Charter Schools and Choice: The Civil Rights Issue of our Day OCTOBER 11, 2016 BY ERIK ROOT

Here’s how we make the dream a reality

In his attempt at humor, comedian John Oliver tried to ridicule the idea of charter schools by singling out a few poorly performing charters. What Oliver left out is the fact that there is plenty of scandal and bad behavior to go around.

In the Chicago public school system, some employees not only rigged the system to place their kids in higher performing schools, but also embezzled public funds to the tune of $1 million. In New York, one public school principal was removed for stealing money from the school and falsifying payroll. In Denver, some in the public school system lied about enrollment in order to increase public funding. In North Carolina, employees of Wake County schools defrauded the district of $4 million.

Of course, Oliver mentioned none of these scandals afflicting traditional public schools around the country. For him, only charter schools could possibly be crooked.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that serve a diverse constituency. In general, independent, nonprofit organizations run charter schools, which are granted contracts by a state or local agency and have a fair amount of leeway in exchange for greater accountability.

Most charters receive a portion of public funds that would have been spent on the pupil if that student remained in the district public school system. However, charters usually do not receive 100 percent of those funds. Furthermore, charter schools do not receive public monies, or take out bonds, for their buildings or capital maintenance. Those items must be funded privately by members of the community or paid for out of the charter’s reduced operational funds. As a result, charter schools operate on a budget that is smaller than their opulent counterparts in the public school system where capital expenses cost taxpayers millions. This means that it costs the taxpayers less to educate a student at a charter than in the district school system.

Charter schools became popular in the 1990s because of the poor academic performance and safety concerns in many traditional public schools. Though overall violence is declining, even NPR admits that there are schools remaining that have difficulty providing a safe environment. As it pertains to academic performance, there are many intransigent district schools using pedagogical methods not conducive to learning.

Because of these critical problems afflicting the students of the public school system, parents demanded that a portion of their tax dollars follow their child even if that choice was to an independent public charter school. Since district public schools are rarely shuttered for academic reasons, they remain open despite their poor records of performance.

While many district schools have been closed, they have not been closed for failure of performance or budgetary malfeasance. Rather, district schools are closed because of declining population or inefficient economies of scale. Even then, it is a lengthy process for politicians to close a district school. Charter schools are more immediately influenced by the choices and decisions of the community. However, if we are going to hold charters to a certain standard, we should hold the district public schools to that same standard. Public schools should be allowed to fail and then be closed. Charters that do not abide by state regulations, both financial and academic, are closed having their charters revoked. Why not hold the district public schools to those same standards?

Educational choice is the civil rights issue of our day. In North Carolina, New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley argued that schools not only need more money to succeed, but also should bus students across district lines in order to help save poor performing schools. For parents stuck without a charter choice, that would mean subjecting their child to a failed or failing school system.

In reality, Markley’s proposal is meant to juke the stats by sending a few high performing students to bad schools, in order to raise the scores of the poor performing schools, while dampening the scores of the schools that score higher. Nowhere in Markley’s proposal is there a remedy for changing the way his schools deliver education; there is no plan to improve actual learning. Yet, the superintendent’s supine remedy is typical of most school systems across the nation. Learning and instruction is not as important as political results.

In August, NAACP members passed a resolution against charter schools demanding a moratorium on their development because they are “segregationist.” According to one leader, “As Brown v. Board of Education taught us, a dual school system is inherently unequal.” Should the national NAACP executive board approve the motion, it would be a complete departure from the organization’s founding principles.

It is not just the NAACP that has changed the meaning of civil rights. It’s also academics like University of Miami law professor Ossamudia James, who asserts in an essay called “Opt-out Education: School Choice as Racial Subordination,”:

School choice is not the answer. Rather, the elimination of school choice through compulsory universal public education is, given the near impossibility of establishing a properly functioning market, the low likelihood that parents who opt-out are genuinely empowered to do so, and the incompatibility of school-choice values with quality public education. Prohibiting exit from the traditional public school system would reaffirm education as a core democratic function of the state, while retaining in the public school system the power and influence needed to reform public schools across the board.

Where to begin? How about James’s obvious impossible assertion that the public schools with their intractable unions would reform themselves? Or maybe his incredible claim that freedom of choice is inherently racist. No, the most problematic and troubling aspect of her solution is to use the government to trap students and parents in an educational version of Jim Crow.

The meaning of civil rights is to live life free from discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, age or disability. What can be more expressive of civil rights than to have the freedom, without government interference, to send our children to a school of our choice?

In Wilmington, North Carolina, inner-city schools are failing miserably. Of the four—Rachel Freeman, Edwin A. Alderman, A.H. Snipes Academy, and Gregory elementary—their percentage of “end of grade” (EOG) tests passed are 25.6 percent, 47.4 percent, 32.2 percent and 28.9 percent respectively. This means that between 63 percent and 78 percent of public school students in Wilmington are not proficient at grade level. Furthermore, three of those schools — Freeman, Snipes, and Gregory — are overwhelmingly African-American. Yet, those schools have not been singled out for contributing to the “dual school system.”

Compare those schools to the 98 percent minority and 94 percent low-income Douglass Academy charter school, managed by the Roger Bacon Academy, which boasts a 55 percent passage of their EOG exams, and a 75 percent proficiency rate if the student remains in the charter school for three years. Douglass is doing something that no district school in the city is able to match. These accomplishments are achieved within the same community as the four aforementioned neighboring schools. The difference, however, is that parents purposely choose to send their children to Douglass, and their children are getting a better education since being freed from the district school system.

Far from holding minorities back, Douglass charter represents an expression of civil rights and freedom. The result is a better-educated citizenry.

What bussing and forced school assignment do is take power away from parents, and cover up the poor performing schools by raising scores through the imported high performing students. Of course, it is possible to teach low income and diverse students as Douglass Academy demonstrates, but the way to do that is not by socio-economic manipulation. It is by proper rigorous instruction. When it comes to good schools, sometimes charters are the only rational choice.

What can be more expressive of civil rights than to have the freedom, without government interference, to send our children to a school of our choice? To prevent parental choice is inherently hostile to civil liberties. Indeed, the existence of charter schools represents a culmination of the rights of the citizens in the pursuit of happiness to better their lot in life. Education is fundamental in that pursuit. Parents—regardless of race, income level, gender, or party affiliation—know this great truth: the pursuit of happiness includes the freedom to choose where to educate our children. Such an endeavor is but one small fulfillment of the natural right to pursue happiness. We should all support our civil right to do so.

Erik Root is a policy analyst for the Roger Bacon Academy and a contributor for Opportunity Lives.