Charter Schools and the Promotion of Segregation (by Guest Student Blogger Jeffery Fockler)

Dear Students & Regular PDXEAN Readers: This post is the first in a two-week series dedicated to giving a public space for student voices on educational equity and our school system. Please read, pass on these posts, and comment! The more we all contribute to the conversation, the better informed we’ll all be and the more able to act to support kids and schools.

Guest Student Blogger Jeffery Fockler on Charter Schools

Charter schools seem like a great idea in theory, while some have even proven great in practice. Charter schools are given the freedom to operate outside of the mainstream public-school curriculum, which we learned from previous lessons has been severely limited by the need for schools to improve standardized test scores. Charter schools may allow students the opportunity to learn subjects outside of the NCLB limited curriculum. They can experiment with alternative methods to improve student achievement and test scores other than teaching to the test and pass their results on to other schools. In this way, charter schools can be an outlet for public school reform; and, given our education system’s previous record with reform, they may be our best chance for such reform.

However, charter schools are not at all without controversy. Firstly, what happens to the children in charter schools that fail? Is the risk of leaving these children without a proper education worth the possibility of innovative education reform? My initial reaction is that it is a risk the parents of these children are apparently willing to take when they sign their children up for a charter school.

Second, many critics argue that charter schools take already limited resources away from the public schools, which are attended by the majority of the nation’s students. They argue we should focus our attention and resources on these public schools (“Oregon charter school debates lead to little progress”, Oregon Live). Worse still, Jonathan Kozol in “Stop Bargaining for Crumbs” argues that Charter schools have further contributed to education inequality. Many Charter schools explicitly target African American students, while others are clearly intended for children of white middle-class, liberal parents (Kozol calls them “woodsy Walden schools”). Subsequently, many charter schools are even more segregated than public schools (which we‘ve learned have not much improved since Brown v. Board).

At the risk of bringing back the “separate but equal” debate, I ask: are students at a charter school like “The Black Success Academy” really limited by the fact that their peers are all African Americans? Might students in an all-black charter school benefit from cultural solidarity and at the same time receive a comparable liberal education to their peers at the “Woodsy Walden School”? Is Kozol implying that black students need to assimilate to a white curriculum if they wish to have as good as education as the Woodsy Walden Students? (perhaps more white students should learn about black culture?)

It seems to me that these charter schools, if they receive equal funding and effort, can be equal, or at least can be a sort of experiment to help us learn whether the schools can actually be equal.

Ultimately, my question is whether y’all think charter schools contribute to inequality and the achievement gap in the way Kozol describes, or do you think the nature of charter schools might allow a sort of separate equality?


16 thoughts on “Charter Schools and the Promotion of Segregation (by Guest Student Blogger Jeffery Fockler)

  1. Jeff, I personally don’t believe that “separate but equal” is ever the case. Segregated charter schools won’t help bridge gaps between ethnic groups and may actually widen those gaps. However I don’t believe that minority students would be better off learning a “white curriculum” — However the question remains: How do we separate the “Culture of Power” from our education system while giving all students an equal opportunity?

    • Good point Tyler about the “Culture of Power” that is instilled in our schools. This obviously does not disappear in the charter school curriculum. Charter schools have their positives, but they only educate 3% of Oregon’s children. Instead of focusing on the logistics of charter schools, we are missing the big picture of why parents want to send their kids to charter schools to begin with. The failing quality of many neighborhood schools are the reason that the public and president Obama believe that charter schools are the answer. Let’s focus on the issues with public schools, instead of trying to produce alternatives.

      • Jeff, you raise an excellent question that will take some time to respond it is loaded with many facets that will make for a good discussion. We must first understand that Charter schools became a possible alternative to the failing public school system. Students of color are top on the list with staggering failure and drop out rates. We first have to understand that people of color know that the educational system is based on the norms and values of the dominant culture. For an example, let’s say I have a child who is given an opportunity to attend a school with smaller class sizes and focused learning, I would jump on it. As a parent, I know that my child’s education in the public school system is going to be less than adequate.

        It hurts me to say that about the educational system in the U.S. but the facts are the facts. Charter schools focus on educating youths in impoverished neighborhoods and many times, as we know those neighborhoods are full of people of color. Therefore, it may appear that those schools are all “Black” but they are not, it would be against the constitution to have a “Black Only” “White Only” or a “Purple Only” school especially when receiving federal dollars. I would definitely be opposed to a charter school discriminating against a child based on the color of their skin be it Black, White, or Brown.

