The Freedom to Choose a School is Simply a Matter of Principle (Guest Blogger: Matt Halvorson)

In response to NAACP-American Federation of Teachers, Inc. ganging up on charter schools, dozens of articles and blogs have dedicated space to the NAACP-AFT, Inc. corporate merger and the subsequent beatdown of the greatest threat to their ill-gotten empire. 

Further, the Brown vs. Board of Education case has recently starred in a number of think-pieces as a historical reference to both support and oppose school choice. 

Soon after reading, I asked for permission to publish the following post by Seattle blogger Matt Halvorson. I respect how he breaks down the school choice debate through the lens of Brown v. Board. And does it in three acts! Hope you enjoy as much as I did.


Let’s be clear: ‘Brown v. Board’ was about school choice as a civil rights issue

Evidently “school choice” is a complicated idea.

I thought it was pretty simple. Parents should be able to choose a good school for their child. Seems it’s easily misunderstood though.

For instance, members of an NAACP task force wrote this week about being “concerned that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education victory that promised a quality education for all was at risk” because of charter schools and the expansion of school choice.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, even went so far recently as to suggest that school choice’s roots are in racial segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education was not about saving Black children from inferior schools, as Malcolm Gladwell discussed recently on his Revisionist History podcast, even though that’s the version of history we were all taught in our traditional public schooling.

Brown v. Board was about school choice as a civil rights issue. It was also a case of Black children being left on the front lines during a fight between the adults.

 

Act I: Meet the Browns

In the early 1950s, Oliver and Leola Brown’s daughter, Linda, was a student at Monroe Elementary, an all-Black school in segregated Topeka, Kansas. To get to school each morning, Linda had to walk seven blocks and cross a busy street, often in cold winter weather, and then take a bus from there to Monroe. An all-white school, meanwhile, was four easy blocks away.

Some of these details are probably familiar.

At the urging of the NAACP, Oliver Brown walked into that white elementary school one day and tried to enroll his daughter. But it wasn’t, despite the popular narrative, because the all-Black school with its all-Black faculty was sub-standard in some way.

“We didn’t have any bone to pick with our school as far as education was concerned,” said Leola Brown in a 1991 interview, “nor with the teachers, because they were qualified and did what they were supposed to do.”

Leola Brown had attended Monroe herself as a child, so she knew what she was talking about. She gave her supposedly inferior elementary school rave reviews — not only for the quality of the education, but also for the quality of care she received:

“I loved it. I loved it. The teachers were fantastic. We got a fantastic education there. This case wasn’t based on that, because we learned. We learned a lot and they were good to us. More like mothers. They took an interest in you.”

She felt seen and valued by her teachers, which makes all the difference. She also felt they knew their stuff, and history tells us she was probably right. Because most professions were fully closed off to Black people in those days regardless of their qualifications, a huge number of highly educated Black folks became teachers.

The lawsuit, then, was fully a matter of principle. The Browns weren’t trying to escape some ghetto-school nightmare. They just thought they should be able to choose the school they felt was best for their daughter. They thought the school board, which the white principal blamed as objecting to integrated enrollment, shouldn’t be limiting their daughter’s options, especially based on the color of her skin.

The Supreme Court reached the same conclusion. Sort of.

The Court agreed that the Browns should be able to enroll Linda wherever they saw fit, but its reasoning gave birth to a whole host of unintended consequences. Or at least, the Browns didn’t intend for any of them. It’s not clear what anybody else expected.

See, the judicial branch of the U.S. government concluded that segregation was inherently inequitable, but they claimed this was because it was deeply harmful to Black students to be educated separately. Continued segregation, per the government, would continue to “retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.”

That’s a galaxy away from Leola Brown saying, hey, Monroe was a good school, and the teachers were great, but as a matter of principle, we should be able to choose our daughter’s school.

Let’s act it out for effect.

 

The Man: Monroe is a bad school.

The Browns: Uh, no, not exactly. Monroe is a fine school. We just believe we’re entitled to choose our daughter’s school. It’s a matter of principle that we be allowed to decide what’s best for our own children.

The Man: No, you don’t know what you want. Your educational and mental development has been retarded by your inferior schooling. Someone get a gun and escort these poor Black kids into our hallowed white halls!

Narrator: And then they all watched as most of the Black teachers were fired and most of the Black schools were closed…

End of Act I

 

Act II: The Grass is Browner on the Other Side?

