Civil Rights Groups Challenge Charter Schools Despite Charter Efforts to Recruit Minority Politicians and Celebrities to their Cause

10/06/2016 06:32 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2017

Common rapped at the recent Success Academy Charter School Network rally for charter schools in Brooklyn. Ambitious minority politicians like Bronx Borough Present Ruben Diaz Jr. and Brooklyn Congressional Representative Hakeem Jeffries addressed the crowd. Both want to run for mayor of New York City and they want the endorsement and money of Eva Moskowitz and her hedge-fund buddies.

Parents often have to make difficult decisions when selecting schools for their children, especially minority parents living in inner-city communities with under-performing schools. Charter school groups push themselves as miracle answers to educational problems, but their promises and record of performance is suspect.

This summer, the NAACP and a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement denounced the charter school movement in the United States for increasingly racial segregation in schools by the way they recruit, select, and discipline students. They charged that the recruitment of academically higher performing students helped undermined support and funding for public schools and education for the majority of children who remain in traditional schools. Cornell Brooks, President of the NAACP, described charter schools as one step in the "preschool to prison pipeline."

An article in the New York Times claimed the resolutions passed by the groups represented a major "rift" in Black communities. They quoted Black pro-charter school spokespeople, including Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform, and Chris Stewart, Director of Outreach and External Affairs at Education Post. What the Times article left out is that each of these pro-charter spokespeople makes a significant part of their livelihood as a charter school advocate.

In 2003, People for the American Way, published a report on prominent Black advocates for charter schools. The report focused on the leadership of and funding for Black Alliance for Educational Options. BAEO presented itself as a coalition of African American community leaders committed to tax-funded voucher programs, private school scholarships, tuition tax credits, charter schools and public/private partnerships. Its primary funders were right-leaning pro-school voucher groups including the Walton Family Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the American Education Reform Council, and the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation. It also gets money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

BAEO was founded by former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller in 2000 to increase African-American support for the school voucher movement. As superintendent, Fuller had supported legislation to rewrite Wisconsin charter laws to allow private firms to run public schools without the use of district employees. As an African American academic who supports charter schools, Fuller is a featured speaker at charter school conferences, including in June 2016, as a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Shavar Jeffries, a lawyer, is the founding Board President of TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark, New Jersey, where he ran an unsuccessful bid for mayor, before he moved to Democrats for Education Reform, a group that receives large hedge-fund donations to campaign for charter schools and against teacher tenure. It was founded by Whitney Tilson, manager of the Kase Capital Hedge Fund. Tilson helped start Teach For America and has ties to the KIPP and Achievement First charter school networks.

Besides his work for Education Post, Chris Stewart is founder and CEO of Yielding Assets, LLC, a "grassroots consultancy helping government, nonprofit, and foundation clients create self-sustaining, social good projects," and a major conference speaker for pro-charter groups. As Citizen Stewart, he published a blog defending the closing of New Orleans public schools, laying off thousands of Black public school teachers, replacing the public schools with charter schools, and replacing the veteran Black teachers with low-paid uncertified Teach for America type recruits who were predominately White.

Again, parents must make difficult decisions about what offers the best possibilities for their own children. But let's not get confused. The rift here is a rift between Black leaders who are trying to improve public education in their communities and people who work for the charter schools and their deep-pocket funders.

One argument for choosing a charter school over a traditional public school is that students in the charters perform better on Common Core aligned tests so they will be better prepared for college and careers. According to Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, this claim is just not true. Writing in the Washington Post, Burris analyzed the results of the New York State Common Core English Language Arts test administered last April. Overall, charter schools in New York City did outperform public schools. Burris reported the proficiency rate for charter schools was 43% compared to 36% for the traditional public schools. However if you do not factor in students with disabilities and English language learners, groups that are disproportionately attending the traditional public schools, the city's public school test performance surpassed the proficiency rate for charter schools by 50% to 46%.

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