How the New York Times Got It Wrong on School Choice and Segregation

Aug 21, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

After a much needed break from all things education, I returned to find an op-ed in the New York Times from Antioch University writing professor Erin Aubry Kaplan about school choice. I hate arguing with an author who worships President Obama, but for the life of me, I cannot abide her incoherent argument against charter schools. She claims that her home state of California has abandoned integration as the “chief mechanism of school reform and embraced charter schools instead.” Actually, [pullquote position="right"]reform is much more than school choice and it certainly wasn’t done as an alternative to integration.[/pullquote] The goal of charters was innovation and quality, and it was based on the theory that schools serving poor kids would be better if low-income parents had the same power as higher-income parents to choose among them. Studies suggest this is true in many places.

Integration Suffered Before Charters

The fact is, integration hit a wall because of White flight and legal challenges to forced busing and affirmative action, well before charters came along. Today, there are few effective strategies for creating diverse schools in a country where school attendance boundaries are closely tied to segregated communities. School choice, however, is one of them. As the Century Foundation has documented, some 125 “diverse-by-design” public charter schools are measurably more diverse than their surrounding schools. It is also true that some charters are less diverse, and in some cases, they are intentionally discriminatory. But as a policy lever, charters have empowered millions of families who previously had no choices. That’s a powerful public good. Kaplan also characterizes charters as “the public schools that liberal Whites can get behind,” but she’s wrong. White liberals are not driving the charter movement. Black and Brown people are, comprising about 60 percent of the overall charter student population. If anything, White liberals in blue states like New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington are limiting school choice, but the numbers are not with them. Today, the public school population is majority-minority and majority low-income. Multiple polls in recent years show people of color strongly support parent choice. Kaplan further suggests that the “social contract” of an equitable education “theoretically includes diversity,” especially for “White liberals” in “deep blue” California. Perhaps it does, in theory, but in the real world, [pullquote]most White liberals behave like White conservatives when it comes to their housing preferences, choosing segregated communities.[/pullquote] Few people vote on the issue and I can’t think of a single public official at any level in either party who openly crusades for intentionally integrated housing. While many pay lip service to integration in schools, few challenge the sacred principle of local control in education that perpetuates segregation.

Let's Try Some Nuance

Ms. Kaplan pulls an especially thin thread when she calls charters “a legacy of failed justice.” She says that Americans have “lost our appetite” for engagement and the “rise of charters is an expression of that loss.” I would argue that good charters drive more authentic engagement from parents than traditional public schools ever did but at this point in her scattered argument, “loss” is precisely what I am feeling. I am compelled to reaffirm a few basic truths. Charters are public schools. They mostly serve kids desperate for a better education than the traditional system provides. Most charters were founded by teachers frustrated by bureaucracy and eager to pioneer new and better methods of teaching and learning. To the extent anything in education has “failed,” a word I generally avoid because it is absolute where nuance is called for, it’s the traditional public school system that still educates 85 percent of the kids in America. While we have made considerable progress in improving education in the last 50 years, we still have yawning achievement gaps based on race and income. The number of low-income kids completing college is still way below their middle-class and upper-class counterparts. It takes a magical thinker to believe that if we just got rid of charter schools, the traditional public schools would somehow improve on their own. [pullquote position="left"]It is delusional to think that White people will voluntarily re-integrate at scale.[/pullquote] Worse yet, it’s regressive and cruel to take away choice from poor families of color. Low-income kids of color can’t keep waiting for the promise of equity. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, equity delayed is equity denied. They need a good education today and the traditional public school system too often falls short. Charter schools are not the panacea for what’s wrong with education but they are certainly not the cause of it either. Instead, they are one part of the solution. The best of them are proving that all kids can meet high standards. Denying poor parents school choice does not merely dishonor the social contract Professor Kaplan yearns for—it violates it.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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