If we’re wondering where all the Black teachers went, well, they got fired in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, and the profession hasn’t recovered. It hasn’t helped, though, that other reforms and so-called improvements have managed to escort more black teachers out of the profession along the way as well, seeming like a good idea at the time. A large number of Black teachers were replaced in New Orleans, for example, after Hurricane Katrina, primarily by young, well-meaning white folks.

Black teachers being squeezed out of schools is certainly problematic in its own right, but the real trouble here is that this isn’t just an issue of adult discrimination. Our children have been impacted by the ripples for decades. Studies and anecdotes alike indicate that Black students were often faring better academically prior to integration, which seems counter-intuitive. Kind of like how Massachusetts’ literacy rate was 96% in the year prior to compulsory public schooling, and has never been as high since. Is anything what it seems?

Anyway, getting more teachers of color into the classroom is widely known as one of the most effective ways to close the opportunity gap between students of color and their white peers. A study in North Carolina showed that Black male students were 39 percent more likely to finish high school if they had one Black teacher between third and fifth grade. That’s it.

It’s not usually intentional racism that produces these discrepancies. Teachers are often unwitting interpreters, an act that relies heavily on our implicit biases unless we are consciously self-monitoring. Was that kid’s behavior an act of menace or of innocent energy? Whose struggles are due to a lack of effort and whose come from a lack of potential? Which kids just need to be challenged and which kids just can’t handle more advanced coursework? Who gets your attention as opposed to your indifference? Whose culture is reflected in the curriculum and whose is othered? Whose is erased?

Through constant subjective decisions and interpretations like these, teachers have the subtle power to shape a child’s education — and often his or her future. Think about your own experience. We know when someone doesn’t believe in us, no matter what they say. We know when we’re being paid lip service. Having someone take a genuine interest in you as a student can have a profound impact on your outcomes. It’s not that this can only happen with same-race teachers, just that it’s statistically more likely.

“Once you grant this idea that a teacher is a gatekeeper and a child needs a teacher to take an interest in them, it changes integration,” said Celestine Porter during an interview as part of Duke University’s “Behind the Veil” project. “Teachers should have integrated first, then students. Instead, we sent all these Black students to white schools, fired the Black teachers and closed the Black schools.”

Instead, white folks interpreted and implemented integration.

Who, as a result, truly saw the sharp edges and dark corners of integration? Black children.

Who was coddled and allowed to continue in their privileged ignorance? White adults.

Ever since, we’ve had everyone, regardless of race, getting schooled in white, government-run institutions.

Everything is more complicated than it appears.

Let’s act it out again. I think you’ll like Act II. This is where we start to introduce the more fantastical elements of the drama.

Our cast of characters has expanded to include the representative for the white schools and white teachers, whom we’ll arbitrarily name 1950s Randi Weingarten, as well as ageless Al Sharpton as himself. Here we’ll also meet Time-Traveling Mr. T, a spirit being who leaps eternally throughout the web of time pitying the fools who perpetuate racism on the backs of innocent children and occasionally laying the smack down.

 

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1950s Randi Weingarten: Well, Black children, ye whose development has been so unfortunately impacted by your perfectly capable and loving teachers and the ill-advised choices of your perfectly capable and loving parents, we have been instructed to allow you passage into our lily-white sanctuaries of learnedness. Black parents, please find an appropriately white manner in which to express your unquestioning gratitude.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: You are a fool. I pity you.

Al Sharpton: The note I wrote to myself on the back of this large check from the white teachers union says that I agree with Randy Wine Garden.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: Reverend Sharpton, I respectfully disagree with your purchased assessment. I’m going to lay the smack down now.

End of Act II

 

Act III: Back to the Future

More than 60 years after Oliver and Leola Brown decided they wanted to choose a different school for their daughter, genuine school integration remains elusive. We continue to battle the demons of opportunity gaps and structural racism. But perhaps most puzzling is the fact that we are still squabbling about school choice. If nothing else, shouldn’t Brown v. Board have put that issue to rest?

Last fall, the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of school choice in the United States, viewing the charter sector as a threat to our hallowed system of public education — as though it’s ever been what it claims to be for Black students and families — and drawing an inexplicable line in the sand between two parts of itself. After all, more than 800,000 Black students attended charter schools in the United States this past school year. That’s more than 25 percent of charter students, even though Black children account for just 15 percent of the total student population nationally.

