The False Debate Over School Choice and Equal Opportunity Must End
There are two tiresome arguments that always emerge whenever there is a discussion about school choice. The first, coming from centrist and liberal Democrat reformers such as Education Sector Higher Ed czar Kevin Carey that vouchers are terrible school reform strategies and are politically divisive because it means using tax dollars to send kids to private and parochial schools. The fact that Carey — a colleague of mine whose work on teacher quality reform, higher education policy, and the faulty thinking of Diane Ravitch is admirable — hardly offered much in the way of strong evidence to support his views (especially in light of the evidence that vouchers are effective), along with Carey’s (and other centrist and liberal Democrats’) support of charter schools (which also involve using tax dollars to fund private-sector entities) makes the entire opposition to this element of choice and Parent Power rather senseless.
Then there is the new twist on an old argument against choice — that it leads to inequality in educational opportunities — that is being advanced in Mississippi by the NAACP’s chapter there and other groups that proposed efforts to expand charter schools will somehow exacerbate inequities for African-American children. The NAACP opposed a similar effort last year. From where the NAACP and its allies sit, any effort to revamp the state’s charter school law — which is ranked as one of the most-restrictive in the nation — would only lead to poor and minority kids in the state being denied high-quality education. Why? Because charter schools would divert the state’s already allegedly low levels of funding from traditional districts that serve mostly-black students, while perpetuating segregation of black students from what are perceived to be better-performing suburban schools.
Last time around, the NAACP chapter president, Derrick Johnson, had declared that school choice will “create and maintain a permanent situation of second-class citizens.” This time around, perhaps because of all the licks the nation’s oldest civil rights group has taken over the language it used in opposing charters at the national and New York City levels, Johnson couched the argument in terms of equal funding. Says Johnson: “Our concern at the NAACP is Mississippi has never fully committed itself to providing the highest available quality education necessary for this state to move forward.”
Certainly the arguments offered up by the NAACP and charter school opponents in Mississippi is a twist on a longstanding (and wrongheaded) conceit. As Dropout Nation has noted over the past three years, ivory tower civil rights activists such as the NAACP and Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA — have argued that charter schools perpetuate segregation — and thus make provide unequal educational opportunities to poor and minority kids — because few white students attend them. That argument, partly based on the misguided idea that economic and racial desegregation amounts to some form of school reform strategy and driven in part on a romantic belief that earlier civil rights activists fought hard to end desegregation in order to promote a more-harmonious world, is as much a driver of their opposition to choice as their longstanding ties to the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and school districts (especially in urban locales), that aren’t interested in dealing with new competitors for students. In Mississippi, the NAACP is also using tying this theory to the school funding advocate belief that more money always leads to better academic outcomes.
The fact that earlier generations of civil rights activists fought for integration because they knew that they could never get equal resources from districts in an age of Jim Crow segregation, along with the lack of data on — and knowledge about — the role of failed traditional education practices in fostering low quality education for poor and minority kids, never comes to their minds. They also fail to admit that traditional district schools are still largely segregated even now thanks to the Zip Code Education practices they essentially defend as part of opposing the expansion of charters and choice.
But there are other reasons why the arguments offered by the NAACP and other charter school foes fail the smell test.
For one, all children in Mississippi and elsewhere, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status, are being poorly served by traditional districts. Forty percent of fourth-graders attending suburban district schools, along with one out of every two fourth-grade students attending schools in big cities such as Jackson and in small towns, read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Young men, regardless of race or economic background, are essentially tossed onto the path of academic failure. Seventy-six percent of young black male fourth-graders eligible for free- and reduced-lunch are functionally illiterate — and so are 48 percent of their white male counterparts; meanwhile one out of every five white male fourth-graders, and 45 percent of black male counterparts are also struggling with literacy. And while more young men struggle with reading than young women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, even the girls are struggling: Thirty percent of young white black female fourth-graders and one in five of their female peers are also functionally illiterate.
If equal opportunity for academic failure is what charter school opponents want for kids, then that is absolutely shameful.
Then there is the fact that, contrary to the assertions of charter school opponents, Mississippi has spent plenty on its schools, and has equalized spending between mostly-white and majority black districts. State spending on schools increased by 19 percent between 2005 and 2009 — the latest data available — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state provided 53 cents of every dollar spent on traditional districts throughout the state in 2009, barely budging from levels four years earlier. In Jackson (City), where nearly all of its 30,093 students are black, the percentage of school dollars provided by the state increased from 46 percent to 50 percent over that period; meanwhile in Rankin County, where white students make up 76 percent of enrollment, the state’s share of funding increased from 48 percent to 50 percent in that same period. The fact that Mississippi’s five-year graduation rate (based on 8th-grade enrollment) declined from 64 percent to 62 percent within that period proves lie to the education traditionalist belief that more money alone equals better academic results. So doe the fact that the five-year graduation rate of 54 percent for Jackson is 17 points lower than for Rankin.
Contrary to what the NAACP and its allies think, expanding charter schools and choice doesn’t limit equal opportunity. If anything, it is choice that will help expand and equalize opportunities high-quality school opportunities for poor and minority kids by ending Zip Code Education policies — such as zoned schooling (along with restrictions on expansion of school choice that are supported by the NEA, the AFT, and district bureaucracies) — that relegate families to schools that aren’t worthy of their children’s futures. Right now in Mississippi, poor families, regardless of where they live, are restricted to failure mills in their neighborhoods, while middle class families (especially those who are minority or the first in their generation to achieve such status) are often restricted to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide laggard instruction and low expectations for poor white, black and Latino kids. At the same time, choice also helps to give families their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education, breaking the power of district bureaucracies (who are the biggest employers and political players in many parts of the Cotton State) and the NEA affiliates that influence them.
If anything, school choice can help jumpstart the push for other systemic reforms. Bringing leading charter school operators such as KIPP and Green Dot to the state (along with nurturing high-quality local operators) would certainly help poor and minority kids get the high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures of genius that they need for lifelong success.At the same time, expanding choice will jumpstart reforms — especially in improving how teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated, and compensated — needed to improve American public education in Mississippi and throughout the nation.
The NAACP and its allies should stop engaging in faulty thinking that stands against all kids, including those from poor and minority households. Particularly given its proud legacy in advancing civil rights, the NAACP should stand for choice and equal opportunity, not for just one or the other.