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Punishing Students For Not Making Eye Contact? How Charter Schools' Prejudiced Policies Undermine Equality

Charter schools are failing children of color and students with disabilities even as their supporters advocate using civil rights rhetoric.
 
 
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This article is the first of a two-part series examining who is being left behind in the wake of charter school proliferation and the complicated web of profiteering that is driving the movement. Part I details many of the ways in which charter schools fail poor children, children of color and students with disabilities even as charter school supporters appropriatecivil rights rhetoric. Part II will focus on the big business of charter schools.

On the heels of news that Philadelphia will be closing 23 schools for the 2013-2014 academic year, Chicago has made an even more startling announcement: Chicago Public Schools has proposed closing 54 schools for the next academic year. The idea is to replace them with charter schools, an initiative that Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has supported enthusiastically.

Enthusiasm for charter schools primarily comes from them being hailed as a panacea that could solve longstanding disparities in education quality, and possibly even turn around longstanding divides like racial disparity and economic inequality.

Without irony, the charter school movement has adopted the banner of the civil rights movement to create an aura of moral authority. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman for ushering in a “Rosa Parks moment.” And a Goldman Sachs banker famously called charter schools the “civil rights struggle of my generation.”

Ultimately, however, not only do charter schools fail children of color and students with disabilities, they often actively work against them as they try to transform students into what they imagine is the status quo. From outrageous fees to strict disciplinary codes, charter schools continuously work to target students they don't want.

Charter Schools Not a Clear Success Story

There is little evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet touted by supporters, let alone a beacon of racial empowerment. Though charter school research is new and fairly underdeveloped, the one large-scale study to date, a 2009 project conducted by Stanford’s conservative, pro-charter Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that a majority of charters do not outperform public schools, with more than a third actually doing worse.

Another study came out just last week helmed by the nonprofit Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which works to address the ways social and economic inequality can affect education and academic performance. It studied the effects of school closure and charter school proliferation on three cities: Chicago, Washington DC and New York. It found that the triumphalism of the charter movement was entirely unfounded, and that the quality of education for the most vulnerable children became worse in the wake of closings and charter school growth.

How Charters Discriminate Against Disable Students

Beyond test scores as measures of achievement, there are other ways in which charter schools may be undermining equality of opportunity. Because they are, technically speaking, public entities that receive federal funding, charter schools are bound by all federal civil rights legislation prohibiting schools to discriminate on the basis of disability, race and/or socioeconomic status. State and local bodies that govern charters are tasked with guarding against discrimination.

But the truth is that charter schools may be discriminating. A June 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that during the 2009-2010 academic year, about 11 percent of traditional public school students were identified as disabled. In charter schools, that number dropped to 8 percent. Plus, the study noted, “[The] proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools.”