Let’s be clear about a few things: I am not advocating for segregated schools, by any means. My son attends our “low-performing” neighborhood public school specifically because of its exceptionally diverse student body. And I understand that schools, in our capitalist present, are often where people make connections and build social capital. Schools are power hubs, like it or not.

I’m also not strictly “pro-charter,” to be frank. I’m also perfectly opposed to for-profit charter schools, and I do not support charter schools that are just more of the same — schools that claim to be different, but are run by white adults who don’t understand what’s at stake and don’t genuinely know how to educate kids of all races.

Honestly, I’m not pro-charter any more than I’m anti-traditional public school. My bone to pick is with the status quo, the one that has been perpetuating discrimination against kids of color and, thus, has led to inequitable outcomes. The status quo the unions are paid to protect. I’m opposed to bad schools and the bad propaganda that perpetuates them. I’m opposed to dogma that limits dialogue and progress. I’m opposed to ignoring the truth about our public schools.

See, I’m not saying I have any answers, but goddamn do I have a lot of questions. And instead of sitting in our respective corners waiting for the next bell to ring so we can knock each other’s lights out over nothing, why not sit down and have a conversation about some of these big questions? Why not talk through some of these real issues and strange truths and move forward together?

We’ve not only been wasting our time and money and resources in a fruitless argument, but we’ve been gambling with kids’ lives in the name of this intellectual debate about the minuscule difference between public charter schools and traditional public schools.

Enough already.

I’m calling for a moratorium on petty bullshit, on self-righteous adult egos getting in the way of what’s long been settled as a fundamental right for children and their families.

Let’s act it out one more time.

 

Matt Halvorson: Dear government and your compulsory schools. Dear teachers unions and your compulsory memberships. Dear NAACP and your pointless bought-and-paid-for squabbles. First do no harm. Then I will be open to your opinions.

Crickets: Chirp.

End of Act III

NAACP’s Misguided Moratorium on Charter Schools Puts Children Dead Last

Since 1909, the NAACP has been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in the United States, from ending lynchings to securing Black voting rights and ending school segregation.  But its rigid stance on charters flies in the face of reality.

Take the ACT college exam for example. On what planet does it make sense for the NAACP to tell a black charter school leader like Christopher Goins, whose black students average 19.5 on the ACT, to stop serving students when the national average for ACT scores among Black students is 17? A 17 and a 19.5 are only two and a half points apart, but that’s the difference between going to a community college or 4-year university.

Goins isn’t alone. He is in good company with charter school leaders like Lagra Newman, of Nashville’s Purpose Preparatory Academy, a school of mostly black, brown and poor students where nearly every student is reading at or above grade level. Then there’s the award-winning Soulsville Charter School in Memphis led by NeShante Brown.

All over the country, dedicated educators of color are leading charter schools that cultivate the minds of children too-often locked out of success in traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools’ Sharif El-Mekki not only treats his students like his own children, he is teaching his own “grand-students” (students whose parents were his students, too). Plus, he’s working to bring more Black men into the teaching profession.

img_0867Let’s be clear, the inequities of public schooling persist everywhere, both in the charter sector and in traditional public schools and parents know this better than anyone. Last October, I traveled to the NAACP’s annual meeting in Cincinnati with 150 parents, mostly from The Memphis Lift parent group, to stand for children and families in opposition to the moratorium on charter schools. That event produced the NAACP’s commitment to conduct “hearings” across the United States, including a stop in Memphis, to consider the merits of the debate.  Less than a year later, emboldened by their “listening tour,” the NAACP is likely to double down on its moratorium in even bolder terms.

But the NAACP must not have listened carefully to all the testimony it collected during hearings on its charter moratorium proposal. It feels like they still don’t have a good sense of the bigger picture.

Back in April, charter supporters and opponents at the New York City hearing found surprising common ground. Basically, they concluded, when parents are looking for options, that tells us the public school system isn’t working. And we can’t pit schools against one another when all of them are striving toward the same goal: educating our next generation to help them reach their highest potential.

It’s sad that the NAACP is focusing so much energy on road-blocking the only path many black and brown students have toward a brighter future. Perhaps the most painful thing about all this is to watch the NAACP join forces with the teachers’ unions, a powerful union that puts adults before children.  Now is not the time to form unholy alliances in a desperate attempt to restore relevance.

