This story at The Mirror has been kicking around my head for a few days now:
After the Sheff order, dozens of open enrollment magnet schools with themes such as science or the arts opened across the state with the aim of promoting voluntary integration. However, unlike magnet schools, charters did not have specific racial targets and were designed to test innovative approaches to curriculum and teaching. Several of the schools opened in the state’s poorest cities, aimed specifically at disadvantaged students, most of whom are members of minority groups.
In 11 of the state’s 18 charters, minority children account for more than 94 percent of the students.
“The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure,” UCLA Professor Gary Orfield wrote in a foreword to the Civil Rights Project report. Orfield, one of the nation’s leading authorities on school desegregation, was a witness for the plaintiffs in the original Sheff trial.
“The biggest problem with the report is it ignores student achievement,” Toll said. “It prioritizes integration above everything else.” In too many of the nation’s schools, “many of our minority kids are not getting a quality education,” she said. “That’s the real civil rights issue.”
At schools such as Jumoke, closing the achievement gap is the overriding goal.
Located in a former Catholic school, an aging brick building in Hartford’s North End, Jumoke’s elementary school zeroes in on academics, scheduling lengthy blocks of time each day for reading, writing and mathematics.
The school provides daily enrichment classes for students who meet academic benchmarks and extra help for those who don’t. Children wear uniforms, and the school posts signs such as “Respect Others” and “No Bully Zone” along the walls, part of its effort to emphasize character development.
“We’re bringing in quality teachers … and setting expectations high,” says the school’s principal, Lynn Toper, a former State Department of Education consultant. “Our parents are thrilled to be here. How often do you hear that?”
Both sides of the argument are sympathetic, but after some time thinking about it, I think that what the charter issue really highlights are the limits of using public schools as engines for social change. Schools are one of the best tools we have, but they can’t reverse a slow trend towards “soft” segregation based in tax policy, zoning laws, real estate steering, legacy economic gaps, and social stigmatization of cities among wealthier classes. Integrating our schools can’t, by itself, integrate our society.
What struck me was the quote that “Our parents are thrilled to be here. How often do you hear that?” My concern is that charters, on top of not being as racially diverse as they could be, introduce a class-based division into a larger educational system that was already highly segregated by race. As opt-in institutions, charters will disproportionately attract children whose parents are highly motivated and with the resources (time, transportation) to pursue those opportunities for their kids. Likewise, high-performing students and those with high degrees of parental involvement are drained from public schools, diminishing the variety of experience and background shared with student peers — in both sets of institutions. I see it as potentially being a parent-driven form of tracking for students.
In any case, if the article piqued your interest, it’s worth checking out the entire report [PDF link] — it weighs in at 85 pages before the endnotes and appendices. I haven’t made it all the way through, but I will.