Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Making Sense of African American Support for Charters: Affirmative Support or a Rational Response to Derelict States?

I rarely come back to a subject on consecutive days, but the headline of story this morning and the fact that so much was left unsaid in my post yesterday offers a compelling occasion. This morning, Keli Goff penned an article titled "NAACP Calls for Charter School Ban, Leaves Black Parents and Children Behind."  The story led with the statement that "Groups that want to be the voice of people of color have to listen to all people of color, not just those reciting one party’s platform and talking points."  Later she cites data that "that 65 percent or more of black parents in Louisiana, New Jersey, and Tennessee support charter schools—and that 70 percent of black voters believe in some from of educational choice for parents."  

I cannot quibble with her basic factual points.  They were at the thrust of my article yesterday and my conclusion that the "charter school gig" was far from up.  What bears more discussion, however, is why so many families and communities want them.  Is it the intrinsic merit of charter schools?  Is it distrust of the traditional system?  Or is it that existing opportunities are so deficient that they feel forced to accept consolation prizes like charter schools or vouchers?

No one motivation or answer fits all situations.  No doubt, there are many excellent charter schools out there and the hope that one can secure a seat in one of those schools can be enough to drive politics.  On top of that, the charter industry has a lot of incentive to oversell those success stories.  The large majority of charters, however, do not fall in the success story category and a large chunk of families are not motivated by a lottery ticket mentality when it comes to their own children, although some surely succumb to it.  

Because of historic discrimination and inequality and the personally horrible experiences that many African American parents had in their own schools, a significant amount of distrust of the traditional public school system still pervades.  So maybe this drives a desire for school choice beyond traditional public schools.  Yet, at the same time, a significant portion of minority families who had bad experiences in the past are dead set on creating better public schools for their children.

The final possibility has always struck me as a far more straightforward and simple: disadvantaged communities often come to the sad but realistic conclusion that states are not going to improve traditional public schools, at least in the short term, and the best they can hope for are consolation prizes like vouchers and charters.   Ohio and North Carolina offer perfect cases in point.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ohio was going through school finance litigation.  The evidence at trial, which was accepted by the state supreme court, included facts that are almost unbelievable: floors so rotten that a teacher fell through; heating systems so outdated that students' desks had to be wiped each morning to remove a layer of coal dust; supplies so short that schools had to ration basic things like toiletries; teaching staffs so short that one person would have to cover an entire county's science or math curriculum.  Rather than jump on these problems, the state of Ohio offered Cleveland, and only Cleveland, a voucher program.  It didn't cover much of the prevailing costs of private education and, for that and other reasons, its effect was largely to drive students toward private religious schools.  The most telling fact, however, may have been that only a small percentage of Cleveland's voucher students said they went to the religious schools for religious reasons. The reasonable inference is that these families supported a voucher program in Cleveland and enrolled in religious schools because they had no other option.  In other words, because the state would not do its constitutional job of providing equal and adequate public schools, parents accepted vouchers.

A similar story might be told in North Carolina over the past decade.  The state cut education budgets as deeply as any state in the country.  In just two years, per pupil funding in traditional public schools fell from $10,015 to $7,235.  The state passed legislation to drastically change teacher tenure and retention.  For the perspective of many both in and outside the state, North Carolina in just a couple of years went from one of the best education states to the worst.  In this context, however, the state drastically expanded charter schools.  For many, enrolling in a charter school surely seemed like the only way to escape a sinking ship.  Interestingly, prior to this point, North Carolina had, by statute, severely limited charters in the state.  In other words, new state policy drove private preference, not the other way around.  More on North Carolina and other states here.

From these two stories, I offer a simple theory: local African American support for choice and charters  may be more about educational survival for the few than it is affirmative support for charters or waning support for traditional public education. If that is the case, one must be careful about using data on African American support for charters for more than it is worth.  These communities may want a solution to traditional public education woes just as much.

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