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Charter Schools and Civil Rights: What Kind of 'Movement' is This?

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Perhaps the most important element of the progressive élan surrounding the charter school "movement" is its claim to be nothing less than the "Second Coming" of the Civil Rights Movement. Arne Duncan referred to the opening of the film, Waiting for 'Superman' as a "Rosa Parks moment". A group of hedge fund managers (featured in the Style section of The New York Times last year) who organized a casino night fundraiser for charter schools had the same lofty idea. This cause, a banker from Goldman Sachs declared, is the "civil rights struggle of my generation."

But this "civil rights struggle" has many features that distinguish it from the historic movement of the previous generation. And these should give progressives reason to pause before they join in calling for the blood of the teachers' unions.

First, and perhaps most importantly, it is a "movement" that claims that the interests of adults (specifically, teachers) are in conflict with the interests of children (students). Whereas the civil rights movement was explicitly social democratic, challenging the government to take action on racism and poverty, and supporting trade unions as a means of achieving more social equality, the current education "reformers" are convinced that inequality can only be undone by weakening the teachers' unions.

Second, this "reform" effort is a "movement" that takes power away from ordinary people, while claiming to do the opposite. In the name of "parent power", charter schools have reduced actual parent power. Charter school parents do not have a right to have any say in the governance of their child's school, and do not even have a right to place their child in it. The child must win a lottery, and then the parent and child must, in many cases, adhere to a strict contract to remain in the school. Charter boosters will respond that parent demand for their schools is through the roof, but that has more to do with the way parents are perpetually bombarded with slick advertising materials from Madison Avenue than it does with the actual merits of the schools. When was the last time Mad Men created promotional materials for a genuine grassroots movement?

Third, while it has black faces perched in important places, the charter school "movement" is not a "black movement" for education. Whereas folks participated in the civil rights movement at great personal risk, many of the influential black supporters of charter schools stand to profit handsomely.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein have smartly funneled several hundred thousand dollars into the coffers of the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network. In return, Sharpton has backed the expansion of charter schools in Harlem.

And then there's Geoffrey Canada. Harlem's own Amsterdam News reported that Canada's most successful school, Harlem Children's Zone/Promise Academy II, received a "C" for its performance last year, a grade dragged downward specifically by the category of "student progress", for which it received an F. Canada, you should know, pays himself half a million dollars a year.

And, of course, there is the first Black president. Barack Obama is a staunch supporter of charter schools. This is not a matter of which side of his bread is buttered, but a matter of ideology. But here too, we travel a long way from the real civil rights movement. Dr. King proposed an Economic Bill of Rights that would include, among other things, a right to a job. Obama's preference, on the other hand, is for free-market oriented "solutions" to social problems.

Which brings me to another curious feature of this "civil rights movement": the reaction it has received from actual civil rights organizations. Last year, 8 such organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The National Urban League, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, published a rather harsh critique of Obama's Race to the Top Initiative, and specifically, its emphasis on promoting charter schools.

Rather than coming to the rescue of black children, the growth of such competitive school reform schemes has exacerbated inequality in education, they charged. Furthermore, they expressed concern that charter schools were over-represented in communities of color. "There is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide," they wrote. "The largest national study found that charters are more likely to underperform than outperform other public schools serving similar students."

Worse, evidence is growing that charter schools are systematically pushing the lowest-scoring students, the disabled students, the English Language Learners, out the door. Newsweek reported last week that New Orleans' charter schools (where, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 70 percent of students now are placed) are expelling students with learning disabilities at twice the rate of charter schools elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, in D.C., Michelle Rhee's "miracle" test scores have been revealed to have more to do with demographics than pedagogy. Test scores went up, in part because fewer black kids were tested.

Pushing black kids out of the schools, "counseling" out the kids who are having the hardest time, is hardly a strategy for achieving racial justice in education.

A fellow activist recently raised another issue to my attention: the disappearing black and Latino educator. Anyone familiar with the demographics of charter schools -- especially in Harlem -- cannot help but be struck by the complexion of the workforce. They are overwhelmingly young and white.

Historically, it was people of color who experienced seniority rules as a barrier to the kind of good union jobs that other immigrant groups used to pull themselves out of poverty.

But now that there are significant numbers of black and Latino teachers -- especially in America's urban school districts -- seniority represents the obstacle to dislodging them from those positions. In Chicago, teachers have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that then-Chancellor Arne Duncan's mass firings of teachers was racially discriminatory.

I can't help but think that Dr. King (or Rosa Parks, Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin) would not sign up with Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and the owners of Wal-Mart for such a "movement". King once said, "the enemies of the Negro are the enemies of labor." We teach children that King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, but we forget that he was there to support black workers on strike, fighting for a union. We teach children to memorize his "I Have a Dream" speech, but forget that it was first delivered in a United Auto Workers hall.

The "reformers" want us to think that unions protect the adults at the expense of the children. But their non-union schools are not out-performing the traditional public schools. So why are they obsessed with attacking the unions?

We are left with the conclusion that these "reformers" are using poor and working class children of color as a veil to disguise their real aim: to privatize education, destroy the gains of the labor movement and cheapen the workforce.

Progressives who want to root for young children of color should think twice before beating up on the unionized adults. The evidence suggests that this kind of "reform" isn't doing much to help the children. And furthermore, they won't be children forever. Look at the labor market today and ask yourself: What kinds of jobs will be waiting for them when they grow up?