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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Are segregated charter schools like HBCUs?

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos generated controversy this week with a series of statements suggesting that historically black colleges and universities demonstrate the benefits of school choice. On Monday, she released a statement that included the following passage:
HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater equality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish. 
Yesterday, she added some nuance to the remarks, but also once again drew an implicit comparison between charters and HBCUs, tweeting that the HBCUs' legacy is "[p]roviding an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality schools."

Critics in Congress and the civil rights community called her comments misjudged - after all, HBCUs were founded as a consequence of segregation, and are, if anything, the byproduct of lack of choice for black Americans. The president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights noted that the comments made Secretary DeVos seem "ignorant of racial segregation in the US."

But to those engaged in debates over charter schools and education reform, the secretary's comments sound familiar. In that world, HBCUs are commonly invoked as a justification for the exceptionally segregated nature of charter school education.

In some basic ways, the analogy is inapt: students who attend four-year colleges typically have a range of integrated postsecondary options in front of them; in fact, many HBCUs are themselves integrated. But in the K-12 arena, children of color are often faced with only two options: a segregated traditional school, or segregated charter schools.

Nonetheless, as we'll see, this comparison happens regularly and comes reflexively to many school choice advocates. In Minnesota, it has become a sort of rote defense used by charters. While Secretary DeVos may have moderated her position, Minnesota's experience makes clear that this talking point is not going away any time soon.

Some quick background: in 1999, Minnesota exempted all charters from desegregation rules on dubious legal and policy grounds. In the wake of that decision, many charters have pursued covert, or sometimes even open, strategies of racial targeting - often by billing themselves as Afrocentric, or Hmong academies, or European language academies, or Western classical education schools.

Many of these schools claim "cultural focus" makes it easier to teach to ostensibly-distinct racial groups. A more plausible explanation is that homogeneity makes it easier to institute the harsh discipline and stripped-down, factory-style "drill and kill" teaching upon which many charters rely. In the case of all-white schools, segregation may also be a major boon to student recruitment, as families leave diversifying traditional schools.

But if the justifications are murky, the outcome is not: Minnesota charters have formed a racially divided system, in which white and nonwhite children attend very different schools. Nearly half of charters are heavily segregated and extremely few are diverse or integrated. Nothing similar can be seen in traditional schools.

This is, quite frankly, a bad look for charters. Wonky sociological defenses of integration aside, the legacy of Brown v. Board ensures that the division of schools by race is strongly associated with American white supremacy.

Minnesota charters, faced with the fact that they're building something that looks uncomfortably like Jim Crow, have gone casting about for more favorable historical antecedents. This has led them to compare themselves to HBCUs.

And HBCUs come up a lot when Minnesota charters defend their segregation. For instance, when the state considered dropping the civil rights exemption for charters, one prominent local charter advocate told an administrative law judge the following:
I have concerns about the extension of the proposed integration rule to charter schools in general but to culturally specific schools in particular. And part of that has to do with I believe is a false analysis . . . that tends to consider those schools to be segregated schools.
This flies in the face of civil rights history and also the fact that we have historically black colleges and universities around the country that are specifically designed to affirm, enrich, and enhance the educational experiences of African-Americans who we know have faced historical discrimination throughout our time in this country.
And here's Joe Nathan, a longtime reformer who has been advocating for school choice since even before the invention of charters:
I will quote from outside research commissioned by the State Department of Education which shows very mixed results [for integration]. Not as a way to oppose that program, but to say that relying on that strategy as a major strategy to close achievement gaps and to increase integration doesn't necessarily achieve the results that some of its advocates hoped for. . . And, finally, I will cite national research about what's happened when families are allowed to choose among various colleges and universities and some of them attend historically black colleges and universities . . .
(A historical footnote: when, in 1988, the original charter proposal suggested applying civil rights and desegregation rules to charters, Nathan dissented. He thought the "need to meet desegregation standards" was "worrisome," according to Ember Reichgott Junge, author of the nation's first charter law. He later explained "[w]e had some fabulous schools all over the nation that were mostly people of color.")

The examples go on and on. When we authored an editorial in 2014 calling attention to the segregated state of Minnesota's charters, Nathan coauthored a response with Bill Wilson, who directs a local charter, arguing "civil rights activists have evolved since 1954" and "[l]ike the best HBCUs, successful charter schools focus on modeling and mentoring, not just on text scores."

Underlying all this are two basic arguments.

The first is that HBCUs prove that K-12 segregation can be made to work. But, simply put, they don't. Social science is very clear: college is qualitatively different from elementary and secondary school, where students are just beginning to learn how to interact with each other and the outside world. In grade school, segregation imposes massive developmental costs on children, by starving them of access to needed resources and social networks of opportunity. Integration, by contrast, breaks down concentrations of poverty, and produces a welter of intangible but life-changing social benefits, like reductions in racial stereotyping and greater proficiency navigating diverse environments.

This distinction between K-12 and postsecondary education can be seen in academic outcomes. While many HBCUs have strong academic reputations, highly-segregated grade schools produce low or dismal test score performance compared to integrated peers. Many - charters included - are what Robert Balfanz has termed "dropout factories," from which few students attend a college of any description.

The second thing that charter advocates intend to highlight when they talk about HBCUs is precisely what DeVos said yesterday: the primacy of choice. To many education reformers, parental choice is a value that trumps all others - one that can produce no remediable ill effects. If parents choose to attend segregated schools, they should be empowered to do so. When Minnesota attempted to apply desegregation requirements to its charters, the schools banded together and filed a legal brief with the following passage:
At the core of the argument over whether charter schools should be included in MDE's proposed desegregation/integration rules mandating "integration" is the following question: is achieving some undefined notion of "integration" more important than allowing parents the right to choose where to send their children?
Later, in a public hearing, a charter director testifying against the integration rules put it a little more pointedly. She said "[W]hite students choose not to come to our charter school. It's their choice if they want to come, and they choose not to, so that makes our school free."

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