Who Owns Civil Rights? Two Wildly Different Visions of Schools, Choice, and Student Rights Collide One Day at a Minnesota University

Minneapolis, Minnesota

On an unseasonably frigid Thursday in November, Julian Vasquez Heilig, who is both a professor at California State University Sacramento and the California NAACP education chair, stood before an audience of labor leaders, Democratic officials, and policymakers and drew a direct line from economist Milton Friedman to the hyper-segregation of schools today.

An energetic, controversial presence on social media and the author of the blog Cloaking Inequity, Vasquez Heilig is also on the board of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, which opposes charter schools, teacher evaluations, the use of assessments and data, and a host of other mainstream education reforms.

Friedman, Vasquez Heilig told attendees at the two-day Summit for Civil Rights, had called for the privatization of U.S. schools, but today’s charter school operators had taken things a step further. They had told him as much at a gathering they invited him to attend in New York, presumably the inaugural symposium of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools in October.

“We’ve decided they will be segregated,” Vasquez Heilig said the schools’ “owners” told him. “This is an extension of the self-determination movement.”

Indeed, he continued, switching back into his own voice, as had been noted already at the conference, “segregation is at the heart of the business plan.”

Stanford’s CREDO research unit, he continued, has found that public charter schools have a negative effect on academic achievement among black and brown children.

“You have this cabal of people who truly believe that vouchers and charters are about civil rights, and they’ve created this motley alliance with people who are interested in privatization and profit,” Vasquez Heilig said. “That cabal is organized by a set of industrialists” including Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers.

If there had been a diversity of voices in the room — or any K-12 experts not affiliated with the national teachers unions — Vasquez Heilig doubtless would have gotten pushback. Regardless of whether they are charter or district schools, someone might have noted, schools do not have owners, but boards — whether those boards oversee a district or a single school.

Those boards might govern a school with a curriculum or approach designed to affirm a particular culture, but by law they must welcome all applicants. A business plan centered on segregation would be as illegal as a whites-only lunch counter. What they do have is freedom from many of the rules that govern district schools, as well as few teachers union contracts.

Someone might have offered him a link to the 2015 CREDO study that found that urban charter schools, in the aggregate, significantly outperform their traditional district counterparts, supplying students the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days in reading. Black and Latino students, the study found, “especially benefit from charter schools. Gains for these subpopulations amount to months of additional learning per year.”

Instead of a fact-checking, Vasquez Heilig got thunderous applause — not unexpected at a gathering where teachers unions, which have made halting charter school growth a top priority, are front and center.

The cabal? Heilig was at least partly right about that: There are people who believe that offering disadvantaged children high-quality options is a matter of civil rights.

Meanwhile, a much smaller audience consisting of education-sector fixtures including Eric Mahmoud, founder of Minneapolis’s Harvest Network of majority-black public charter schools, and Jennifer Stern, CEO of the school incubator Great MN Schools, was ensconced about 1,000 feet to the south, listening to author David Osborne talk about three urban school systems — New Orleans, Denver, and Washington, D.C. — where the presence of public charter schools has been one factor in achieving solid, steady gains for students of color. Integration was the topic of discussion at that meeting, too.

“We all know our urban schools have struggled over the past few decades,” Osborne told a similar audience in St. Paul the night before. “And that’s no one’s fault … The problem is that they are trapped in a system that was designed over 100 years ago.”

The 74 created an interactive website to coincide with the recent release of Osborne’s book, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System. The site includes excerpts, interviews, extensive videos, and stories, some of which examine the role of race equity in the school improvement efforts Osborne highlights.

Located a block apart at the University of Minnesota, the settings were replete with symbolism. Vasquez Heilig spoke at the university’s law school, in an auditorium named after former vice president Walter F. Mondale. Osborne spoke a block away at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, named for Hubert H. Humphrey.

Mondale and Humphrey, of course, played pivotal roles in creating the nation’s civil rights laws. Humphrey was the Senate majority whip who shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 past a 60-day filibuster to passage. Four years later, Mondale, another U.S. senator from Minnesota, was one of two lawmakers willing to carry the explosively controversial Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Half a century after passage of those landmark laws, U.S. schools are more segregated than ever, leaving millions of impoverished students of color clustered in schools where few students perform at grade level. There are a handful of cities where efforts to integrate schools by socioeconomic status has shown promise, such as Lexington, Kentucky, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. But for the most part, white flight has compounded the challenges faced by schools in the urban cores.

For example, in Minneapolis Public Schools, the district where the twin meetings took place, 78 percent of white students pass state math and reading exams. Test passage plummets to 19 percent for American Indian students, 21 percent for African Americans, and 31 percent for Latinos.

As a consequence, a third of Minneapolis children have left the district for charter schools or neighboring traditional districts. More than 9,000 of the departing students are black, making up half the exodus. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s teacher corps is 96 percent white.

“We can spend our entire lives chasing white people. They don’t want to be with us.”

—Amy Wilkins, senior VP of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Charter school proponents argue that families in increasingly segregated communities can’t afford to wait for quality options. Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, grew up next door to Thurgood Marshall and worked for sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose research underpinned the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Her uncle, St. Paul native Roy Wilkins, ran the NAACP for years.

