Two kids attending the Bronx Charter School for Better Living

Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News

Dear Gary Orfield:

As someone who grew up in one of the better (of the admittedly abysmal) urban neighborhoods in America, I can tell you that many parents care greatly about the quality of education for their children. So when they see opportunities to escape woeful public schools — as in the case of Virginia Walden-Ford as a most-famous example — they will take it quickly.

This is the chief reason (along with the restrictions on the location, growth and even demographics placed by state legislators at the behest of teachers unions and suburban districts) why America’s public charter schools are mostly black and Latino, generally attended by they poor, and largely in big cities. It is also why there are some 39,000 New York City children waiting for seats in charters and why President Barack Obama is pushing states to end restrictions on their growth.

In some ways, this lack of diversity also explains the success many charters have had in bolstering the academic achievement of their largely at-risk student populations. Besides the attention given to kids in their mostly-small settings, the opportunity for children to see peers of their own race and color succeed academically — a reality that happens far too infrequently in traditional public schools — gives these children the sense of pride they need in order to succeed in school and in life. Certainly, we may all believe in a color-blind society, but most of us don’t think that the melting pot and racial pride are mutually exclusive.

When the cvil rights activists of five decades ago used to talk about “separate and unequal”, they were talking about a lack of equal funding for schools, the restrictions on black children to attend any kind of school they wanted — majority white or otherwise — and ultimately, fulfill their academic and economic destinies without barriers codified into law. Most of those racial barriers have been brought down (although some of the issues of funding still do exist, partly because of the neglect of “broken windows” by generations of big-city leaders, along with their economic decisions  to grant tax abatements and other deals that have reduced much-needed tax revenue). But the political and political barriers — including woeful public school bureaucracies; gamesmanship by districts with Title I funding; and zoning and “magnet school” policies that favor wealthier families — still exist.

These, along with the sclerosis within public education systems makes it more critical than ever to give poor urban families as many choices as possible to escape the worst traditional schools. They don’t care about the segregation they knowledgeably choose; their concern is about the quality of education for the children they love. They truly understand that for which Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were fighting. Choices of great schools, traditional, charter or private, both in their neighborhoods and outside of them without restriction.

In other words: Urban parents don’t care about so-called civil rights activists who work in ivory towers, live in suburbs, release reports on “segregation” just in time for Black History Month (wink, nudge), and avoid the worst American public education offers on a daily basis.

And Mr. Orfield (and you too, Richard Kahlenberg), they mean you.