In his The Charter School Paradox, Walt Gardner asks: “If charter schools are guilty of all the sins described in the multi-part cover story, then why are there waiting lists across the country of mostly poor black and Hispanic parents who are desperate to get their children enrolled in these schools?” And then he concludes:
I continue to be a strong supporter of traditional public schools for reasons I’ve explained in this column and in other venues over the past two decades. But I also support parental choice. I don’t see this as a contradiction in terms. Yes, parents often make mistakes in their decisions. However, I maintain it is their right alone to decide what is best for their offspring. Charter schools are accused of increasing racial segregation, but that does not seem to bother poor black and Hispanic parents who want to enroll their children. I wish The Nation had addressed this paradox in its cover story. It’s too important to brush aside.
I recognized the role of parental choice in the larger school choice debate as well as how that element complicates both advocacy and rejecting a wide range of school choice initiatives, resulting in my writing an extended examination of the issue in Parental Choice?
Despite spending a great deal of time on school choice research and finding little to support advocacy for choice options such as tuition tax credits, public school choice, or charter schools, I too was baffled by the apparent appeal of charter schools, notably among impoverished and minority parents—particularly in the context of my own claim that “no excuses” ideologies are racist and my concurrent rejecting of paternalism. I was able to understand that tension, however, once I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she confronts the same tension over mass incarceration and intensive (as well as disproportionate) policing of high-poverty minority neighborhoods.
In Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, I reached the following conclusion:
Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.
Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels…
This last point—that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools—presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow. [emphasis added]
For example, [Sarah] Carr reports [in her Hope Against Hope] that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).
New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters—and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools—the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.
The charter school movement, specifically the “no excuses” versions, represents a skewed choice environment; again one that does not include the qualities found in many selective and expensive private schools.
We must be careful, then, not to idealize parental choice and not to misread the choices in limited contexts of impoverished and minority parents who in fact are not being offered the sorts of choices that would likely erase their apparent support for charter schools.
Well-funded, safe, and high-quality public schools would negate the need for choice, and that should be what we are pursuing, as I have detailed before:
People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.
No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.