Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

The idea of racial and economic integration as school reform remains as seductive to education traditionalists as ever. After all, it seems magical: Simply put poor and minority kids into schools with wealthier counterparts, and Voila!, student achievement will improve. But time — along with the fact that half of all fourth-graders on free- and reduced-cost lunch in suburban schools are functionally illiterate — has proven that integration on its own doesn’t deal with the systemic problems of low-quality teaching, shoddy curricula, lackluster leadership, and cultures of low expectations (especially for poor and minority kids) that plagues American public education even when those kids are put into suburban middle-class schools. The success of high-quality charter schools serving mostly-minority children in those urban communities (where the schools tend to also be segregated thanks to pernicious zip code education policies) also proves lie to the idea of integration as school reform. And these realities, along with the memories among black families, who remember how integration led to continued decline of the schools within their own neighborhoods, has made charters a more-attractive option than the kind of integration schemes supported by Century Foundation scholar Richard Kahlenberg and Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Yet education traditionalists, ivory tower civil rights activists, and dyed-in-the-wool progressives, still stuck on integration as school reform, would rather criticize charters for supposedly perpetuating segregation (even though most urban communities largely consist of one race or class) than embrace a tool for helping poor and minority families give their children opportunities for high-quality education. In this Best of Dropout Nation from February 2010, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains to those foes of charter schools why their arguments are not only off-base, but insulting to families who want better for their kids. Read, listen to this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on families and schools, consider, and take action.

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.