The NAACP is famous for its role in challenging the U.S. Constitution and winning. Heck, they’re still riding on those laurels. But we’re at another critical time in the American education system where severe inequities threaten our most vulnerable communities. If education is the civil rights issue of the day and the NAACP is clearly on the side of adults, then we must ask who stands for the children?  If not the NAACP, then who?

 

Best of 2016 in Nashville Education: #5 The Memphis Lift and Sarah A. Carpenter


Maybe this isn’t really a Nashville story, but it has some Music City flavor.
In October, several Nashville parents accompanied Memphis parents to Cincinnati, OH protest the national NAACP’s ratification of the resolution to place a moratorium on charter schools throughout the United States. Though serving in an official capacity, I couldn’t avoid being drawn into the passion and determination of parents and grandparents fighting for the nation’s children.

The story has since spread like wildfire (what’s with all the fire references?) and The Memphis Lift’s director, Sarah A. Carpenter, has become a celebrity in her own right. This grandmother of 14 is quick to say “it’s not about your child, it’s about ALL of the children!” with as much sternness and love any one person can muster. It is, indeed, a blessing to the Memphis community that this fearless leader invests in future generations by educating and training today’s parents. Onward, Sarah.

Dear Nashville School Board: A Moratorium on Charters is Unnecessary and Harmful to Families

The election. The cast of characters tapped to lead our nation. The soul-crushing tragedy in Chattanooga.  

There is no shortage of bad things to distract us from the business at hand, but I’d like to take this opportunity to guide us back to our reality within Nashville’s education landscape. 

Our school board will be considering a resolution to place a moratorium on Nashville charter schools following in the misguided footsteps of the NAACP. 

Prior to the NAACP’s October 15 vote on the moratorium, I penned a letter to my local NAACP branch explaining why the moratorium is unnecessary in Nashville. 

The contents of the letter is still applicable, but I’m re-routing from the NAACP to the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education.

“Dear NAACP-Nashville:
The Nashville chapter of the NAACP has always positioned itself on the right side of history through its efforts to uphold its mission to advance African Americans. Today, the local chapter is confronted with another opportunity to honor its legacy. Nashville’s public school children and parents need you on their side; which, arguably, is always the right side.

Charter School Moratorium

The National NAACP will be voting later this fall on a referendum to call a moratorium on the creation of charter schools across the country. The strongly-worded resolution roots its rationale in, among other things, charters’ targeting of poor and communities of color, differential enrollment practices, and increasing segregation.

After listing a litany of issues, the document promises to uphold the NAACP’s 2014 resolution opposing the privatizing of public schools. The subsequent superfluous statements threaten to oppose federal legislation that seek to divert public funds for private entities and support funding that “would strengthen local governance and transparency of charter schools.” While the grievances have merit, under no circumstances do they represent what is happening in Nashville.

We’re Good, Thanks

Since the very beginning, Metro Schools has assembled groups of smart, capable professionals to assess charter applications. Then, in response to the pressing need for increased oversight and administrative demands, Metro Schools created an office of Charter Schools. The office leadership would go on to receive national recognition for its effectiveness.
For these reasons and others, Metro Schools is not a district with a charter problem. In fact, for more than a decade charters have provided a great assist to the district. Numbers provide a more inspiring narrative:

Authorization and accountability: From 2003 to 2016, MNPS has opened approximately 33 charter schools (an average of 2.2 school starts per year) and closed four.
Academic Success: According to the district’s academic performance framework, in 2015, 8 of the 15 highest performing K-8 schools were charters (denoted by the highest designation “excelling”)

Further, using the same tool, all but one charter school entered the 2016 school year in good standing.

Charter schools students make-up: 66% black, 22% Hispanic, 11% white, 86% Economically Disadvantaged; 11% ELL, 13% Students with Disabilities

This is Nashville’s story, and, for thousands of charter school families, it’s a good one.

Go to the Voices

Nashville parents are blessed with a bounty of solid choices and Metro Schools does a great job marketing its menu of school options. Additionally, charter schools’ face-to-face marketing of beliefs and successes, though unpopular amongst traditional education types, is a proven winner with parents. To this end, parents are making choices and it is incumbent on the city’s leaders to extract the narrative from these decisions.
So my ask is quite simple: As you consider the resolution to support a moratorium on the proliferation of charters, please keep in mind that Nashville is vastly different from other cities and, more importantly, fold into your decision voices of choice.

