Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

J4J Alliance Organizes Urban Parents to Demand Federal Dollars for Full-Service Community Schools

Throughout this autumn, we have been reading about loud protests at local school board meetings, protests against mask wearing and and honest teaching about slavery in American history.  These disruptive protests have been organized by groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education. The strategy here is being scripted by far-right think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.

But another important community organizing initiative, supported by the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Network and coordinated from place to place by the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), has grown and solidified over the past decade. The Schott Foundation describes this work: “The Opportunity to Learn Network has been at the forefront of every major positive shift in public schooling for more than a decade: trailblazing education funding campaigns; kickstarting the school discipline reform movement, and establishing the community schools model as the future of the American schoolhouse. How do we win systemic change?  Through grassroots organizing.  Education justice philanthropy centers ‘on-the-ground’ organizing, building the power of the people closest to the problem, so they can transform the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial injustice.”

A leader in this effort with the Schott Foundation is the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supports parent and student organizing in cities across the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the Camden Parents Union, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Jersey City,  the Paterson Education Fund/Parent Education Organizing Council, and Parents United for Local School Education in Newark;
  • In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Education Justice, and the Urban Youth Collaborative;
  • In Pennsylvania, the Education Rights Network & One Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Student Union, Racial Justice Now, Youth On Board, and Youth United for Change;
  • In Michigan, the Detroit Life Coalition, and Keep the Vote No Takeover of Detroit;
  • In Illinois, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization of Chicago, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Chicago;
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project, and Parents on the Move;
  • In California, the Oakland Public Education Network;
  • In Kansas, Kansas Justice Advocates;
  • In Wisconsin, Schools and Communities United of Milwaukee;
  • In Arkansas, Grassroots Arkansas; and
  • In Connecticut, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition.

Earlier this week at the National Press Club, the Schott Foundation and J4J convened allies—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD and Congressmen Jamal Bowman (D-NY) and Chuy Garcia (D-IL)—to support the Equity or Else Campaign and to advocate for the educational equity initiatives in President Biden’s proposed federal budget for the current fiscal year. Two of the most important items in Biden’s budget proposal are, first, doubling Title I funding, which supports public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and second, allocating more than $443 million for full-service, wraparound Community Schools, a significant increase over this year’s $30 million investment.

The federal budget is always supposed to be passed by September 30, but Congress has, as usual, delayed the vote with a series of continuing resolutions. To avoid a government shutdown this week, Congress passed another continuing resolution until February 8, 2022.  The Equity or Else Commission will hold town hall meetings, undertake “listening projects with people in under-served communities across the country,” and organize local community members to advocate for President Biden’s education priorities.

In an article last summer for The Progressive, education writer Jeff Bryant explained why President Biden’s proposal to expand full-service Community Schools—which locate medical, dental, mental health, and social services right in the school—signifies a radical and much needed shift in the direction of federal public education policy:  “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability. It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores).”

Bryant continues: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuses’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service Community Schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Kudos to the Schott Foundation and the Journey for Justice Alliance for convening allies and organizing parents to demand support for the schools in our nation’s poorest communities. President Biden’s proposal to expand the federal budget for full-service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million will, if enacted by Congress, be a ground-breaking investment to better equip public schools to serve families. Grassroots action by all of the member organizations of the Journey for Justice Alliance is urgently needed to ensure that this exciting expansion of Community Schools is fully realized.

Outrage Continues as Standardized Testing Moves Forward in this COVID-19 School Year

Standardized testing—required this school year by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s U.S. Department of Education despite the disruption of COVID-19—is now happening in many public schools across the United States. But even as the tests are being administered, the anger and protests against this expensive, time consuming, and, many believe, harmful routine are not abating.

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “The Biden administration is facing growing backlash from state education chiefs, Republican senators, teachers unions and others who say that its insistence that schools give standardized tests to students this year is unfair, and that it is being inconsistent in how it awards testing flexibility to states. Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice has slammed the U.S. Education Department for its ‘indefensible’ logic in rejecting the state’s request for a testing waiver while granting one to the Washington, D.C., school system—the only waiver that has been given. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose state was also denied a waiver, said testing this year ‘isn’t going to show any data that is going to be meaningful for learning moving forward… The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) describes itself as a nationwide multi-racial coalition of education organizing and policy groups. In a powerful commentary, also published last week, Jitu Brown, J4J’s executive director, and Beth Glenn, a J4J policy strategist, describe the damage wrought by standardized-test-based school accountability across America’s poorest urban communities: “Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized resting. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools ‘failing’ and (as) the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families.”

Brown and Glenn continue: “No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status—which is knowledge we already have! …. (T)est scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.” “These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards.”

Brown and Glenn provide examples of charter schools pushing out the students who need the most help: “The Chicago… Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for… ‘counseling students out’ to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices… were driven by the need to produce high test scores.”