“Brown was about opening more options for black kids, not fewer,” she says. “What [the summit leaders calling for a halt to charter schools] are doing is taking high-quality options off the table for black kids.”

Integration, Wilkins says, is a “secondary goal” to creating schools that work for children of color. “We can spend our entire lives chasing white people,” she says. “They don’t want to be with us.”

The organizers of the Summit for Civil Rights, by contrast, refer to the new schools as “poverty academies.” University of Minnesota professor Myron Orfield is the founder of the law school’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, where he has produced a number of reports critical of charter schools, including research financed by the Chicago Teachers Union. Critics of Orfield’s work complain that he consistently finds that charter schools underperform district schools because he compares schools throughout large metropolitan areas, with wildly varying poverty rates.

A more accurate measure, they argue, is to compare a charter school serving impoverished students with the district schools those students would otherwise attend.

In a story published soon after the summit, on Dec. 1, the Associated Press used a methodology similar to the one espoused by Orfield and by his older brother, UCLA’s Gary Orfield, to assert that charter schools cause segregation. Numerous news outlets carried the story and used the AP’s data to produce local versions, but few took note of research that found different results or of critiques by other researchers who note that the Orfields’ model compares high-poverty charter schools with majority-white, wealthy schools and not their majority-minority neighbors.

The summit follows the founding of a new organization, Building One America, where Myron Orfield has formally joined forces with teachers unions and their partners. The group has begun work in New Jersey and Ohio, holding organizing meetings and trainings.

In addition to the Kresge Foundation and a handful of individuals, sponsors of the Summit for Civil Rights included nine unions. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten delivered one of the keynotes at the gathering. She did not talk about the AFT’s efforts to delegitimize public charter schools or to support groups willing to join that cause, instead focusing on labor’s role in securing economic and civil rights for members.

While housing segregation is at the top of the new group’s agenda, summit participants spent time talking about strategies for coordinating attempts to advance legislation and litigation advancing its particular models for integrating housing and schools. The approach is similar to the one Vasquez Heilig has been instrumental in framing and promoting within the NAACP.

The organization last summer ratified a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. Alice Huffman, chair of the task force that created the resolution and model legislation, is the head of the California NAACP, where Vasquez Heilig leads the education committee.

At last summer’s convention, Huffman praised the AFT and the National Education Association for their partnership in the effort to curtail charter school growth. Public records put the amount the unions have donated to the NAACP and its affiliates in the hundreds of thousands.

Delegates to the same NAACP convention were given model anti-charter legislation to introduce in their respective states. Attendees at the Minneapolis summit were asked to divide into three groups to formulate plans for framing legislation and legal challenges, the specifics of which were left for another day, and for organizing.

Although the groups reported at the summit’s conclusion that their efforts were in very early stages, Orfield’s past work has argued that the way to achieve integration is to balance school enrollment by socioeconomic status on a metro-wide basis.

The prospect of integrated schools draws few critics, but many education policymakers cite the number of communities where the approach has failed. Since 2000, 47 suburban communities have withdrawn from districts with large numbers of children of color. More secession is underway.

Charles Barone, director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform, before the summit wrote a cautionary piece outlining what he sees as the flaws in the strategy under discussion.

“How do you make [school integration] come about? I guess if you are sitting in a conference room in a university it’s a nice thing to say,” he says. “The rhetoric isn’t matching up with anything that anyone seems to be doing on the ground.”

The teachers unions participating in the push, he notes, oppose changes that would have an immediate impact on race equity in schools, such as giving districts the ability to place the most experienced and highest-performing teachers in the most challenged schools.

Additionally, Weingarten is on record supporting neighborhood schools, Barone noted.

“You’re basically conceding that because a neighborhood is homogeneous and people want neighborhood schools, your kids are going to end up in racially homogenous schools,” he told The 74 in an interview.

Nor are schools in many of the nation’s largest districts making even incremental progress toward integrating students in segregated neighborhoods, he says. Unions are not protesting segregation in intensely racially stratified New York City, where Weingarten headed the AFT local until 2008, he notes.

For her part, Wilkins is fearful that any concerted push to combat segregation that takes aim at school choice could be devastating for the schools that are outperforming their traditional neighbors. President Donald Trump’s and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s support for private school vouchers and tax credit scholarships to help pay private school tuition have made more subtle discussion about educational choice all but impossible, she says.

“Trump and DeVos have given charters cooties,” she says. “I liked chocolate cake before Trump got elected. Trump likes chocolate cake. I’m not going to give up chocolate cake because of him. We’ve got to think in more nuanced terms.”

The members of the “cabal,” she says, need to do a better job using data about schools that are serving children of color effectively to make their case. And they need to make sure that the main messengers are the parents who have chosen effective schools. The families the anti-segregation push is supposed to benefit understand what losing schools that are working means, she says.

“They’re saying, ‘You can’t go here,’ and that sounds a lot like what Brown was supposed to address,” she says. “Run toward it – don’t shut it down. We’re cutting off our noses to spite our face.”

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