The Racist History of the Charter School Movement

The Racist History of the Charter School Movement

By Christopher Bonastia | Originally Published at AlterNet. January 6, 2015

Touted as the cure for what ails public education, charter schools have historical roots that are rarely discussed.

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.

Charter school operators (like health insurers who exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to depress overall test scores.

The driving assumption for the pro-charter side, of course, is that market competition in education will be like that for toothpaste — providing an array of appealing options. But education, like healthcare, is not a typical consumer market. Providers in these fields have a disincentive to accept or retain “clients” who require intensive interventions to maintain desired outcomes—in the case of education, high standardized test scores that will allow charters to stay in business. The result? A segmented marketplace in which providers compete for the “good risks,” while the undesirables get triage. By design, markets produce winners, losers and unintended or hidden consequences.

Charter school operators (like health insurers who exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to depress overall test scores. Sifting mechanisms may include interviews with parents (since parents of low-performing students are less likely to show up for the interview), essays by students, letters of recommendation and scrutiny of attendance records. Low-achieving students enrolled in charters can, for example, be recommended for special education programs that the school lacks, thus forcing their transfer to a traditional public school. (More brazenly, some schools have experienced, and perhaps even encouraged, rampant cheating on standardized tests.)

Operators have clear motives to avoid students who require special services (i.e., English-language learners, “special needs” children and so on) and those who are unlikely to produce the high achievement test scores that form the basis of school evaluations. Whether intended or otherwise, these sifting mechanisms have the ultimate effect of reinscribing racial and economic segregation among the students they educate — as the research on this topic is increasingly bearing out.

A 2010 report by the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project, “Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” uncovers some troublesome facts in this regard. “While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, 70 percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools.”

In the first decade of the 2000s, charter school enrollment nearly tripled; today around 2.5 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters. Blacks are overrepresented in charter schools (32 percent vs. 16 percent in the entire public-school population), whites are underrepresented (39 percent versus 56 percent), and Latinos, Asians and American Indians are enrolled in roughly equal proportions in charters and traditional public schools. These snapshots mask considerable variation. In the West and some areas of the South, it appears that charter schools “serve as havens for white flight from public schools,” according to the Civil Rights Project.

There are also preliminary indications that some charter schools under-enroll students qualifying for free lunch and English-language learners, thereby reducing the enrollment of low-income and Latino students, but data is limited in these areas, as it is on non-test-related factors such as graduation rates and college enrollment. How can we compare the performance of charters versus traditional public schools if we don’t know whether they are enrolling the same types of students? At the national and state levels, policymakers are pushing for the rapid expansion of charter schools on the basis of hope rather than evidence.

This points to a larger historical issue. The widespread enthusiasm for and rapid proliferation of charter schools also appears to mirror a persistent issue in American education: expanding new programs before we know if they work, and how successes might be replicated on a larger scale. As the historian Charles M. Payne observed, “Perhaps the safest generalization one can make about urban schools or school districts is that most of them are trying to do too much too fast, initiating programs on the basis of what’s needed rather than on the basis of what they are capable of.”

How can we compare the performance of charters versus traditional public schools if we don’t know whether they are enrolling the same types of students?

As charter schools face the uncertainty of contract renewal (which occurs typically at the three- to five-year mark), they may be tempted to overlay a multitude of seemingly innovative instructional strategies without sufficient monitoring of effectiveness

Some schools do adopt approaches that seem to help students make demonstrable gains in achievement tests. (There are ongoing debates about the extent to which increases in test scores reflect authentic hikes in skills and knowledge, as opposed to a mastery of test-taking techniques.) But even when we identify charter schools that appear to improve performance in relation to students with similar characteristics in the public schools, the question becomes one of scaling up. The concept of charter schools is that they will all be distinctive, with different mixes of students, teaching philosophies, school environments and so on. In theory, other schools—traditional public and other charters—will learn what works, and replicate these innovations.

This has proven terribly difficult to do with successful public schools; doing so with a small, idiosyncratic charter school geared toward students who love the cello poses even greater hurdles. When researchers from the RAND Corporation studied charter schools in Philadelphia, they noted that “with so many interventions under way simultaneously…there is no way to determine exactly which components of the reform plan are responsible for [any] improvement”—though ultimately they found that privately operated schools produced no more successful outcomes than their traditional public counterparts.

