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In-Depth: Black Lives Matter’s Rashad Turner on Why He’s Quitting Over Charter School Attacks

September 18, 2016

Talking Points

@beth_hawkins goes deep w/ @RashadsRepublic about quitting #BlackLivesMatter over attacks on schools

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St. Paul, Minnesota
In a move that quickly made national headlines earlier this month, the leader of Black Lives Matter St. Paul announced he would be leaving his position because of a call by some of the movement’s leaders for a moratorium on public charter schools.
Over the past 18 months, Rashad Anthony Turner had risen to prominence in the wake of protests over racial disparities in discipline and violence in schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the police shooting of Philando Castile, a beloved school cafeteria worker.
A few days ago, The 74 published a story announcing Turner’s decision and explaining some of the dynamics that have made anti-charter calls by the umbrella group Movement for Black Lives and by the national NAACP so divisive within African-American communities.
(Related — ‘The movement’s been hijacked’: A BLM leader quits over education platform)
Here’s our full interview with Turner, a St. Paul Public Schools parent who holds a master’s in educational leadership. (It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
The 74: What prompted you to leave Black Lives Matter?
Turner: For me, it was a question of integrity.
Being that I am all for charter schools and education reform, and as someone who is seeking educational justice for students and families, I could no longer be under that banner of Black Lives Matter. Stepping outside of that banner personally meant that I needed to step down from a leadership role and any affiliation with Black Lives Matter if I’m going to do a great job in education and fighting for educational justice.
I was very surprised that the NAACP or BLM would call for a moratorium on new charter schools but not call for a moratorium on the overrepresentation of black students in special education, or the school-to-prison pipeline, or [the kinds of] curriculum that do not meet the needs of all students.
Our public education system has people who are sometimes literally dying for the lack of educational opportunity. And when I think of charter schools in my community here in St. Paul and their benefit to students of color — low-income students — to call for a moratorium or an end to charter schools just lets me know that something funny is going on. I’ve kind of had feelings of trickery or different things going on that didn’t align with my beliefs or value system.
Do you feel that the calls for moratoriums represent the opinion of a majority of African Americans?
The NAACP usually is on the right side of history. They’ve done great work, and I would assume they have the same concerns for our students and families that I and others do. But I do not think they are speaking for the majority of the black community. I think they are speaking for — or to — people who do not have much information on the issues.
There is a lot of different language thrown out there to distract people. But I do not think they are speaking for the couple hundred thousand black parents whose kids are enrolled in charter schools.
I think they throw out the propaganda and say, “Well, this is going to eliminate the public schools.” News flash: charter schools are public schools.
(Related — Cynthia Tucker Haynes: Dissent in the black community, as educators commandeer NAACP platform)
Out East, [charter schools] are seeing a lot of gains in reading comprehension and math proficiency. Think about the increase in the number of black families, the number of Hispanic families that are choosing to go to charter schools. I think that’s a sign that parents are starting to realize the value, the benefits, of having choices. Of having options.
I think it’s our job as education reformers, as people who are fighting for educational justice, to engage the community, to engage our parents and to make sure they have the best information. Because I don’t believe that any parent on the face of this Earth would say that they shouldn’t be in control, or be able to choose, where their child goes to school.
What do you think about the timing of the national declarations?
For me this has been a build-up. There’s been things at the national level that BLM has talked about, or the NAACP has talked about, that just haven’t aligned with what our thoughts are in the chapter in St. Paul. And that haven’t aligned with NAACP chapter presidents across the country.
I’m not sure what pushed them to this point, but in Minnesota, our St. Paul Federation of Teachers spent the last year demonizing, criminalizing black and low-income students in St. Paul public schools.
A few months ago, all of a sudden they were out protesting — protesting with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, and staging their arrests, and I thought it was really co-opting what I thought this movement was about.
I’m still going to stay engaged and obviously fight for criminal justice reform. I have a background in that as well. But I sort of had to step away from the dog-and-pony show once I realized, “Hey, this doesn’t match up with my beliefs.”
I don’t ever want to feel like I am misleading people. Or not keeping it real with people who are following me or looking to me for information. So again, it just came down to me wanting to have integrity and not wanting to lead people to something that I felt was at a dead end.
I’m glad you brought this up, because it has felt to me as a fellow Minnesotan as if in the past year there has been a struggle for control of the narrative. Everybody wants to convince people that their philosophy or their ideology or their strategy is really what’s for equity. Which makes equity a junk term. It needs to be about outcomes.
I agree with you. I think it needs to be about outcomes.
I think it needs to be about putting students’ voices first. Putting parents’ voices first. Because at the end of the day, we can have our degrees, we can have our life experiences. But I don’t think that qualifies any one of us to tell a parent what’s best for their kid or to say what their life experience is really like. I think that takes away from what that student is experiencing.
Did Black Lives Matter ignite a passion that started this fight over who owns the term “equity”?
If you took some time to look beneath the surface, you’d see that the Black Lives Matter movement has been co-opted. It’s been hijacked by others. Now it’s all about money. Again, to think that Black Lives Matter Minneapolis could be out protesting with the teachers union, who spent one whole year demonizing black students — to think that you could get out there and protest with them — to me that just seems funny. And I don’t want to make assumptions, but something funny is going on.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the public eye has had that appearance that “Hey, you’re fighting for black bodies to stop being killed by police.” How the heck that leads to calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, I don’t have a clue.
I think people are waking up to these things. I’m not going to say the ship is sinking; I’m just going to say that the movement has been hijacked. And in order for us to stop these things from happening, it takes bold action. It takes people willing to step up. I know people are going to criticize me. Someone asked earlier, “Are they going to excommunicate you?” That’s not my concern. My concern is students and families.
I think a point of tremendous confusion in this is where school choice intersects with the national discussion about segregation in schools.
Segregation is happening all over. It’s wrong. And it happens in our district schools every day. I could take you to five or six schools in St. Paul Public Schools where it’s all white kids. Or five, six schools in Minneapolis where it’s all black kids. I used to work in places in White Bear Lake where they don’t let students of color open-enroll.
I don’t think we need to be pulled away from creating opportunity for black students or for brown students in the form of a charter school that meets their needs. And I think that’s exactly what this is. It’s saying, “Hey, don’t create opportunities for these students right here.” But at the same time, those same students aren’t getting what they need in a district school.
And I just see that as another distraction, another way to say, “Don’t create these opportunities for students. Make them continue to suffer in this district school, where there’s a chance, depending on where you live, you might be one of the 70 percent of kids who can’t read at the end of third grade.”
Or you might be one of the 60 percent to 70 percent of kids who are dropping out because they’ve been suspended so many times. Or you might be one of those kids overrepresented in special ed, a label placed on you, and placed off in some corner of the school, isolated and marginalized from the school community. We cannot continue to make our students persist with that.
The no-brainer is that we need options. We need choices.
Can you give us a taste of what’s next for you?
Parent engagement is something that I really want to get into. Getting our students and families engaged in the process and informed on the issues is going to go a long way in reforming a system that’s been broken for years. I really think that if we all can have great, high-quality educational opportunities that eliminate the problems that we see — whether that’s racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it — that’s going to do a lot for our society.
Seven years prior to starting up Black Lives Matter St. Paul, I was an advocate for education. I spent five years as [an in-school] cultural liaison advocating for students and families. Then I spent a couple of years at the higher-education level, again advocating for students of color, first-generation college students, students who might not have had the high-quality educational opportunities they should have had.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several mothers who reached out over the weekend, and they’ve been very excited that I have refocused my work on education.
I am really looking forward to what the future holds.