What The Atlantic Got Wrong About Charter Schools and Segregation

Jan 20, 2017 12:00:00 AM


George Joseph’s article, What Betsy DeVos Didn't Say About School Choice, claims that charter schools “have pushed more low-income, minority students into even more racially segregated schools.” While there are many problems in Joseph’s article, I’ll just run through some of the top issues. First, [pullquote position="right"]Black folks have agency.[/pullquote] Black folks choose and support charters—check any credible poll. We are “pushed” to choose sometimes subpar and homogenous charters, because other neighborhood options are worse. Joseph should talk to some of our parents; they could explain “segregation” as we, the victims, use the term. Most Black folks wouldn’t call Morehouse or Howard segregated. Separation and segregation are different, segregation in this context is aligned with racism and involves the use of power, of excluding us and leaving us with less than a fair share. To say Black families are “pushed” by charters misses the point—they are pushed by a historically racist system that I personally don’t think has really changed its spots. But that’s just me. So yeah many Black folks choose to attend charters that are mostly Black, might there be a reason for that? Maybe the school is more culturally responsive, maybe it is less racist, maybe it’s in the neighborhood? But let me just give one example that will illustrate many of the problems with the article. When I moved to Oakland, I helped start an “Afrocentric” school, the West Oakland Community School. I still remember the pillars: leadership development, college preparation and African-American history and culture. The group was centered in West Oakland, a center of the Black community and a place of pride. Many know it as the birthplace of the Black Panthers. We had a lottery for admission, and unsurprisingly no White kids applied. It was all Black or mixed kids. It catered to Black kids who often felt like outsiders in less “segregated” schools or equally segregated district schools that were less culturally responsive. [pullquote]No Black person views sitting with a bunch of White kids as a magic potion for college.[/pullquote] Many Black parents realize that there are real material benefits to being in schools with more White people. Those schools tend to have more resources and get more attention. But there is often a cost. Recently, one of the parents who made it into one of Oakland’s more exclusive public schools told me how she overheard another parent telling a staff member that she didn’t want her child in the class with the Black child. The staff member didn’t rebuke the other parent. And her child soldiered on as one of the few Black students. And the mother worries about the subtle or not so subtle messages her child gets. So that’s the burden we often bear. Black folks are smart about our chances, every real poll you see will show [pullquote position="right"]more African-Americans support charters than oppose them.[/pullquote] We aren’t a bunch of dupes. We see the flaws in all of our choices and do the best we can. And I bet you dollars to donuts that the richest and Whitest “public” school in almost any city or state is not a charter, at least what I know from California and New York, it’s a neighborhood zoned school with exclusive housing prices, or it’s a gifted and talented program or specialized high school. Plus there is a whole chicken-and-egg issue with Joseph’s article. In my work assisting school leaders in founding and running charter public schools, most of them target underserved kids and locate the school in the neighborhood, because transportation is difficult. And in New York City charters are actually required to give preference to neighborhood kids. So yes, those schools are for the neighborhood kids and will reflect the almost exclusively Black and Brown neighbors. And even as Oakland or Brooklyn gentrifies, let’s be honest, not too many White kids apply in the lotteries. Finally, though I could go on, the article acts like segregation started with charters. It started with the traditional public schools, and is perpetuated by a host of rules that the “system” lays down. While I think the chicken-and-egg issue confounds the research, I would love to see the golden time before charters, when the schools were rapidly desegregating in the 90s and early 2000s, or even a trend of desegregation in localities before charter schools started. I am an integrationist personally, given an equal playing field. I think we learn the lessons we need best together. And we should write rules that encourage that. But something feels a little off to get lectured by a young journalist about Black parental choices and charters causing segregation. But hey, maybe I am wrong and Mr. Joseph will send his kid to an Afrocentric school and help us break the chains, rather than lecturing and blaming Black parents for trying to do the best for their kids in a rigged system.

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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