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An Ongoing Debate about Charter Support Among Black and Latino Families

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On November 26, the New York Times published an article that had this headline: ‘Minority Voters Chafe As Democratic Candidates Abandon Charter Schools.’

The point of the article was that many black and Latino families are very disappointed that all the Democratic candidates have turned their backs on charter schools, excepting Cory Booker, currently polling around 1-2%. The article was especially critical of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have, as the article put it, “vowed to curb charter school growth.”

The article implied that the shift was due to the candidates’ pursuit of the support of the teachers’ unions, and charter schools are mostly non-union. Thus, if you want the union vote, you oppose non-union charters. (In my experience, neither the AFT nor the NEA is anti-charter, since they seek to organize charters to join their unions and have had some modest success; still, about 90% of charters are non-union.)

The article was prompted by an organized disruption of a speech in Atlanta by Elizabeth Warren, who was talking about a washerwomen’s strike in Atlanta in 1881, led by black women. The disruption was led by Howard Fuller, who, as the article notes, has received many millions from rightwing foundations, not only the Waltons but the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, to sell vouchers and charters to black families.

Not until paragraph 25 does the article mention that the national NAACP, the nation’s largest organization representing black families, called for a charter moratorium in 2016. That fact alone should raise the question of how representative the protestors are.

I wrote this post about the article. The gist of my complaint was that the Times’ article gave the impression that black and Latino families are clamoring for more charters, when in reality there are many cities in which black and Hispanic families are protesting the destruction of their public schools and the loss of democratic control of their schools.

I questioned why the article relied on a five-year-old press release from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as evidence for its claim that the “wait list” for charter schools was in the “hundreds of thousands.” Actually, the 2014 press release from the charter advocacy group said the “wait list” topped one million students. My comment was that “wait lists” have never been audited or verified and that a claim by a lobbying group is not evidence.

I added to my post a commentary by Robert Kuttner, the editor of the American Prospect,  who was also critical of the article.

Both Kuttner and I heard from a reporter from the New York Times. In the response posted below, he acknowledges he made an error in citing poll data in the article, without reading the underlying poll.

I heard from one of the writers of the Times article. She said my post had many inaccuracies. I invited her to write a response and promised I would post it in full. I pleaded with her to identify any inaccuracies in my post and said I would issue a correction. She did not send a response that I could post nor a list of my “inaccuracies.”

The Times posted an article last July about the growing backlash against charter schools. But I do not think the Times has exhausted the question of why the charter “movement” is in decline.  It would surely be interesting if the Times wrote a story about why the NAACP took a strong stand against charter expansion, despite the funding behind charters. Or why Black Lives Matter opposes privatization and supports democratic control of schools. Or why black families in Little Rock, Chicago, Houston, and other cities are fighting charter expansion. None of those families are funded by the Waltons, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Charles Koch, or Michael Bloomberg, so they don’t organize buses to take hundreds or thousands of people to demonstrations.

The Times should take note of the fact that white Southern Republicans have made the charter issue their own, and they are using it to recreate segregated schools. Indeed, the Republican party has made charter schools and vouchers the centerpiece of their education agenda, and Democrats in most state legislatures have resisted that agenda and support public schools. There is also the fact that DeVos and Trump are pushing charters and school choice even as they dismantle civil rights protections.

I wish the Times had noticed a court decision in Mississippi a few months ago that upheld the right of the state to take tax money away from the predominantly black public schools of Jackson, Mississippi (which are 96-97% black), and give it to charter schools authorized by the state, not the district. They might note that the sole black justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, Justice Leslie King, dissented from that decision. The district, under black leadership, fought that decision and lost. The black parents of Jackson, Mississippi, are fighting for adequate funding of their public schools, while the white Republicans in state government are imposing charter schools.

In Justice Leslie King’s dissenting opinion, which Justice James Kitchens joined, he wrote “This Court should not be a rubber stamp for Legislative policies it agrees with when those policies are unconstitutional.”

Public school districts in Mississippi receive local funding from ad valorem tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, which is a free public school, money that would have gone to the district follows the student to the charter school instead.

My view is that we need a great public school in every neighborhood, with experienced teachers, a full curriculum, a vibrant arts program, a nurse, and all the resources they need for the students they enroll. I think that charter schools should be authorized by districts to meet their needs and supervised by district officials to be sure that there is full transparency and accountability for the academic program, the discipline policies, and the finances. Charter schools should complement public schools, not compete with them or supplant them.

Here is Robert Kuttner’s second commentary on the article:

americanprospect

Charter Schools and the Times: a Correction and Further Reflections. I made an error in my On Tap post last week on the New York Times feature piece on black public opinion and charter schools.

My post criticized the Times for publishing a page-one story with an exaggerated headline, “Minority Voters Feel Betrayed Over Schools.”

The Times piece cited a poll showing black support for charter schools at 47 percent. My mistake was to infer from this figure that black support and opposition were about equally divided. As one of the story’s authors pointed out in an email, the actual poll showed support at 47 percent, opposition at 29 percent, and no opinion or similar for the rest.

That 29 percent opposed figure was not mentioned in the Times piece. Nonetheless, I should have pursued the underlying poll and reported it, and not just made assumptions. I regret the error.

That said, polling results vary widely depending on the wording and framing of the question, the sponsor of the poll, and the context. For instance, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, in a state that has more charters than any other, reverses the finding of the Education Next poll cited by the Times. In California, blacks, with just 36 percent support, were far less likely to support charters than whites.

One of the two polls that the Times linked to used the phrase “public charter schools.” Most charter schools are public only in their taxpayer funding; their actual accountability to public systems varies widely. Many are for-profit, or nominally nonprofit but managed by for-profit management companies.

Another poll, which my post cited, by Peter Hart Associates (for the American Federation of Teachers), finds that black parents are strongly opposed to the idea of reducing funds for public schools and redirecting them to charters, which is often the practical impact of increased spending on charters. As this study shows, the practical effect of charters, in a climate of fiscal scarcity, is often precisely to divert funds from public schools.

I owe our readers a much deeper look at the charter school controversy, as well as error-free reading of polls. Both will be forthcoming. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Robert Kuttners new book is The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy.

Follow Robert Kuttner on Twitter

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