Valerie Strauss quotes Bob Schaeffer, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who believes that Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education has responded inconsistently and with poor attention to the COVID-19 resurgence that is once again shutting down in-person learning in particular school districts: “Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be… The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”

In an action alert on Saturday, the National Education Association invited its members and supporters to submit a formal comment on the Department of Education’s guidance to require standardized testing in this COVID-19 year. “As part of the regulatory process, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from the public about standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year…The official deadline for comments is May 7, 2021, but it is critical that you submit your letter as soon as possible.”  “While some states’ assessments are already moving forward, we are hopeful that the outcry from the public will force the Department to evaluate how harmful and ineffective standardized tests are and start working toward a new system that truly measures student learning… Your opposition to high stakes standardized tests will also send a message to state departments of education and state legislatures that data from this year should not be relied upon to evaluate educators, students, or schools.”

Please do respond to NEA’s action alert by submitting your personal letter.

POLITICO Article on Charter Schools Entirely Misses the Point

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)  Because public education is systemic and schools are operated according to the law, it is possible to ensure that public schools protect the rights and serve the needs of all children, while charter schools are designed to serve the choices of individual families.

Charter schools were set up according to a theory of social entrepreneurship—the idea that if you give individuals enough freedom, they will experiment and innovate and do a better job of meeting the needs of particular students one school at a time.  Of course, our nation’s public schools have never fully embodied the principle of justice; like all core social institutions they have reflected the injustices and biases of the society they represent. But over the generations, as our society has begun to acknowledge racial and ethnic biases and realized that disabled people ought to be made full participants in our society, our representatives have passed laws and regulations to protect the rights of children formerly left out of the blessings promised in our nation’s principles. Our representatives in Congress passed Title I as part of the War on Poverty in 1965 to supplement investment in the public schools that serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help public schools pay for expert teachers to support the needs of disabled children. And the courts have protected the rights of immigrant children—even undocumented students—in the public schools. Further, in accordance with the principles of equity embedded in many state constitutions, courts in a number of states have been able to demand legislative remedies to support services for children previously left out or left behind. Justice in our nation’s public schools is, by definition, a work in progress, dependent on good leadership in the context of our nation’s ideals.

In this year’s race for President, the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination have consistently demonstrated a realization that social entrepreneurship in education—embodied in Race to the Top, for example—has not fulfilled our society’s definition of justice and inclusion. Privately operated charter schools—like their cousins, tuition vouchers for private schools—provide escapes from the public system that continues to serve over 50 million of our nation’s children. But not all of the escapes have been academically adequate; many have ripped off the public investment; and the existence of the charter sector has imperiled the public school districts from which the charter schools suck money.  In many cases the growth of a charter school sector has left the public schools serving masses of poor children and immigrant children without essential operating funds.

Democrats have eschewed vouchers but for two decades have sought to, sort of, compromise—by claiming that privately operated charter schools are not really fully private because they are publicly funded. But they have at the same time been watching the damage to America’s public school districts and begun noticing that promised leaps in charter school academic achievement as measured by test scores have not materialized. The consensus on education policy now recognized by the majority of Democrats who ran for President this year—apart from devoted charter school supporters like Michael Benett and Cory Booker—is that justice for our children can best be realized by fully funding the public schools and working to intensify the effort to come closer to equity in public school investment across rich and poor districts.

Achieving equity in today’s alarmingly unequal society is an enormous challenge. In a stunning editorial last May, the NY Times editorial board declared: “Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often short.  Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade… Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.”

Joe Biden’s education plan recognizes how our society’s shocking inequity affects the public schools.  He proposes to address long-standing funding injustices: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.’” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

Last weekend, POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano questioned what she views as, perhaps, the political liability of Biden’s inattention to charter schools. Gaudiano blames the teachers unions, raising the tired old arch-conservative cliche that politicians who want to support traditional public education are mere captives of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It is part of the long Republican cliche about the danger of unions in general and a remnant of Michelle Rhee’s screed that we have to put students first and protect our society from people who support adult interests. I suspect this sort of thinking also derives from some old biases we ought to have put behind us a long time ago—that teachers like child care workers are servants who ought to be working purely for the love of children without selfishly hoping to make a living.

Gaudiano explains that Biden may lose Black voters who want escapes from public schools and looks at the history of Democratic politicians supporting charter schools. She blames Biden’s support on the unions: “Charter schools have received support from presidents from both parties in recent years, including Bill Clinton’s push for the federal law to support startups.  Obama is credited with launching the first federal program to replicate and expand high-performing charters.  But the schools have always been a flashpoint, especially with powerful teachers unions who cast charters as competition for precious dollars for traditional public schools.”

It is interesting that Gaudiano quotes policy advocates from organizations known for prominently supporting the growth of the charter sector and of school privatization, but no organization working to build stronger investment in the public schools.  She quotes Margaret Fortune of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools; Michael Petrilli of “the conservative Fordham Institute,” Charles Barone of “the pro-charter group Education Reform Now,” Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the neoliberal Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education Partners.

