Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Has to Take on Charter Schools
Education reform’s race problems mirror unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.
People take part in a Black Lives Matter rally on April 29, 2015, at Union Square in New York City.EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
ack school systems are treated like black men and women in America. Urban schools are broken up, experimented on and policed in efforts to improve them. The reformers expect students, teachers and parents to be grateful and accept test score growth in return, just as black communities were expected to be grateful when crime dropped even as incarceration rates rose.
But finally, the same voices decrying the unequal treatment of black communities by the criminal justice system are turning to the unequal treatment of black communities in school reform.
The Black Lives Matter collective—representing approximately 50 organizations—released an official platform last week titled “A Vision for Black Lives.” Its education section called for an end to the privatization of education and petitioned for more community control of schools. A list of demands included “a moratorium on charter schools and school closures.” The NAACP also took a stand against charters at their annual national convention by approving a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charters. It has yet to be approved by the national board.
Zero-tolerance policies in the criminal justice system are the first cousins of zero-tolerance policies in schools. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. African-American public school students are suspended three times more than their white counterparts. So it’s ironic many in the current reform movement actually believe they should be embraced by Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, even though many of the theories and practices many of us are fighting against in the criminal justice arena are still openly embraced by many charter schools: Sweating the small stuff, walking on white lines and no-tolerance discipline, all of which are not exclusive to charter schools, but have certainly characterized the sector.
What took black activists so long to turn their attention to how black lives are discounted in school reform? One reason: the imposition of charters—which have expanded much faster in cities than in suburban and rural areas—undermined the power of black communities to fight back.
The charter takeover of New Orleans is a case in point.
When I accepted a role to run a charter schools network in New Orleans, I hitched a wagon to an existing effort of the University of New Orleans to live up to its urban mission to build capacity in its neighborhood. Equipped with a college of education faculty, student-teachers and external support, UNO was positioned to uplift struggling schools in the neighborhood we shared—Gentilly. As the first organization under new takeover legislation to convert a traditional public school into a charter in 2004, the university agreed to return the school back to the New Orleans School District after five years with lessons learned. We were one of five charter schools that existed before the storm.
Hurricane Katrina upended this limited and careful foray into chartering public schools to see if it could improve outcomes. In the wake of the storm, the state legislature passed a bill (Act 35), which changed its earlier definition of an academically unacceptable school, allowing for a radical expansion of the number of charter schools in New Orleans. In September of 2005, the board placed all school employees on disaster leave, meaning they would receive no pay or benefits until the schools reopened.
Then in December of 2005, 7,500 school district employees were officially terminated, and because of their varied evacuations, many did not receive official notification. Based on 2000 census data, nearly 5 percent of New Orleans blacks lost their jobs with that decision. On June 30, 2006, the UTNO collective bargaining agreement with the district expired, and the school board did not vote to renew the contract in a city with extensive union membership.
In December 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, and the Broad Foundation announced their plans to provide several grants for three years to New Schools for New Orleans, New Leaders for New Schools and Teach for America of Greater New Orleans. Instead of fixing the teacher pipeline problem that existed before the storm, the decision to expand these organizations made it worse.
The percentage of white teachers and leaders who were less likely to stay in the city increased dramatically. The Louisiana Department of Education eventually lifted the five-year requirement to Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Has to Take on Charter Schools: