The proposal by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of a ban on for-profit charter schools provoked an uproar from charter school advocates, who responded in droves to attack his idea. Some African American advocates specifically charged Sanders with trying to strip the rights of black parents to determine the education of their children (though groups like the NAACP, which in 2016 called for a moratorium on all charter school expansion, may beg to differ).
Sanders’ proposal could prove harmful to his candidacy, however. A recent nationwide poll shows that, among those who identify as Democrats, African Americans and Latinos favor charter schools at a higher percentage than whites.
The fact that African Americans favor charter schools has less to do with charter schools themselves and more to do with our right of self-determination where the education of our children is concerned. We are invested in our education and the education of our children, and we have been since the enslavement of our ancestors, who learned how to read and write under the threat of violence and trauma. Once emancipated, those ancestors opened schools to educate themselves, but legal and physical violence soon followed as white people sought to limit their progress. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, laws were put in place to prevent African Americans from voting. If the laws weren’t enough of a deterrent, the KKK and the White Citizens Council threatened black people who attempted to vote—and attacked or even lynched those who did.
Last month, we remembered and celebrated the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. What we remember most is the ruling itself, but the impetus for that case going to trial was the desire of Leola and Oliver Brown to determine where their child, Linda, went to school. It wasn’t about sending her to a better school. It was about having the choice to send her to a school that was closer to their home. That was what made the most sense for their family.
For African American families today, specifically families in urban areas, it makes the most sense to keep children enrolled in schools that work and take them out of schools that don’t to enroll them in schools that do. Quite frankly, this course of action makes sense for all parents, regardless of race. But while white suburban parents often have the means to move to a better district or enroll their children in a private school, black parents in urban areas can’t always afford to make those choices. As the Catholic-school sector struggles, charter schools have become the only alternatives to public schools in many neighborhoods—and they don’t require parents to expend financial resources.
The case can also be made that moving to attend schools in a “better” district may not even be a solution for black families, as when black students attempt to attend schools with white students, white parents do not welcome them. A number of studies have shown that white parents tend to select schools with lower proportions of black students, regardless of school quality. A Pew Research Center report found that 62 percent of white respondents said that children should attend schools close to home, even if that meant that the schools had a less diverse group of students. Sixty-eight percent of black respondents, however, said that attending a school with a diverse population was important, even if it meant that children didn’t attend school in their local community. Since 2000, 66 percent of communities that have attempted to secede from large school districts have been successful, including the community of Gardendale, Alabama. Many of the communities that broke away were affluent and white.
Still, charters may be an imperfect alternative to traditional public schools. Some argue that charters offer little more than survival tactics in the forms of test-taking skills, acronyms, grit labs, and character education, which University of Georgia professor Bettina Love calls the “educational survival complex.” Charters are also governed by boards of directors that set policies and procedures. These boards are often self-perpetuating rather than democratically elected, and their members may be drawn largely from outside the communities the schools serve. Some charter school operators use the mantras from the heroes of the civil rights era to enforce discipline policies rooted in compliance and control.
Charter advocates should not assume that the results of this recent poll mean that black people prefer charter schools to every traditional public school, Afrocentric schools, or homeschooling. Nor should they assume that on this issue all black parents disagree with Bernie Sanders. Black parents are not on a political side, but on the side of ensuring their children receive a quality education.
Whether traditional or charter, public education still has a ways to go in eradicating its Eurocentricity and anti-blackness. Whether traditional or charter, white public-school teachers still expect less of black students (though charter schools have done slightly better at hiring the African American and Latino teachers who reflect their student demographics). Whether traditional or charter, public schools still disproportionately discipline black children as early as preschool. Unfortunately, black children are expected to succeed academically in spite of those things. It is with these truths in mind that black parents enroll their children in public schools across America.
For black families, what matters most is that their children receive a quality education, and if a charter school offers a quality education, then black parents will enroll their children in that school. Why shouldn’t they?
No one should attempt to prove a point with a poll, other than to say that, with respect to educating black children in the United States, all schools, no matter the category, have serious work to do.