Explaining that Black and Hispanic voters are likely to support charter schools, Gaudiano defines the future of charter schools as a matter of racial politics. She seems unaware that in 2016, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a resolution, “calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools at least until such time as: charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and 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 supported the NAACP’s resolution, and the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has strongly advocated for urban public school districts where the needs of public schools and poor children are often ill-served by the expansion of the charter school sector. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the Journey for Justice Alliance as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities… with more than 52,000 members across the United States.”

Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown, J4J’s national director, explaining J4J’s support for the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted — and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… We at the Journey for Justice Alliance are not anti-charter ideologues.  Many of our members send their children to both traditional public and charter schools.  We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them. Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago, ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.’… We called for a moratorium on school privatization because of the realities on the ground. They include: Most charter operators can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better… Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation… The privatization movement uses deceptive language when promoting the growth of charter expansion. The notion of “parents voting with their feet” is often false. Look at what happened to Dyett High School in Chicago. In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education has published a series of in-depth investigations of fraud, instability, and mismanagement across the charter school sector. Broken Promises tracks the trend of sudden charter school closures leaving students stranded—sometimes mid-school-year—without a school.  Charters and Consequences investigates fraud and corruption as tiny local California school districts collect state tax dollars to pad their own operating budgets by running shoddy storefront charter schools out of strip malls to draw students and these students’ state funding out of large urban districts. Finally the Network for Public Education has investigated the federal Charter Schools Program (here and here).  These reports document the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to oversee its own Charter Schools Program due to lack of a rigorous process for selecting qualified applicants and the utter absence of good record keeping and oversight.  The Charter Schools Program has seeded the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools but failed to oversee their operation—wasting tax dollars when more than a third of the schools it seeded never opened or quickly shut down.

It is too frequently assumed that when students leave a public school district to attend a charter school it is a financial  wash for the school district: the student leaves; the student no longer needs services; the school district no longer has to pay to educate that student. Therefore, the assumption is that the school district suffers no financial penalty when charter schools are opened within its boundaries. Two years ago, In the Public Interest hired the political economist Gordon Lafer to investigate the contention that the growth of the charter school sector has been fiscally neutral for public school districts. Instead Lafer documented that one school district alone, the Oakland Unified School District in California, loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its boundaries.

Lafer explains how charter schools serve as a parasite on the public school districts where they operate: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

It is not only Joe Biden who seeks to turn the nation’s attention in this presidential election year to the critical need for equity in America’s public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. This year’s Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles regarding our public schools as the Party’s educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee that every child can receive a great education.”

Jitu Brown Explains the Reasons for New Anti-Charter School Resolution from National NAACP

In October, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a strong resolution demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and the end of school privatization.  The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) and the Movement for Black Lives have supported the NAACP in demanding that the rapid expansion of charters be stopped in black and brown communities until:

  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 the 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 national NAACP has begun holding regional hearings about the resolution, hearings where controversy has surfaced over a very basic difference in philosophy. While many people support charter schools as an “escape” for able students from what are struggling and underfunded public schools in poor areas, many residents of those very communities have come to realize that the charters themselves are intensifying problems for the public schools that must continue to serve many of the children with the greatest needs.  Because charter schools have been around now for twenty years, there is documentation for these concerns.

Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), which Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities.  J4J, with more than 52,000 members across the United States, is committed to winning community-driven school improvement and educational equity…. J4J started in 2013, as parent and student organizations who were impacted by school privatization began to organize national mobilizations to protest policies such as school closings and to push for community-driven school improvement.”

Last Tuesday, Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown about the NAACP’s resolution for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and about his own organization’s support for the NAACP’s resolution: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted—and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… (P)rivatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Writing about the Journey for Justice Alliance, Brown explains: “We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them.  Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago: ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.'”

What are the realities in the communities that the Journey for Justice Alliance has organized?  “Most charter operators,” writes Brown, “can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better—at least when it comes to student standardized test scores—than traditional public schools. Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation.”

Most significantly, Brown, a community organizer from Chicago, describes the way charter school expansion has been part of the destruction and abandonment of traditional public schools.  Brown helped organize and lead the Dyett Hunger Strike in the fall of 2015, that eventually pressured the Chicago Public Schools to keep a public high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  He tells the story of Dyett High School: “In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools. The district starved the school of resources, eliminated effective programs and encouraged students to transfer.  By 2015, the enrollment plummeted to 13 students… After I and 11 other parents waged a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett, it opened as a neighborhood school with a full freshman class and a waiting list.”

In a profound depiction of a privilege that is taken for granted by middle class families across America, here are Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr., reporters for the Chicago Tribune,  describing the reopening of Dyett High School in September, 2016: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes. A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

In September’s report, the Tribune quoted Jitu Brown: “When you go to a middle-class white community, you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools.  You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the statement printed by Valerie Strauss last week, Brown names the real problem at the heart of America’s greatest educational challenge: “The biggest failure of the American education system is deep, entrenched inequity. In many places, black and brown children are not valued as much as their white counterparts. We want the choice of world class, sustainable neighborhood schools to anchor our communities, just as white brothers and sisters enjoy.”