Black America and school choice: charting a new course.

Author:Barnes, Robin D.
Position:Group Conflict and the Constitution: Race, Sexuality, and Religion

    As scholars debate the purpose of public education and the value of school choice,(1) Americans are demanding more and better educational choices for their children.(2) Many school reform advocates are troubled by racially disparate educational outcomes,(3) while others are absorbed with improving quality and raising education standards overall.(4) Conditions of extreme racial inequity in public schools were documented in a study of Negro education as early as 1916.(5) Separate and horridly unequal conditions characterized public education earlier this century, when black children were taught in one room shacks in conditions that were "`miserable beyond all description.'"(6) Despite the work of civil rights lawyers,(7) the quality of educational opportunities for black students relative to whites has improved only moderately. Black children have less access than white students to the limited number of quality public education program,(8) and they are significantly overrepresented in the worst.(9)

    Urban schools generally face incredible, if not intractable, problems, as "dropout rates hover well above 50 percent, truancy is the norm rather than the exception, violence is common, students struggle for basic literacy . . . and the physical condition of the schools is a disgrace."(10) Black males appear to be faring most poorly under current conditions.(11)

    To address this problem, several states have introduced schools specifically for black males.(12) One such program in Michigan was immediately challenged as unconstitutional in a lawsuit sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Organization for Women (NOW).(13) In Detroit, a proposal to convert three elementary schools into all-black male academies received widespread parental support to wage a "'united front against a problem that many believe threatens the black family, black culture and black male-female relationships.'"(14) The schools were to focus exclusively on black males at risk to help address complex inner-city problems.(15) One writer discussed the crisis in Detroit as follows:

    In one particular elementary school located in Detroit's inner-city, a

    majority of the students are born to unwed mothers, walk by crack

    houses on their way to school, and are habitually recruited by

    neighborhood gangs. The school's janitor was killed in a "drive-by"

    shooting, a preschool child was shot in the head, and a third grade

    boy had his mother pull him out of school because he owed a drug

    dealer $300 and he felt that he needed the "cover." To say that this

    environment has created unique and vexing problems for the Detroit

    Board of Education would be a gross understatement.(16)

    After examining the crisis situation facing urban males in Detroit,(17) a task force proposed the creation of a school to serve up to 250 boys.(18) The academic program included a curriculum "superior to those in the coeducational public schools `in areas such as linguistics, social sciences, math and technology. Other planned programs would focus on career development, test-taking skills, and social responsibility.'"(19) The school's ultimate purpose was called into question when opponents pointed out that some of the males admitted were not "at risk" as defined in the mission statement.(20) Another legitimate objection centered on the fact that there were no programs to address the fate of girls who were at risk in the Detroit school system.(21) Ultimately, the school board's plan was struck down because of its gender exclusivity.(22) A settlement eventually allowed the schools to open on a coeducational basis.(23) However, as one mother of three boys argued, "'[W]e have zillions of schools that are mixed, so what's wrong with one that is not?"'(24) Perhaps a more effective response to the claim that at-risk females were entitled to comparable services would have been to reorganize the plan to allow simultaneous operation of all-female academies.(25) Because no student would have been involuntarily placed in the schools, for which "applications overwhelmingly outpaced available admission slots,"(26) the final result deprived the public schools of the opportunity to operate in the tradition of some of America's most highly regarded private schools.(27)

    One writer suggests that the legal standard applied to all-female schools demonstrates that sex-based regulations might withstand heightened scrutiny when "there exists a strong correlation to remedial aspects of past discrimination and if the effect of the classification would not be likely to further outdated stereotypes and generalizations regarding women and men."(28) However, even though U.S. District Court Judge George Woods acknowledged the "status of urban [black] males as an `endangered species,'" he found it insufficient to justify a gender-based school.(29) The ultimate effect of the equal protection challenge was to force at-risk black males and their educators to reconcile themselves to an attenuated version of the original plan. This case forcefully presents the issue that lies at the heart of the school choice movement:

    "Who shall be empowered to make decisions affecting the education

    of Detroit's children? Will it be the leadership of the ACLU and

    NOW, most of whom reside outside the city of Detroit? Or will

    Detroit's parents and voters retain the right to expend their tax money

    as they see fit on behalf of their children's education?"(30)

    Hence the role of constitutional adjudication will continue to be of particular interest to those who seek to improve the quality of educational opportunities for African-American children.(31)

    Black Americans acknowledge that court-ordered integration and other desegregation policies have failed to integrate most urban schools(32) or significantly increase access to quality educational programs.(33) The public school integration that was the promise of Brown v. Board of Education(34) has been, in other words, "sparingly delivered."(35) Where integration has occurred, it has often resulted in heightened racial tension.(36) The cogent lesson of the failed effort to integrate the nation's schools is that racial desegregation must be completely voluntary in order to realize long-term success.(37) This lesson may explain why school choice advocates have not identified racial integration as a primary objective of their initiatives. One writer notes that "America's long and divisive experiment with school integration may be quietly coming to an end."(38) Instead, advocates of choice favor race-neutral policies that focus on the quality of education; choice and quality are thought to be linked.(39)

    Efforts to create and sustain high levels of academic achievement by African-American children require new strategies. Educational alternatives that foster advanced social development, academic excellence, and collaborative governance that is free of bias and racially disparate outcomes are arguably the key to effective education for black America's children. Policymakers historically have been unwilling or unable to establish programs that effectively lead to racial integration and educational equality.(40) The school choice movement is a response to this problem. It is aimed at offering parents the widest range of educational choices and lessens the mounting frustration of legislators who must answer to diverse constituencies.(41) Advocates embrace school choice as a means of increasing competition among schools and providing needed alternatives to deteriorating, badly managed, and obsolete educational programs.(42)

    Among the newer school choice initiatives, charter schools represent a unique opportunity for reforming public education. Charter schools are publicly funded, secular institutions that operate under a license granted to applicants who present a proposal that becomes the basis for the contract with state authorities. They operate outside the local school board, free from many of the policies and regulations that govern other public schools. The higher degree of autonomy in running the school is given in exchange for a greater degree of accountability.(43)

    Part II of this Essay summarizes the general failure of public school desegregation efforts, noting the high price of desegregation for black America. It also chronicles several disappointing and painful examples of the nature and source of mounting racial tensions that often accompany what otherwise appear to be successfully integrated schools. Part II concludes by highlighting the dilemma for middle-class blacks by relating the experience of another group of parents, far removed from the crisis in Detroit's inner city. These parents sought both quality and integration under what many presumed to be ideal circumstances. The four leaders of the parent group were all educators who fought to have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from the eighth grade curriculum of a New Haven Public School. As a principal organizer of this parent group, I witnessed first-hand the shocking rudeness that these parents encountered, which forced them to assess realistically what black children actually experience in what are perceived to be high quality educational programs.

    Part III summarizes the role of school choice in the education debate and focuses upon the options presented by public, as opposed to private, school choice plans. In Part III, I distinguish charter schools from other choice plans by highlighting their various approaches to policymaking. I explain how charter schools provide autonomy in the selection of means to achieve desired educational ends. Their focus upon independent, collective management provides a mechanism through which black America can receive greater benefits from school choice. Even though the Charter Movement is still in its infancy, the innovative teaching and learning models developed in charter schools...

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