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Why the Racist History of the Charter School Movement Is Never Discussed

Touted as the cure for what ails public education, charter schools have historical roots that are rarely discussed.
 
 
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As a parent I find it easy to understand the appeal of charter schools, especially for parents and students who feel that traditional public schools have failed them. As a historical sociologist who studies race and politics, however, I am disturbed both by the significant challenges that plague the contemporary charter school movement, and by the ugly history of segregationist tactics that link past educational practices to the troubling present. 

The now-popular idea of offering public education dollars to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.

Two years before a federal court set a final desegregation deadline for fall 1959, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall shared white county leaders’ strategy of resistance with Congressman Watkins Abbitt: “We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with 'em.”  

Though the county ultimately refused to sell the public school buildings, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years (1959-1964), as taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge. Federal courts struck down this use of taxpayer funds after a year. Still, whites won and blacks lost. Because there were no local taxes assessed to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county—unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools—were left to fend for themselves, with many black children shut out of school for multiple years. 

Meanwhile, in less blatant attempts to avoid desegregation, states and localities also enacted “freedom of choice” plans that typically allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools, but forced black students to clear numerous administrative hurdles and, not infrequently, withstand harassment from teachers and students if they entered formerly all-white schools. When some segregationists began to acknowledge that separate black and white schools were no longer viable legally, they sought other means to eliminate "undesirables."

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned, “Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.” (Mays vastly underestimated the determination of individual black families and federal officials.)

These nefarious motives may seem a far cry from the desire of many charter school operators to “reinvent” public education for students whom traditional public schools have failed. In theory, these committed bands of reformers come with good intentions: they purport to bring in dedicated teachers who have not been pummeled into complacency; energize their students by creating by a caring, rigorous school environment; and build a parent body that is inspired (in some cases compelled) to become more involved in their children’s education both inside and outside the school. And in some cases, charter schools deliver what they promise. In others, however, this sparkling veneer masks less attractive realities that are too often dismissed, or ignored, as the complaints of reactionaries with a vested interest in propping up our failed system of public education.

 
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