Opinion

Cunningham: How New York Times Op-Ed Got It Wrong on School Choice and Segregation

By Peter Cunningham | August 21, 2018

This essay originally appeared on the Education Post blog.

After a much-needed break from all things education, I returned to find an op-ed in The New York Times from Antioch University writing professor Erin Aubry Kaplan about school choice. I hate arguing with an author who worships President Obama, but for the life of me, I cannot abide her incoherent argument against charter schools.

She claims that her home state of California has abandoned integration as the “chief mechanism of school reform and embraced charter schools instead.” Actually, reform is much more than school choice, and it certainly wasn’t done as an alternative to integration.

The goal of charters was innovation and quality, and it was based on the theory that schools serving poor kids would be better if low-income parents had the same power as higher-income parents to choose among them. Studies suggest this is true in many places.

The fact is, integration hit a wall because of white flight and legal challenges to forced busing and affirmative action, well before charters came along. Today, there are few effective strategies for creating diverse schools in a country where school attendance boundaries are closely tied to segregated communities.

School choice, however, is one of them. As the Century Foundation has documented, some 125 “diverse by design” public charter schools are measurably more diverse than their surrounding schools. It is also true that some charters are less diverse, and in some cases, they are intentionally discriminatory. But as a policy lever, charters have empowered millions of families who previously had no choices. That’s a powerful public good.

Kaplan also characterizes charters as “the public schools that liberal whites can get behind,” but she’s wrong. White liberals are not driving the charter movement. Black and brown people are, comprising about 60 percent of the overall charter student population.

If anything, white liberals in blue states like New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington are limiting school choice, but the numbers are not with them. Today, the public school population is majority-minority and majority low-income. Multiple polls in recent years show that people of color strongly support parent choice.

Kaplan further suggests that the “social contract” of an equitable education “theoretically includes diversity,” especially for “white liberals” in “deep blue” California. Perhaps it does, in theory, but in the real world, most white liberals behave like white conservatives when it comes to their housing preferences, choosing segregated communities.

Few people vote on the issue, and I can’t think of a single public official at any level in either party who openly crusades for intentionally integrated housing. While many pay lip service to integration in schools, few challenge the sacred principle of local control in education that perpetuates segregation.

Kaplan pulls an especially thin thread when she calls charters “a legacy of failed justice.” She says that Americans have “lost our appetite” for engagement, and the “rise of charters is an expression of that loss.”

I would argue that good charters drive more authentic engagement from parents than traditional public schools ever did, but at this point in her scattered argument, “loss” is precisely what I am feeling. I am compelled to reaffirm a few basic truths.

Charters are public schools. They mostly serve kids desperate for a better education than the traditional system provides. Most charters were founded by teachers frustrated by bureaucracy and eager to pioneer new and better methods of teaching and learning.

To the extent anything in education has “failed,” a word I generally avoid because it is absolute where nuance is called for, it’s the traditional public school system that still educates 85 percent of the kids in America.

While we have made considerable progress in improving education in the past 50 years, we still have yawning achievement gaps based on race and income. The number of low-income kids completing college is still way below their middle-class and upper-class counterparts.

It takes a magical thinker to believe that if we just got rid of charter schools, the traditional public schools would somehow improve on their own. It is delusional to think that white people will voluntarily reintegrate at scale. Worse yet, it’s regressive and cruel to take away choice from poor families of color.

Low-income kids of color can’t keep waiting for the promise of equity. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., equity delayed is equity denied. They need a good education today, and the traditional public school system too often falls short.

Charter schools are not the panacea for what’s wrong with education, but they are certainly not the cause of it, either. Instead, they are one part of the solution. The best of them are proving that all kids can meet high standards.

Denying poor parents school choice does not merely dishonor the social contract Kaplan yearns for — it violates it.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post. He previously served as the assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the first term of the Obama administration.

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