Black Families Haven't Been Hoodwinked, We Come From a Legacy of School Choice

Dec 12, 2019 12:00:00 AM


The Democratic party once embraced charter schools as a tool for equity and opportunity. Now, as Andre Perry points out in his recent op-ed, “Support for charters in 2020 election comes with a price,” many prominent Democrats have largely reversed their position in the current political climate.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only accurate observation in Perry’s op-ed. I respect Andre Perry, and I think his work on poverty and a lot of his ideas about his hometown of Pittsburgh, for example, should influence the work. But his latest piece misses the mark. Badly.

I’m a staunch advocate for Black families to have access to a continuum of education choices for their children, including and especially charter schools. But Perry accuses people like me of trying to clean up the “messes” that charters created. 

But he’s got it backward. When I chose to spend 11 years leading a charter school—a turnaround school in my old neighborhood in West Philadelphia—it was because of the mess the traditional system had left in my community, having long forsaken any attempt to hold itself accountable for Black student outcomes.

Parents in the neighborhood frequently recount horror stories about our school before it became a charter, when it was considered the second most dangerous school in the city (not because of the students, mind you, but because of the culture the adults had been allowed to create). 

Perry can’t blame charter schools for the desperation my parents felt when they couldn’t find better school options for me and my siblings. Back in the 1950s, my grandparents on both sides decided that the neighborhood schools were too oppressive to Black children—and charters certainly weren’t the problem. 

[pullquote]The problem was and still is the White supremacist mindset that legislated us into schools where the affluent and privileged class (many of them Democrats) would never dream of sending their kids.[/pullquote]

White folks always want to hold Black people hostage with zero options, whether it’s enslavement, sharecropping, redlined housing, zip-coded schools—or the Democratic Party. Charters and school choice are about undermining the idea of being a hostage.

Perry says the fight for charters is not about self-determination for Black communities. Perhaps Perry—who used to run a charter school himself—feels that way, perhaps he felt beholden to White overseers in his school leadership role. But those of us fighting for charter schools are not doing it in service of some other master. We’re not in it for the “dark money.” We see it as a mechanism for emancipation. We are absolutely fighting for self-determination.

By embracing and demanding access to better educational opportunities, Black people aren’t embracing Betsy DeVos. [pullquote]We’re embracing the legacy of Black families who have used every opportunity to improve their lot through education since the late 1800s.[/pullquote] Charter schools are only the latest in a long history of disruptive school models we have used to achieve this.

If he wants to fight for systemic change, Perry is welcome to join the line with us in fighting for charter schools, which have a much better shot than traditional districts of making progress on the critical issues he raises around the teaching profession and creating economic opportunity for our Black students.

[pullquote]Charter schools are not only providing Black families more educational opportunities, but study after study also shows they are getting dramatically better outcomes for Black students.[/pullquote] In many places, they are more likely to employ Black teachers

Black families haven’t been hoodwinked. They are choosing the best school for their child. And embracing the sovereign right of Black parents to choose the best school for their child isn’t embracing White people. It’s embracing our own people. 

Perry claims the “reversal of position by Democrats is a sign that members of the party are listening to Black communities.” Wrong. It is a sign they are listening to powerful, moneyed lobbying interest from teachers unions, which are overwhelmingly represented by White faces—most of them Democrats. Many of them say they want equity for Black students but their actions show they believe that children deserve only the education their parents can afford.

It’s ironic that Dr. Perry, in his plea to stop the Black community from centering White folks, does exactly that. [pullquote position="right"]When I see Democrats back off of charters, I see them also backing off of Black people.[/pullquote]

Democrats should be careful not to take Black voters for granted, the way they have Black students and families. Perry and his friends in the Democratic establishment might want to update their polling numbers. The most recent Ed Next poll (not the older one Perry references) shows Black support for charters has swelled to 55%, with less than a third opposed. Polling specifically of Black Democratic voters shows even higher support. 

Perhaps more tellingly, that same polling shows White Democrats are twice as likely to oppose charter schools as Black Democrats. So, Dr. Perry, it makes me wonder, who here is actually acting as the “human shield?”

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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