Don’t Blame Public School Choice For Society’s Failures

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John Legend pens a passionate essay in response to the NAACP’s recent moratorium on charter public schools. Here's what he has to say.

Black kids across the country are being given a raw deal.

Slavery ended 150 years ago, but the problems of structural racism are old and ongoing. We still have a huge wealth gap rooted in decades of job, wage and housing discrimination. A persistent gap between Black and white student achievement points to an education system that fails to provide a ladder of opportunity for everyone. And African-American communities continue to deal with a criminal justice system that over-polices us, over-arrests us, over-incarcerates us and disproportionately takes the lives of our unarmed youth simply because of the color of our skin.

As the oldest voice on civil rights in America, the NAACP has always been a leader in understanding the issues that communities of color are facing – including in our public education system. Achievement gaps have slowly been shrinking, but average test scores of Black students are still roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district. A shameful percentage never end up with a diploma.

That’s why I was confused and upset by their decision to press pause on the progress in one area of education that’s been a bright spot for many communities of color.

Charter public schools are not the solution to every problem that’s plaguing public education. The NAACP is right to raise some questions over the practices of some individual charter schools. There are schools of all models - district, charter, magnet, private - that are failing to educate our kids properly and accountably.  States and districts should hold all of these school types to high standards of accountability.

What’s shortsighted about the NAACP’s decision is that it’s ignoring the many successful charter schools that are delivering results for many communities. In New York City, third grade charter school students outscored students at district schools in math and in English. Charters here are closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged Black students and their more affluent white peers.

The NAACP understands that where you live, your skin color, your income level and zip code shouldn’t determine what kind of education you can get in this country but unfortunately, in far too many places, it does.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools remain far too segregated by race, language and economic status. I couldn’t agree with you more that we need deliberate integration of our public schools system in nearly every district in the country. The problem is clear but the solution is murkier.

It’s true that charter schools serve a higher percentage of Black and Latino students than traditional public schools do. Sixty percent of charter school students are children of color. Black students make up 27 percent of public charter students while they represent only 15 percent of the student population in non-charter public schools.

It’s a mistake to think that because charter schools are serving more students of color that they’re complicit in the problem. Bias against communities of color goes far beyond which public school parents choose to send their children to. Segregation is the result of decades of discriminatory zoning laws, school funding models tied to property values, gerrymandered school district boundaries, and litigation to preserve the status quo.

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Segregation is not a unique challenge to charters. District schools, magnets and charters across the country are struggling under the weight of unfair and discriminatory policies. It’s unfair to place the burden of desegregation on the parents themselves who are choosing the best public school option for their children.

When you look at the metrics for success, it’s clear why charters are a popular choice in under-performing school districts.

A 2015 Stanford study found that African-American children in charter schools are gaining 36 more days of knowledge in reading and 26 extra days of math skills than African-American students in traditional public schools.

A recent study of charter school performance in Florida and Chicago showed that charter high school students were 7-15 percentage points more likely to graduate and 8-10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college compared with peers who attended charter middle schools but then attended traditional public high schools.

So many schools out there, like the Harlem Village Academies I work with, are defying the odds and delivering a truly world class education in some of the country’s most challenging environments.

But the students who attend school at these high-performing charters are the lucky ones. Across the country, a million names are on waiting lists for charter schools. Every year, parents put their child’s fate into a lottery machine, which determines whether they get into a quality school or a failing one.

We have to do better. I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the NAACP in the fight for equal opportunity, social justice, and against the poverty that plagues too many of our neighborhoods. I want to stand with them on education, too.

Good schools of any model - not a moratorium on charters - are the way to fight poverty, to lift kids up on the path to success, and give them opportunities to develop their future potential.

- John Legend

 

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