Charter advocates: segregation claims misplaced

“This is the greatest civil rights issue of our day”

A recent study wrongly blames an increase in segregated schools on charter schools, according to charter school advocates.

The study, released in February, said the number of schools in Michigan that have 80 percent or more black students has increased by more than 130 schools over the past several years. The number of such schools increased from 294 in 1992 to 431 in 2005. Of the 137 additional schools, 87 were charters.

"It’s not to blame it on charter schools but to say, if anything, charter schools are exacerbating the problem," David Plank, co-director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center, told Booth Newspapers. "What we’re doing is providing African-American parents whose children are in racially isolated schools the choice of attending other racially isolated schools."

School choice advocates disagree. Harrison Blackmond, president of the Detroit chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options says the quality of the school, not its racial makeup, is what matters.

"It’s the black students who are leaving the public schools – not because they want to segregate themselves, but because they want a chance at a better education," Blackmond told Booth. "The real story is not the segregation, the real story is the flight of African-American students out of these underperforming schools."

Charter school leaders say "segregation," which calls to mind racism, discrimination and Jim Crow laws, is an inappropriate term. Families of any color that choose to leave the public school to which their children have been assigned and enroll at a charter school are not being forced but are making that choice on their own.

Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, pointed this out in a March Op-Ed that ran in The Detroit News.

"So when African-American parents voluntarily choose charter schools in great numbers, as has happened in Michigan, it is disturbing to see their choice disparaged by researchers pursuing an ideological objective," Smith wrote. "Who is actually advancing Martin Luther King’s dream that his children be judged ‘not on the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?’ My money is on the parents, not the policy wonks."

Charter school enrollment in Michigan is up 13 percent this year, to more than 92,000 students, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Detroit charters experienced an even bigger gain, 22 percent, with more than 6,500 children on waiting lists to get into charter schools.

"What we’ve always understood about our schools is that they are a reflection of the communities," said Dan Quisenberry, president of MAPSA.

Telly James told The Detroit News in response to the study that she isn’t surprised or concerned by lack of diversity in charters. Her daughter attends a charter school in Detroit.

"The city is predominantly black," she told The News. "When the neighborhood is black, the school is going to reflect it."

Because charter schools locate in areas where local demand is high, it is obvious the student body is going to reflect the demographics already in place for that particular neighborhood. A study done last December by MAPSA and BAEO substantiates this notion.

A poll showed 60 percent of Detroit parents feel there are not enough educational choices in the city for their families, and more than half of them have considered moving out of the city to access options. Many who want to move cannot, so charters are their answer.

"Minority and low-income parents are tired of their children being trapped in failing schools and are demanding high-quality public schools that will welcome them as partners," Smith explained in his Op-Ed. "Charter schools are answering their call."

Plank said the underlying cause of segregated schools is residential segregation.

"It is a fact that Michigan is the most segregated state in the country," Plank said. "Public policy can either endorse and reinforce that, or try to break it down."

Because the lines for conventional public school districts are drawn around neighborhoods, rather than following municipal borders, they are thought to group families of the same socio-economic background together. Ultimately, that leads to children being assigned to schools by geographic boundaries. An April 2005 Los Angeles Times story about school boundaries said they separate people based on "class, culture, race and ethnicity." Many believe that eliminating those boundaries and allowing parents to choose where their children are educated would lessen the segregation in public schools.

"I’m very sympathetic to the argument that we have a state education system, with these anachronistic little critters called school districts that complicate matters," Plank said. "Removing the lines by itself wouldn’t by itself decrease segregation, but it could bring other positive consequences."

The need for more educational choices among black families can be seen in the numbers. Michigan had the largest achievement gap in the nation in 2004 among fourth grade students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. Only 8 percent of black students taking the test were proficient in reading, compared with 39 percent of white students.

"That’s tragic – proof of a school system grossly negligent of tens of thousands of innocent children," Blackmond said. "This is the greatest civil rights issue of our day."