Echoes of Jim Crow in the School Choice Debate

What do today’s Democrats who oppose school choice have in common with George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, and Bull Connor? Both those who oppose school choice and the biggest proponents of Jim Crow society in the 1950s and 1960s South advocate policies that deny children, the vast majority of who are minorities, the right to choose and attend the best school they can.

I realize that is a provocative statement, and I am not accusing today’s Democrats of racism or opposing school choice to deliberately hurt children. However, the outcome of Democratic policies opposed to school choice has been generations of minority students forced into failing public schools, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in urban inner cities. Failing public school systems in inner cities are an embarrassment to this nation, and Democrats for years have put the interests of powerful teachers’ unions only concerned with protecting the status quo over the interests of inner-city students. Looking at school districts such as Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, there is no denying that inner city public schools have utterly failed their students, and policies opposed to school choice are a departure from the legacy of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

In 1951, the Brown family, fed up with the injustice that their third grade daughter, Linda, had to walk past an all-white school on the way to the bus to take her to her all-black school, joined the brave parents of nineteen other African-American children to file a class action lawsuit against the Topeka (KS) Board of Education. In the landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled that the “separate but equal doctrine” established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the next decade, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy would famously use the National Guard to enforce the Supreme Court ruling at Little Rock High School and the University of Mississippi.

However, the Brown case only won a battle against institutionalized racism perpetuating the cycle of poverty–it did not win the war. Education is the most important determinant on whether or not someone will live in poverty as an adult. 31% of Americans without a high school diploma live in poverty, while only 24% of Americans with a high school diploma are below the poverty line. And it is a self-perpetuating cycle, because students from low income families are 7 times more likely to drop out of school that students living above the poverty line. Finally, the promise of Brown remains unrealized, because even though schools are legally integrated, in practice, the inner city, majority-minority schools still have vastly separate outcomes from wealthier suburban schools, despite billions in state and federal funding over the years. reports that “By the end of the 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already 2 years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are 4 years behind.” This blog pointed out in a post last month that black children are more likely to live in poverty and attend a failing school, and also have lower literacy, math, and science scores, due in large part to the lack of access to the full range of math and science classes. This culminates in lower high school and college graduation rates for black students.

That is unacceptable in modern American society, and in the face of these facts, anyone defending the status quo of the traditional American public education system has little credibility to claim he or she represents the best interests of students, especially minority students.

Listening to Democrats grill Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, you could be forgiven for thinking that DeVos was advocating a return to the segregated schools of the Jim Crow South. In reality, DeVos is a bold thinker who understands that the status quo of inner city public education is broken, and she is motivated to find a fix that benefits and protects students, even if that fix comes at the expense of powerful teachers’ unions. For her determination to fix an obvious problem, and willingness to put her money where her mouth is by donating millions to school choice, she should be applauded, not excoriated. It’s no surprise that Democrats have attacked DeVos, though. The Center for Responsive Politics found that the National Education Association (NEA) “was the top combined state and federal contributor to 2008 races, with some $45 million, more than 90% of which went to Democratic campaigns.” In 2016, donations from teachers’ unions “hit $33.2 million. Of the money that went to politicians directly, 93 percent went to Democrats.”

The facts show that school choice works. The point of this post is not to go through the merits and considerations of various forms of school choice, such as charter schools or vouchers–the point of this post is to argue that school choice works and is in the best interests of students, especially inner-city minority students. Even Douglas N. Harris, Professor of Economics at Tulane University and a noted school choice skeptic, concedes in The New York Times that in New Orleans, where charter schools are overseen by local leaders to ensure every student has their school choice protected, “In the decade after the reforms, the city’s standardized test scores have increased by eight to 15 percentile points and moved the district from the bottom to almost the state average on many measures. High school graduation and college entry rates also seem to have improved significantly, even while suspensions, expulsions and the rate of students switching schools have all dropped.” Harris decries that the voucher system embraced by DeVos in Detroit, the nation’s lowest performing school district, creates a “Wild West” with no oversight, but is forced to point out that even though he does not believe the voucher system works, charter schools perform at the same rate as public schools. Harris’ argument, though against school choice, really doesn’t seem to work, because he shows that at worst, charter schools perform at the same levels as public schools, while being forced to concede that in many cases, such as New Orleans, charter schools perform better. With a system in dire need of reform, why not expand school choice?

Teachers’ unions and school choice opponents heavily cited studies from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 2009 and 2013 that showed that when comparing all charter schools (urban, suburban, and rural) to traditional public schools (TPS), there was not much of a difference in the performance of students at charter schools vs. a public school. However, CREDO released a report in 2015 that strictly examined the performance of students at urban charter schools vs. urban traditional public schools. This study demonstrated convincingly that urban students in charter schools perform significantly better than their peers in traditional public schools. CREDO presents the following findings from the study, while concluding that “the results reported in this study continue to build a record of many charter schools operating in challenging environments that repeatedly demonstrate the ability to educate all students to high levels”:

  1. Urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS peers.
  2. Learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.
  3. Compared to the charter school landscape as a whole, the 41 urban charter regions have improved results at both ends of the quality spectrum: they have larger shares of schools that are better than the TPS alternatives and smaller shares of under-performing schools

Therefore, the evidence shows that charter schools have the greatest impact in urban, majority-minority areas, and that is precisely where they are needed most. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) points in in their Charter School Pilot Study that 50% of charter school students live in urban areas, as opposed to only 29% of traditional public schools. Additionally, 51% of charter school students are black or Hispanic, while students from these minority groups comprise only 36% of students at traditional public schools. Furthermore, Bartley Danielsen, professor at North Carolina State University, revealed the results of a study he did on the residential relocation of 662 families in Wake County, NC, whose child attended a charter school in a forum entitled “Race, Housing, and Education” at the Cato Institute. Danielsen found that charter schools can actually have a positive impact on the urban communities they are located in, because “parents preferred living near the school…In fact, they were almost twice as likely to relocate closer to the charter school as would have been the case if they had no interest in the school. The study suggests that charter schools have the power to bring people into communities that desperately need quality educational options and job opportunities. Good schools can help integrate not only our education system, but also our communities, in ways that today’s courts fall short.

As if more evidence was needed for the benefits of school choice, the Center for Education Reform finds that charter schools, in addition to performing better than their traditional public school counterparts, actually have a lower cost to the taxpayers per student. Their study points out that “Charter schools across the United States are funded at 64 percent of their district counterparts. On average, charter schools are funded at $7,131 per pupil compared to $11,184 per pupil at conventional district public schools.”

Donald Trump has pledged to make increased school choice the centerpiece of his educational policy, and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education gives him someone in his administration who is not beholden to the status quo. For the good of all students, but especially students in majority-minority urban areas, Democrats should stop standing in the way of school choice and help Republicans add to the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. School choice provides better outcomes in urban areas at a lower cost to the taxpayers. Just as Linda Brown’s parents realized it was unjust for their daughter to attend a substandard school, today’s students deserve to go to the best school they can.




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