Education Reformer: Charter Schools Can Be ‘Culturally Affirming,’ Not Segregated - Higher Education
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Education Reformer: Charter Schools Can Be ‘Culturally Affirming,’ Not Segregated

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


LOS ANGELES — Though some critics say charter schools that serve predominantly African-Americans, Latinos or Native Americans are “segregated,” such schools can be “culturally affirming” and should not be lumped with schools that are segregated in the traditional sense of the word.

That was the key point that Chris Stewart, director of outreach and external affairs at Education Post, a school reform group, made at a recent charter school forum at the University of Southern California.

Chris Stewart is director of outreach and external affairs at Education Post.

Chris Stewart is director of outreach and external affairs at Education Post.

“When governments assign you by race to inferior schools, that is traditionally segregation,” Stewart said. “When parents pick culturally affirming programs for their child, that is so far from the traditional understanding of segregation that it’s almost insulting to call it that. It’s cultural survival.”

Stewart made his remarks in response to a charge by University of California, Los Angeles education and law professor Gary Orfield that charter schools are perpetuating segregation because there is no plan to ensure that they enroll students from diverse backgrounds.

“The problem is these are new schools, so we are creating new segregated schools,” said Orfield, who is co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “No one is doing anything to make them diverse.”

Orfield said charter schools should pursue diversity for the same reasons that colleges and universities pursue affirmative action — because diversity has been shown to be a “positive intellectual force.”

“Integration is much better than segregation,” Orfield said. “It changes lives in important ways, offers important opportunities not just for students of color but all students, as we see in our universities. We should pursue it in charter schools.”

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Stewart shot back that HBCUs produce a disproportionately high share of America’s middle class even though they serve predominantly Black students.

“If you don’t say it about Morehouse and Spelman, we shouldn’t say that about K-12 schools,” Stewart said of Orfield’s assertion that schools that predominantly serve one racial group do not prepare students to live in a multicultural society.

The back and forth between Stewart and Orfield represented one of the more cantankerous exchanges at the charter school forum, conducted by the Education Writers Association to examine the state of charter schools a quarter century after they first began to appear.

The EWA conference on charter schools comes at a time when questions abound about what role — if any — the administration of President Donald J. Trump will play in pushing for their expansion. President Trump has proposed $20 billion to expand charters and vouchers but it is unclear how exactly the proposed expansion would be funded.

Panelists addressed an array of topics — from questions about whether charter schools are adequately held accountable to the challenges of conducting research on the impact of charter schools.

Margaret “Macke” Raymond, director of The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University, said the center’s research has found that there are “thousands of charter schools that are not only high growth but also high achievement, and this is a sort of ‘beating-the-odds’ finding.”

“What I find most amazing about this is other charter schools and other public schools are not beating a path to these schools’ doors to say, ‘What are you doing and how can we do it?’” Raymond said.

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Raymond said forthcoming research this year will show that most charter schools are not — contrary to widespread belief — “creaming” or “skimming” the best students from public schools. Research is also forthcoming on whether charter schools are “counseling out” troublesome students, but it is too early to provide preliminary results, Raymond said.

Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said assessing the impact of charter schools is complicated because there are questions about inequitable access at various stages in the recruitment and enrollment process.

For instance, Welner said, rigorous application procedures — such as requiring students and even parents to write multiple essays, such as is the case at Roseland Accelerated Middle School in Santa Rosa — can dissuade some parents from applying for certain charter schools.

“These barriers to access undermine core societal values about fairness,” Welner said.

Welner said such barriers to access also “distort enrollment,” which in turn undermines efforts by researchers to compare charters to traditional public schools.

Pedro Noguera, Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA, criticized Los Angeles education officials for not having a plan for where charter schools should be established.

“Right now there’s very inefficient use of space, and LA is a place that has scarce space,” Noguera said.

He noted that there are charter schools that lack auditoriums and playing fields while, at the same time, traditional public high schools are underpopulated.

“There’s no strategy here,” Noguera said. “Getting around the city is difficult. Choice is really determined by access. If the schools in your neighborhood are not schools you have access to, we haven’t helped those people very much.”

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Noguera said questions about charter schools are often framed in “polarized terms,” such as “yes or no” on whether they should exist.

“I would say the question needs to be: Where? For whom? And how do we make sure we’re not exacerbating inequalities?” Noguera said. “There’s public schools that did the same things, but little questioning of those public schools that screen out high-needs kids.”

He warned that, if the Los Angeles Unified School District “goes down” as a consequence of losing students to charter schools, there is a large population of students with special needs that “no one else wants to serve.”

Los Angeles has the highest number of charter school students in the nation — 156,040 — which represents about 24 percent of overall K-12 enrollment in the city’s 643,730 students, according to a 2016 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“It behooves those who are pushing this to think about the overall well-being of the city,” Noguera said.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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