        Addressing your second question regarding the “achievement gap” in the articles that I have read the schools actually do the opposite of public schools. Often times students come to these schools (from public education) two grade levels below and they are able to work with their students and get them to a achieving above grade levels. I must admit that I favor charter schools; I have four nieces and one nephew that attended a charter school in southern California. The oldest just graduated this year with her B.S. and 2 more are in full-time college and doing quite well. The younger two are in high school, one a junior, has been awarded in the top 1% of scholastic achievers for the State of California. The quality of education was not possible in her local public school district. To contrast, I had 3 sons educated in PPS and 2 did not graduate, given the opportunity I would favor a charter school.

        I have answered the third part of you question in the pervious paragraphs but I do want to say that there is no such thing as separate equality. I use extreme caution using that term it is insidious to think that we as human beings have to be separate to be equal. Please do not think I am bashing you, I am not I really like the question I am attempting to bring light to a cloudy debate. I am for human rights of fairness and equality for all. Our world will be so wonderful, when we realize that we are all humans, deserving of basic rights, no matter who we are or our station.
        Jeff, you raise a good question hopefully it will stir up good debate.


      • I agree, Olivia but I do think that the Culture of Power is less prevalent in charter schools. Charter schools have been shown to help bridge the racial achievement gap, and effectively educate minority children that would be left behind or deemed hopeless in traditional school systems. However, I don’t believe that charter schools are the whole answer, but their practices are. As you said, charter schools only serve 3% of Oregon’s children and they are able to be so successful because of their size (aided in part also by the independent funding they receive). While charter schools are fantastic models of the achievements children can make in better learning environments, they are not a model that can replace our public school system. Instead I think reform of our public school system using some practices used in many charter schools can help lead a positive change in our education system.

  2. Great Questions Jeffery I want to jump off with a quote I found when I was doing a presentation on segregation:
    “THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STRUGGLE for desegregation,” observes Gary Orfield, co-director at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and among the nation’s leading experts on desegregation, “did not arise because anyone believed that there was something magical about sitting next to whites in a classroom. It was, however, based on a belief that the dominant group would keep control of the most successful schools and that the only way to get full range of opportunities for a minority child was to get access to those schools.”

    That said, I think that like Kozol and Joyce pointed out–segregation regardless of how it came to be, be it naming a Charter school in a way that is more appealing to African Americans or “woodsy waldens” does have a negative affect. We shouldn’t be continuing to separate our children on the basis of race, or (the contemporary version), “culture.” We need to have an educational system that is capable of equally educating the diversity of our “melting pot.” Our country has gone on far too long, in my opinion, of dividing people up by invisible boundaries, and thereby decreasing exposure and increasing ignorance. Thank you for your post.

  3. Thank you all for the responses.

    I guess the main thing I want to make clear, in light of your responses, is that I agree that, in the current state of society and our education system, we cannot have separate schools for African American and white students and expect their educations to be of equal quality. However, I would like to challenge the assumption (which I think is rooted in the original basis for the Brown v. Board decision) that an African American student must have access to a white education if they want to have a quality education. It is probably true that a minority student would be more successful if they could be educated or assimilated into the culture of power; but wouldn’t we all be better off if we could educate minority students about their own culture as well as the culture of power, and at the same time teach critical thinking skills so that they could have the resources to challenge the basis of the culture of power. It seems that a school like the Black Success Academy could help minority students validate their own culture as an alternative to the culture of power. Of course, it would be ideal if white students would attend such schools too, but as Kozol pointed out, how many white students would attend the Black Success Academy? Yet we expect Black students to attend public schools that are essentially “White Success Academies”?

    Perhaps there is some kind of middle ground where we could introduce more culturally competent curriculum into our public schools and charter schools. In this way, students are not always encouraged to assimilate or acculturate into the culture of power, but are encouraged to validate their own cultures in a way that allows for a more equitable trans-culturation.

    • Jeff, I think you hit the crux of it: Right now we treat race the same way they treat sex education in Mississippi… Instead of teaching eachother about differing cultural backgrounds we choose to try and “ignore” race and the inequalities in our society.

      I’d love the idea of a cultural background class. Have the class essentially made up of student presentations about their different cultural backgrounds. The students get to research their ancestry and feel a sense of pride in their heritage and then are able to share it with one another.

      I can admit as a typical white middle-class-mutt, I know next to nothing about my cultural background. I know I’ve got some Irish, Scottish, German, etc. but I would absolutely benefit from a “cultural studies” class.


