Sixty years ago this week, my family and other Black families across the country were wondering how the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision would impact their children's education. How long would it take for the promise of a great education to become a reality?
Despite the call for "all deliberate speed," generations later, we are still waiting. In urban areas especially, a high-quality education remains out of reach for too many low-income and working class students. But there is hope.
As a former superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, Deputy in Milwaukee Public schools, Assistant Superintendent in Cambridge, MA, an administrator and teacher in New York City, and charter schools movement leader I have seen urban education up close for more than four decades. And one of the most exciting and encouraging developments over the course of my education career has been the growth of high-performing public charter schools that are free to all and open to all.
Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) conducted the most comprehensive assessment of public charter schools to date and found that Black students in public charter schools are gaining up to one and a half months of additional learning in reading and math, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.
In some places, such as New York City's Success Academies, public charter schools are actually flipping the achievement gap - helping Black and Latino students outperform affluent, white students across their states.
And in public charter schools from Chicago's Urban Prep Academies to the KIPP high school in rural southeast Arkansas, nearly every student is going to college and graduating at rates higher than the national average.
Unfortunately, some commentators and academics are looking past this success and claiming that public charter schools are "re-segregating" public education. The supposed proof is that many public charter schools enroll a very high percentage of Black and Hispanics students.
It is true that public charter schools enroll more students of color than white students. Nationwide, 63 percent of students enrolled in public charter schools are students of color. But critics ignore two key points.
First, children aren't assigned to charter schools; parents choose charter schools for their children. More than 2.5 million children attend public charter schools and another one million names are on waitlists. Parental demand is high because many urban Black and Hispanic parents recognize education options in charter schools that, sadly, they can't access in traditional public schools.
Second, the racial and socio-economic balance in charter schools is similar to the racial and socio-economic balance in the traditional public school system.
A 2009 study by RAND that examined student-level data in five large cities (Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Diego) concluded: "In most sites, the racial composition of the charter schools entered by transferring students was similar to that of the [traditional public schools] from which the students came."
Charter schools in aggregate have a higher proportion of students of color because charter schools are most likely to be found in urban neighborhoods that are home to a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic families. These are typically the neighborhoods with the greatest need for better schools - and public charter schools are finally filling that need.
The fact that public charter schools are offering hope to students of color is why many Democrats, including President Obama and California congressman George Miller, are charter proponents. It's hard to imagine they would champion an education reform that "re-segregates" public schools.
Rather than criticizing charters for serving too many Black and Hispanic students, those who want to realize the dream of an outstanding education for all, as I do, should aim to do two things.
1) Make charters available to more students in more places. With waitlists one million names long, we clearly aren't meeting the demand for public charter schools. The main source of funding for launching new charters is the federal Charter Schools Program. The House recently passed a bill re-authorizing the program and the Senate should do the same.
Furthermore, public charter schools are restrained in their growth by local and state laws that either ban charters outright or cap the number of charters. By authorizing charters in every state and lifting caps, public charter schools can serve students in many more neighborhoods.
2) Take what we know is working in public charter schools and apply those practices to traditional district schools.
In public charter schools, students are spending more time in class; teachers are focusing on reading and math, especially in the early grades; college and career readiness are the goals from day one; and a wider variety of curriculums are offered, including concentrations in the arts and the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
Public charter schools want to share these proven practices with other schools. Rather than seeing charter schools as threats, traditional district schools should see them as sources of great ideas and great results.
Public charter school supporters will continue to do all we can to make charters even better and correct flaws where they exist. But warrantless criticism won't help any student. Public charter schools are delivering on the promise of Brown by making a world-class education available to students of every race and from every economic circumstance. We need more of them.
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