As important as applying successful techniques to other schools is an issue at the other end of the spectrum: when to conclude that a charter has failed. Policymakers such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have sold charters as the route to educational salvation may be reluctant to pull the plug on failures. The Big Apple has closed roughly 4 percent of charters since its first one opened in 1999, well below the national closing rate of 15 percent. The appropriate rate of charter revocation is anyone’s guess.

By all appearances, charters will remain on the educational landscape for the foreseeable future. While charter skeptics can’t merely wish them away, they can push for greater accountability—after all, isn’t this the whole point of charters? Anyone who blindly accepts that competition will improve education for students in charters and traditional public schools alike should remember that other articles of faith about the market—like cutting taxes on the rich will make all of our yachts and rafts rise—have proven illusory.

The market is not a self-regulating mechanism: players need rules to guide their behavior. Educational history offers some valuable lessons to keep in mind. First, when public schools have great influence in selecting their student body, this can either lead to greater diversity and opportunity while retaining choice (as in some magnet schools), or it can exacerbate persistent problems of racial and economic segregation. Businesspeople respond to incentives, and the impetus for charter-school operators is to “skim the cream” and avoid undesirables. Tangible rewards for charter schools to offer free transportation and lunches, and to craft racially and economically diverse student bodies, could be a step in the right direction.

Educational history also teaches us to be wary of the deep and authentic desire to find the “secret sauce” that produces hard-working, high-achieving students and committed teachers. It is not easy to identify the factors that make a school great, and it is even harder to disseminate these reforms widely. If, for example, we discover that Charter School X produces exemplary outcomes because of exceptionally talented, committed teachers and unusually industrious students, how do we go about replicating that — and at what cost? Are all teachers and students capable of reaching these heights, or is there a limited pool? It would be nice to think the former, but evidence for such optimism is scarce.

There is no magic elixir that will fix our educational system. Of course, we should continue to be open to fresh ideas about improving school organization, teaching and learning. But if we continue to ignore important historical lessons about the dangerous consequences of educational privatization and fail to harness our desire to plunge headlong into unproven reform initiatives, we may discover that the cure we so lovingly embraced has made the patient sicker.

Christopher Bonastia is Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehman College and the Associate Director for Lehman Scholars Program. He is the Author of “Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia” (University of Chicago Press, 2012). and Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs. (Princeton University Press. 2008)

This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Professor Christopher Bonastia for his kindness, observations, research, and what we believe opens the door for essential questions..



  1. Rosanna Cavanaugh January 8, 2015 at 12:30 PM - Reply

    I loved this article and found the segregation piece very interesting because it IS overlooked as a trend. As a music teacher who went to school in one of the best school districts in my state, I can tell you that socio-economics and values are the real factors in any educational system. Ask the parents in the richest (and not-surprisingly the best) in my state if they want to send their kids to a charter. The answer would be no because their own public schools are the best. Why? Because the students are the children of all the doctors and lawyers and stock brokers who already know how to play the game and INSIST on spending tax dollars, of which there are plenty, to ensure their kids know how to play the game, too. That is the expectation and when parents EXPECT their already privileged kids to have more of the same in their schools because they are willing and able to pay for it. It also is no coincidence that the same students have the DNA of highly educated and intelligent people. It’s not that the teachers are better, or that their counterparts in other communities are “failing.” It’s what you do with what you’ve got and more importantly, what you CAN do with what you’ve got. This is where the conversation needs to be lest we continue to do what isn’t good for our kids under false and sometimes very insidious pretenses.

    • InannaRising January 9, 2015 at 12:32 PM - Reply

      Rose, I’m sorry, but the whole thing about the DNA and who “can” do better sounds very racist. I do agree with the observation of how segregated charters are, especially here in the North East, as I have taught in a variety of them over the past 12 years. It has much more to do with socioeconomic than “values” and the idea of young white teachers feeling they are going to swoop in and save some disadvantaged minority kids. White guilt does as much damage in our cities, especially with staff turn-overs and burn out every 2-3 years. Teach for America, albeit a well-intentioned institution, funnels idealistic teachers in every year, thus allowing for turn-over and firing of teachers who age and get married, have kids, and become a financial burden on the financial structure of the school.