I implore you to please go to parents, take in their stories, and make the decision accordingly. Their side is the right side.

Thank you for your service to the Nashville community. Much respect.”
Thank you. 

NAACP: Hell No We Won’t Go! (Remember this?)

There is no shortage of school choice proponents willing to let the NAACP off the hook for siding with union bosses against parents desperate for quality education choices for their children. We’re still mad as hell and rightfully so.

Continue reading NAACP: Hell No We Won’t Go! (Remember this?)

Quality Choices and Greater Accountability 

This is a pretty solid USA Today article about the need for more quality choices despite the NAACP charter moratorium. The author fills a small space about the Memphis Lift rally and quotes Lift leader Sarah Carpenter. 

The article is centered around secretary of education John King who speaks against “arbitrary” caps on charter schools and in support of greater state accountability. 

“When charters perform poorly, he said, some states “fail to take action to either improve them or close them, which is the essence of the charter school compact. Charter schools were supposed to be a compact — more autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. And yet some states have not followed through on that compact.”

Additionally, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools expressed disappointment in the NAACP’s dismissal of charter school successes with children of color over the past 25 years. 

“These families are looking for something better for their children now and shouldn’t have to wait even longer.”

My Disappointment in the NAACP Is Only Matched By My Awe for the Parents of the Memphis Lift

Since the NAACP voted to support a moratorium on charter schools, I’ve been slowly unpacking the unique dynamic played out before my very eyes.

You see, I was fortunate to join a 150-strong group of #PowerfulParents on a trip from Tennessee to Cincinnati, where the NAACP vote was being held. I was one of a small group of Nashvillians picked up en route—most of the parents were from Memphis and members of a take-no-prisoners parent advocacy organization called The Memphis Lift.

These uber-committed parents left their families to embark on a 34-hour, one-thousand mile mission: to make a statement and ensure the message was received.

Peaceful, but battle-ready (and tested), these men and women were properly revved. I sat beside a Memphis dad, who told me, understandably exhausted from the long trip, “I just want to get a shower, talk to my kids and get ready for tomorrow.”

I listened to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents express blinding pride in their children and the schools they’ve chosen for them. I watched organizers lovingly plan meals and lodging, problem-solve and nurture, while preparing to execute their mission. The commitment to successfully execute and return home with a win was palpable.

D-Day

Hoping to connect to leadership before the vote, Lift director Sarah Carpenter emailed a meeting request to NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. Since the meeting was not granted, a small bright-eyed contingent traveled to the 9am NAACP open board meeting at the Westin in downtown Cincinnati. 

Then, in a strange twist of crazy, the parents were denied access to the meeting. I’ll just let that sink in.

The NAACP, the frontrunner of social justice for more than a century, and according to their website, is:

…actively engaged in increasing the African American responsiveness of citizens to be fully engaged in the democratic process.

…shut out the very people they are chartered to protect and engage.

Undaunted, the small group retreated and prepared for phase 2 by joining the rest of the troops. Upon hearing about the treatment of their leaders against the backdrop of the ritzy meeting venue, the freshly motivated parents positioned signs and readied their greatest weapon—their collective voice.

Chants of “no choice, no voice” and “NAACP, you don’t represent me!” filled the Cincinnati streets while police watched from strategically placed posts. Meanwhile, across the street and up a few floors, the NAACP brass sealed the deal; unmoved by the cries beneath their feet.

But, perhaps the most surreal moment of the entire experience was what happened next. After the ratification of the resolution, an NAACP field representative makes the “bold” trek down from the hotel to address the dejected ralliers. Take a couple of minutes to grapple with these images.

Though I was videoing the exchange, I looked away from my phone to take in what was unfolding before me. Suddenly, the interplay of intra-race relations and class became the star of the show. The visual of NAACP hotshots sitting atop a five-star hotel hovering over pleading parents and grandparents speaks volumes. More on this later.

The Real MVP

Even though the trip inbound was fueled by the hope that the NAACP would side with families and children, surprisingly, the trip home was equally hopeful. Lift parents, astoundingly resilient, are preparing for the next thing.

Toward that end, I must take this opportunity to offer a rooftop shout out to The Memphis Lift and its stellar leadership, Sarah Carpenter and Deirdre Brooks! Thank you for the love and sacrifice on behalf of Memphis families. You are the pride and soul of Memphis. 

Nashville parents: We got next.