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To Charter School or Not to Charter School -- That's Not the Real Question

10/25/2013 06:23 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I recently attended a parent-teacher meeting at my child's magnet high school. Glancing around the room, I noted a hugely diverse, standing-room-only crowd. All parents -- white, black, Latino, Asian -- were engaged and seemed relentlessly committed to their children's education. Behind me, an African-American father leaned over to his wife and said: "I like this school!"

Overhearing this father's remark, I couldn't help thinking about Diane Ravitch - the fiercely committed education advocate and historian, and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, who happens to be a respected colleague and an ardent charter school opponent.

I host the National Council on Educating Black Children's (NCEBC) Talk Radio show with Dr. Nicole Walters of the University of St. Thomas, Houston. We recently had the honor of interviewing Dr. Ravitch, prolific writer and author of the new book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" (Knopf, 2013).

In her book, Dr. Ravitch pulls no punches in her condemnation of education privatization and her assessment of the real problem facing our schools.

"Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining," she writes starting on Page 4. "The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation."

During our live radio segment on Oct. 21, she discussed some of the main themes in her book, including this one:

"What is happening now [with American education reform] is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberative effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling. Public education, stabled in America's towns and villages in the mid-19th century, born of advocacy and struggle, is now in jeopardy. This essential institution, responsible for producing a democratic citizenry and tasked with providing equality of education opportunity, is at risk."

It's fair to say that Dr. Ravitch's philosophy has changed dramatically during the past decade. She was credited with the opposite view in the 2001 book "American Foundations: An Investigative History," in which author Mark Dowie warned of the coming free-market and privatization movement in education, led by such funders as Walmart, Amway, the Gap, and such foundations as Bradley, Olin, Smith-Richardson and Scaife.

"Liberal fears that privatization will further degrade the already abominable condition of inner-city public schools is dismissed by [Chester] Finn and [Diane] Ravitch as trade union propaganda." Dowie wrote. "They point to charter schools where minority children are either excelling or improving their skills and compare them to traditional public schools in the same district, neglecting to mention that many charter schools are massively subsidized by corporate and community foundations (p. 39)."

Dr. Ravitch's position on charter schools has shifted, as she now fervently opposes them because, she says, they deprive public schools of needed resources, run the range from excellent to "awful," and are no better on average than public schools.

Like Dr. Ravitch, I am concerned today that the bifurcation of society -- the separation of people based on poverty, wealth, race and ethnicity -- may loosen the ties that bind our great nation. However, I believe we must provide all children with the best educational experience we can manage in our circumstances, whether that learning takes place in charter, magnet or neighborhood schools.

I also recognize that charter schools are a mixed bag. New research from Stanford University suggests some publicly supported charters do well, some do no better, and some perform not as well as public schools.

The reality is that public education works well in many communities across America. Schools are integrated, students of all races and socioeconomic levels are academically succeeding and learning the civic lessons of respect, collaboration and empathy. In Eden Prairie, Minn., for example, educators are provided sustained professional development in partnership with outside agencies -- and students of color are making great strides and quickly closing learning gaps.

Eden Prairie is not alone, either. Upward-trending gains and a commitment to applications of cultural and neuroscience research, as well as the promise of integrated schools, is occurring in Robbinsdale and Inver Grove, both in Minnesota, as well as Groton, Conn., and elsewhere.

Even where integration may not yet be happening, charters schools such as Merrick Academy in Queens, N.Y., and some urban schools in New York City and San Francisco are using culturally responsive and neuroscience-based strategies to great effect.

Yet for me, the need to produce a democratic citizenry is critical, and this is where integrated schools have the edge. When communities are able to integrate their classrooms, students are more able to learn the most important lesson American education provides -- the respect for and commitment to continuing the diverse social mosaic that has distinguished our country for generations.

After all, shouldn't that be the goal? Advocates of school reform must avoid the trap of thinking that public education can succeed without addressing the ultimate impact segregation can have on children and our nation. We can't give up on the ideals of the civil rights movement, as established through the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and other milestones for equality and social justice.

"Education does not stand alone, and it cannot be designed as if it did," wrote Dr. Jerome Bruner, a leading cognitive psychologist. "It exists in a culture" (The Culture of Education, p. 28).

May we all work to make public education the best and brightest part of our culture.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.