “Segregation, race, and charter schools: What do we know?,” found that “a subset of charter schools serving overwhelmingly black and poor students in large cities with a so-called ‘no excuses’ education model” produced “dramatically higher levels of achievement than comparable students attending regular public schools.”

But these very same charter schools,” the study stressed, “are often more segregated than traditional public schools serving the same general areas.”

Russ Whitehurst, who co-authored the study, told me there may be an inherent tension between “the abstract good of more integrated public schools” and designing charters to produce higher achievement. On balance, he’s for more “school choice” and critical of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium. “I think they’re taking a position that runs counter to the individual choices that large numbers of minority parents are making and want to make,” Whitehurst said.

Whitehurst thinks the NAACP has a point about expulsions at charters, since there’s some evidence they expel students at a higher rate than traditional public schools. It’s of particular concern to minority students, who—along with students with disabilities—face more expulsions in general. Similar to traditional public schools, black students are four times more likely than white students to be suspended from charters, according to analysis last year by the University of California.

There’s also evidence of straightforward discrimination in the charter sector. As of last summer, over 20 percent of California charters had discriminatory and illegal admissions policies, according to a scathing report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the nonprofit Public Advocates.

Still, opposition to the NAACP’s stance from black civic leaders and pro-charter groups has been forceful. “W.E.B. DuBois is rolling in his grave,” Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, said in his statement on the NAACP’s resolution. “The NAACP, a proud organization with a historic legacy of expanding opportunity for communities of color, now itself stands in the schoolhouse door, seeking to deny life-changing educational opportunities to millions of children whose parents and families desperately seek alternatives to schools that have failed them for too long.”

The Prospect rightly predicted that the debate over charters will keep raging within the civil rights community: “School choice advocates point to research studies that suggest black students perform better in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and to surveys showing support among black families for school choice.”

If Betsy DeVos is confirmed as President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, she’ll be poised to continue her longtime evangelism for unregulated and unaccountable charters. It shouldn’t be difficult for civil rights leaders to oppose that vision. The real question, as they grapple with how best to fight for quality, equitable education, is whether to stand up for charters at all.