  4. I agree with Tyler that separate but equal is never the case and there is always that “separate” in there. No matter what there is going to be some form of segregation in that model. Like Oliviavsaid, charter schools are onlyb3% of education. Are we focusing to much on these schools? And if they really do work, albeit still a white curriculum, how do we transfer that model to public schools?

  5. While I agree that separate is never equal, it is important to note that the public school system is failing minority students. If I were a black student slipping through the cracks, of course I would jump at the opportunity to go to a primarily black school, especially as an older student aware of the culture of power.
    Ideally, there would be no separation. Unfortunately it is the reality in the classroom, and I think that perhaps that separation (as long as it isn’t mandatory) isn’t as terrible as some may think.

    • Kelsey, I like your point it is valid and thoughtful of minority children and the struggles that they face when trying to fit into the dominant culture. It is not uncommon for people of common backgrounds to live or work in the same environment, they feel comfortable. Norms and values are understood and they are not ostracized and self preservation is able to be kept intact. It would appear that reverse discrimination may be the cause but it is far from that. Things are not always as they appear. Good observation!

    • You make an excellent point that I hadn’t considered, Kelsey. We can’t fault minority students or families for wanting the best for their children. So if public schools are failing them and a charter school presents itself that is tailored to and will meet minority student’s needs, steering them towards success in a system that otherwise discourages it, why not let them attend? As Jeffery said, why do we expect black or any minority students to adhere and exist within a overwhelmingly white system and Culture of Power? And when a school arises that includes and addresses their cultural background and experiences, countering the white norm, we jump to speak against it and call it resegregation. Is it because they are finding success in that environment and not having to adjust themselves to the dominant culture to succeed?

  6. Wow!! Tyler I agree with you so much on this point. It is essential that all people feel that there is fair and equitable education available to all. If the educational system were to develop on the basis of encouragement and validation of one’s own culture it would instantly become far more equitable. In doing so it would not make the differences between cultures seem to be strange or out of the ordinary. It would also empower all students to achieve.

  7. After learning more about charter schools this last week I have come to think of them similarly to Upward Bound; they improve future prospects for many students, which is a great thing, but are “band-aids” symptomatic of a failing public education system. If our public ed. was stronger and accounted for the unique needs of those outside of the culture of power, as well as being more fair and less business-like in the way resources are distributed, then we would not need these alternative schools and auxiliary programs. If we are truly a nation of equality then why do many public schools in impoverished neighborhoods have outdated textbooks while the “rich” schools have brand new computers? I think that charter schools are helping, but in an ideal world we wouldn’t need them.

  8. I don’t think that charter schools are the only answer to our education issues in Oregon but I think that they are part of the solution. Charter schools like the KIP academy in LA invest a lot of time and energy into each student and the results show. If kids are coming into KIP academy 2 years behind their grade level and leaving in the top 25%, they are doing something right and public schools should look at what they are doing that is working and implement those things.

    Supporters say charters are a key avenue of education reform and need room and resources to grow. I agree and don’t see a problem with giving charter schools additional funding, especially if the funding that they are getting right now does not cover startup costs or the costs of finding a facility. Opponents say that charters destabilize traditional schools and don’t yield better student achievement, but some of these schools do actually yield better results. I think that the benefit of Charter schools is that they do set a higher standard for kids and inspire the public schools to do the same.

  9. I liked your article, it’s interesting to address the issue of “seperate but equal” in regards to charter school education. I’m in Zapoura’s class and this past week we had a ribald discussion about charter schools. We talked about how public schools are required to apportion some of their budgets to charter schools. I think that seperate but equal was struck down by the supreme court because it was found that seperate public institutions were inherently unequal, and while that initial case was about racial discrimination, there is valid reason to infer that public institutions in general cannot exist as separate and equal entities. I think the charter school system is a shadow of a good idea but its nature weakens itself by its reliance on public school money and weakens the public school system already strapped for funds. The energy being focused on charter alternatives would be better spent on a unified effort to reform our public education system rather than weakening the system by dissolution.

  10. I think your right, in theory, charter schools seem like a good idea. I could put up a good argument for all the positive things they do for a hand full of kids. But that is what I see as the problem. They help a very small percentage of kids. Even if they have proven that they do better then the public schools, the fact that I can’t seem to get past is this……They are just adding another dimension to an already fragmented and struggling system. To me I see them as a distraction from looking at the real issues of why America is falling so far behind in educating our youth. I agree with the comment, they are simply a band-aid. What we really need to focus on is what caused the laceration in the first place.

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