06/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Destructive Cynicism

There's a specious argument in circulation that will not die. I will do my best in the next few hundred words to drive a stake through its heart.

The argument is built upon the findings in two recent studies (see here for Civil Rights Project and here for EPIC), both of which contended that charter schools exacerbate segregation. Charter skeptics on the Denver school board and their allies (and in other cities as well, I'm sure) are using those findings to contend that even charter schools achieving excellent results with low-income populations are part of the problem.

It's a weak and cynical argument. And yet people persist in putting it forward. By contrast, see the well-reasoned back and forth on this topic in the comments under this blog post.

I'm not going to use this space to analyze the studies, their methodology and alleged biases. Nor am I going to address the question of whether charters in suburban communities, serving primarily middle- and upper-middle-class kids, lead to greater racial and socio-economic isolation. That may be true, and if it is, I consider it a serious issue. I am no charter zealot. I'm about results.

Instead, let's focus on the kinds of charters that really matter, that are forging new paths. For those are the schools at which these critics are hurling their spears. I'm talking, of course about the KIPPs and West Denver Preps of the world. These are schools, as you've all read ad nauseam here and elsewhere, that have begun to demonstrate that it is possible for a school serving a high-poverty urban population to get the vast majority of their students achieving at levels usually enjoyed only by middle- and upper-income kids.

I say "beginning to demonstrate" because it is early in the game. These schools, a smattering of which now exist in cities across the country, have several years of data to support their encouraging stories. But before we celebrate cracking the code, we should wait for large-scale replication, and then rigorously evaluate whether the schools can sustain their success.

I am optimistic. And this is why I find the cynical attacks against these schools, primarily from misguided elements of the politically "progressive" left, so disheartening. Why would people who claim to hold the interests of low-income children close to their hearts push to deprive them of the one option that currently seems to work?

The vast majority of these "beat the odds" schools across the country operate in high-poverty neighborhoods, serving neighborhood kids. Ask yourself this simple question: Were it not for these charters, take Denver's West Denver Prep as an example, where would those kids be attending school?

It's an easy question to answer: In a low-performing neighborhood school, filled with low-income kids of color. Does anyone honestly believe that if these students weren't attending a West Denver Prep they would be transported to some mythical, integrated school? Where in Denver does such a school exist? It doesn't.

Are people making the segregation argument so blinded by their ideology that they would rather condemn students to low-performing schools than allow them to attend a much better school, just because they don't like the governance model?

One gentleman, who regularly submits vehemently anti-charter comments to the Education News Colorado web site, argues that school districts should focus on magnet schools rather than charters, because "magnet schools are more effective than charters as a tool to integrate, ethnically and economically, and that students achieve more in magnet schools."

In theory, that sounds great. In the local context, it's a fantasy.

Denver created magnets back in the busing days to promote voluntary integration. Since busing ended, however, many of those original magnets have become at least as racially and socio-economically isolated as neighborhood schools. They're now either enclaves of the privileged or low-performing neighborhood schools dressed up with fancy names.

Just take a glance down the list. Denver School of the Arts: 10 percent low income. Knight Fundamental Academy: 84 percent low income. Gilpin Montessori: 78 percent free and reduced lunch. The George Washington High School International Baccalaureate program does not break out its statistics, but is overwhelmingly white and Asian, and has a huge attrition rate among its few African American and Latino students.

There are exceptions as well: The dual-language Academia Ana Marie Sandoval and Denison Montessori are well balanced racially and socio-economically. The Center for International Studies, since moving into its own building a few years ago, has become more diverse.

But those exceptions, rather than making a case against charters help prove another of my long-standing arguments. If DPS decided diversity was a primary value, the district could create attractive models and locate them strategically to attract diverse populations. But that has never happened in a systematic way.

It makes sense to continue pressuring DPS to see the light and promote integration. I will keep advocating for that approach. I suspect, however, that many of those currently crying for integration and against charters won't be there with me.

Why? Because this isn't about integration. Not really.

I've heard some of these same alleged integration advocates criticize the Denver School of Science and Technology charter for being too integrated. If the school really wanted to prove its mettle, one leading charter skeptic told me, it would take on a population that reflects the district - about 70 percent low-income -- rather than wimping out by serving a population that is only 50 percent poor.

So much for consistency. When ideology trumps all, consistency becomes a nuisance. Fox News has taught us that from the right, has it not?

At times, this inconsistency looks cravenly cynical. I ask again: How can people of good conscience argue with straight faces that putting a high-performing, high-poverty school in a low-income neighborhood, within blocks of a low-performing, high-poverty school, somehow promotes segregation? The segregation is already in place. What was missing before was a good option for those kids and their families.

I can't help concluding that what some of these people really want is to preserve jobs and institutions that serve adults pretty well, even if this condemns thousands of low-income kids to lives of economic and social struggle.

How, exactly, is that progressive?