Charter Schools Racial Isolation and Integration Segregation

Salon: The Segregationist History of the Charter Movement

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In a stunning post at Salon, Christopher Bonastia describes the ugly origins of the charter industry in the segregationist movement. The basic idea behind efforts to fight desegregation was school choice, paid for by taxpayers. The goal was to allow white students to continue to attend all-white private academies with public dollars. Today, the charter industry targets black students, which ironically popularizes the idea of all-black, segregated schools. Desegregation is no longer a priority for public policy, despite research that shows its benefits.

He writes:

“The now-popular idea of offering public education dollars to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.

Two years before a federal court set a final desegregation deadline for fall 1959, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall shared white county leaders’ strategy of resistance with Congressman Watkins Abbitt: “We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with ‘em.”

Though the county ultimately refused to sell the public school buildings, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years (1959-1964), as taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge. Federal courts struck down this use of taxpayer funds after a year. Still, whites won and blacks lost. Because there were no local taxes assessed to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county—unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools—were left to fend for themselves, with many black children shut out of school for multiple years….

“Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned, “Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.” (Mays vastly underestimated the determination of individual black families and federal officials.)…”

“The driving assumption for the pro-charter side, of course, is that market competition in education will be like that for toothpaste — providing an array of appealing options. But education, like healthcare, is not a typical consumer market. Providers in these fields have a disincentive to accept or retain “clients” who require intensive interventions to maintain desired outcomes—in the case of education, high standardized test scores that will allow charters to stay in business. The result? A segmented marketplace in which providers compete for the “good risks,” while the undesirables get triage. By design, markets produce winners, losers and unintended or hidden consequences.

“Charter school operators (like health insurers who exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to depress overall test scores. Sifting mechanisms may include interviews with parents (since parents of low-performing students are less likely to show up for the interview), essays by students, letters of recommendation and scrutiny of attendance records. Low-achieving students enrolled in charters can, for example, be recommended for special education programs that the school lacks, thus forcing their transfer to a traditional public school. (More brazenly, some schools have experienced, and perhaps even encouraged, rampant cheating on standardized tests.)

“Operators have clear motives to avoid students who require special services (i.e., English-language learners, “special needs” children and so on) and those who are unlikely to produce the high achievement test scores that form the basis of school evaluations. Whether intended or otherwise, these sifting mechanisms have the ultimate effect of reinscribing racial and economic segregation among the students they educate — as the research on this topic is increasingly bearing out.”

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