Charter Schools Won’t Solve Racial Injustice In Baltimore

Jeff Bryant

The disturbing death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore while in police custody, and the ensuing riots after news of his death spread, have continued to prompt countless analyses of the chronic problems in our nation’s urban centers.

My colleague Terrance Heath correctly assigns blame to a direct source: chronic abuse committed by police against people, especially black and brown people, taken into custody. A recent report from progressive news outlet Alternet reveals “nearly 2,600 detainees” from Baltimore police were turned away from the city’s detention center in the past three years because they were too injured to be accepted.

Jelani Cobb, writing for The New Yorker, expanded his analysis to historic cases – including a similar event in Ferguson, Missouri – and found, indeed, incidents of police brutality sparked “every major riot by the black community of an American city since the Second World War.”

Cobb correctly connects police violence against communities of color to “historical roots in segregation” that plague the country yet remain largely unaddressed as incident after incident persistently calls our attention to racial discrimination.

Editors of The New York Times seem to agree, declaring, “Racism doomed Baltimore.”

However, this common sense analyses hasn’t stopped others from spinning Baltimore, and other big metropolitan communities plagued with racial inequity, into an argument de jour for more charter schools.

Will Charters “Save” The City?

After riots broke out in Baltimore, prominent advocates for charter schools took to Twitter to contend their schools had the power to “save” the city.

An editorial in The Washington Post, “The schools Baltimore needs,” declared, “Baltimore’s tumult underscores the need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that welcomes high-quality charter organizations.”

The editors contend the “competitive pressure” charters impose on public schools “might help,” and they criticize Maryland state lawmakers for being “so hostile to charter schools.”

Similarly, editors of The Wall Street Journal make the same illogical leap in their support for charter schools while criticizing anyone who stands in the way of expanding these institutions willy-nilly. While claiming that charter schools are “an escape for poor children,” the editors rail against Maryland laws that give local authorities governance over new charter start-ups – a bizarre argument coming from a conservative news outlet for sure.

First, let’s be clear that what plagues public schools in Baltimore, and other big cities for that matter, is not lack of charter schools.

The Equity Problem

Writing at his personal blog site, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains that a long time ago Maryland isolated Baltimore as a segregated, high-poverty school district with inadequate funding and support.

“Baltimore City really isn’t provided sufficient resources to address its extreme needs,” Baker argues, pointing to data indicating that, relative to the socio-economic conditions of students across the state, Maryland earns a grade “D” for the way it funds high-poverty schools like those in Baltimore.

Maryland’s new Republican governor Larry Hogan is likely making matters worse. As Politico points out in its daily education newsletter, Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has demanded the governor “release $68 million in funding for school districts” including hers. And the state’s teachers’ union has held events “urging Hogan to release the funding,” which would send nearly $12 million to Baltimore’s schools.

A recent report on these events in The Baltimore Sun notes that advocates want some of the money targeted to turning more city schools into community schools, which provide health and social services to children of low-income families who often come to school with learning problems associated with poverty.

Further, Baker points out that given the way funds are spread within the district of Baltimore, schools serving the highest percentages of the lowest-income children spend less on teacher salaries – a pretty good indicator that the city’s high-poverty schools have lower ratios of certified teachers per student and higher percentages of novice (less-than-two-year) teachers.

Charter schools in particular have high ratios of these novice teachers, “a staffing model,” Baker argues, that “isn’t likely sustainable in the long term, unless as a matter of policy, large shares of teachers are annually dismissed.”

Although charter schools advocates like to point to data indicating charters in Baltimore serve some of the city’s neediest kids, these statistics are skewed in a really crafty way. As Baker points out in an older post, charter schools located in lower poverty zip codes in the district tend to enroll the lowest income kids. “But, in the higher poverty zip codes, charters tend to be serving lower poverty populations.” See how that works? Get your poverty cred from serving the lowest income students in the part of town where families are generally better off, and then cream the best students in neighborhoods where families are really struggling. How clever.

So Baltimore public schools are by no means an example of “throwing money at the problem” of racial inequity, and charter schools, rather than helping to solve racial inequity, may be adding to it.

Public School Progress

Also, rather than contributing to chronic poverty and racial injustice, Baltimore’s public schools may be one of the city’s few institutions that is creating some genuine progress.

As Baker finds in his first blog post, “Baltimore has shown reasonable average gains, given expectations,” on the most common measure of academic achievement, the National Assessment of Education Progress.

“Although nearly all the pro-reform commentators insist Baltimore schools are failing, statistics suggest otherwise,” Take Part’s Joseph Williams points out. “According to the school district’s website, 83 percent of pre-kindergarten students emerged ready to learn, state standardized assessment reading test scores jumped nearly 20 percent from 2004 to 2013, and math scores climbed more than 25 percent during that same time frame.”

In the wake of the turmoil in Baltimore, the city’s public schools are promoting some genuine understanding and community healing. According to a report in Education Week, school leaders have declared their intentions to conduct “classroom activities and events to help students process what happened.” How is that effort helped by adding to the divisiveness that has become one of the primary features of charter school expansions?

Further, there are some indicators that new efforts to change from zero tolerance discipline policies to more positive restorative justice practices may be taking hold in Baltimore, which would reduce student suspensions and expulsions and de-escalate tensions that lead to school and community violence and end the city’s school-to-prison pipeline.

Instead Of More Charters

Instead of adding to the numbers of charter schools in Baltimore, Maryland state lawmakers made the right decision by putting the brakes on Governor Hogan’s plan to expand these schools for what amounts to ideological reasons.

State lawmakers, rather than ignoring the plight of poor kids as they are accused of doing by newspaper editors, are likely paying attention to recent revelations that charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools and are plagued by millions of dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse nationwide.

The federal government has spent billions on charter schools with virtually no accountability. Where there are cases of charter schools out-performing public schools on standardized tests, there doesn’t seem to be anything especially innovative about these schools to indicate they’ve found new approaches that need to be rapidly expanded throughout a school system like Baltimore’s.

Rather than calling for unproven gimmicks like charter schools, advocates for racial equity and social justice would do more for their cause by urging government and policy leaders to actually address these problems directly.

In communities like Baltimore, what’s more likely to advance real progress are new policies that take real steps to end racial discrimination in law enforcement, alleviate the chronic underfunding of high-poverty schools, promote racial integration in housing and education, and transform punitive education policies into practices that advance understanding, cooperation and respect.

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