      But it’s not that the kids can’t learn.

    • ZoomZoom Diva January 10, 2015 at 12:58 PM - Reply

      Rosanna, in many cases the inner city school districts are spending far more tax dollars per student than the wealthy suburban schools you claim demand the tax dollars for education.

      On the article itself, the racial composition of charters should only be compared to the racial composition of the comparable public schools the children would have attended if they did not attend a charter school.

  2. Joshua Farmer January 9, 2015 at 2:41 PM - Reply

    I’m afraid your “history” paper dismisses an entire century pre-dating the Civil Rights movement. To truly understand the rise of charter schools — and their origin as a tool for combating anti-Catholic bigotry — I recommend you google James G. Blaine.

    The nation’s first public schools were built on the “common school” model developed by Massachusetts’ first secretary of education, Horace Mann. Mann claimed his model would create a free, universal, and nonsectarian school system, though that was hardly the reality. When the nation’s first public school opened in Massachusetts in 1837, the school’s required activities included prayer recitation, singing of hymns, and daily Bible readings (Specifically, Massachusetts law required daily readings from the King James version of the Bible. ) – all activities that Mann insisted were religiously neutral and allowed students to discover the truth on their own. These practices can only be properly understood when viewed in light of the strong nativist movement originating in Protestant churches of the era and infecting every level public policy.

    From the 1830s through the turn of the century, the United States saw a flood of immigration from Italy and Ireland – two predominantly Catholic countries. According to some estimates, as many as 2.7 million Irish immigrants entered the U.S. during a forty year period beginning around 1850. As early as 1834, Protestants were circulating anti-Catholic newspapers, raising mobs, and burning Catholic churches. By the time Horace Mann convinced Massachusetts to adopt a compulsory school attendance law, the public had already embraced the idea that his new “common school” could be an important tool for assimilating Catholic immigrants.

    Catholics responded to state compulsory attendance laws by opening schools of their own.
    As the nation’s Catholic population increased, the church’s leaders in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, San Francisco, and St. Paul all developed powerful voices lobbying their state legislatures for public funds to expand their schools. With Catholic leaders gaining political strength, Republicans lawmakers were able to harness the growing public concern over a Catholic influence on American culture by aligning themselves with the Protestant cause.

    In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called on Congress to end all “support of any sectarian schools.” The president’s announcement would not have troubled any of his Protestant supporters at the time because, as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in a 2000 ruling, it was an open secret at that time that the term “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.”

    Congressman James G. Blaine of Maine carried the President’s banner in 1875 by sponsoring an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that read:

    “No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect or denomination; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.”

    Again, the amendment was not viewed as a threat to Protestants since it was widely assumed that the Protestant Biblical view would still be taught in public schools as an instruction on basic morality rather than religion. At that time, most judges refused to even acknowledge that the Bible is a sectarian book. Lest there be any confusion about their true intent, the Senate Judiciary Committee proposed a revision so that the amendment would “not be construed to prohibit the reading of the Bible in any school or institution.” Blaine’s amendment fell four votes shy of becoming a part of the U.S. Constitution.

    Congressman Blaine used language from the Constitution, patriotic images, and an appeal to individual rights to distract from the undeniable purpose of his amendment: to dismantle schools that were run by religious minorities. Those who know of Blaine today recognize his political posturing as a lasting symbol of hypocrisy, but even Blaine’s contemporaries mocked his efforts.

    During debates over the amendment, Catholic World published a commentary criticizing “politicians who hope to ride into power by awakening the spirit of fanaticism and religious bigotry among us,” and even The Nation – which was sympathetic to Blaine’s position – noted that “Mr. Blaine did indeed bring forward…a Constitutional amendment directed against the Catholics, but…all that Mr. Blaine means to do or can do with his amendment is, not to pass it, but use it in the campaign to catch all anti-Catholic votes.”

    Though Blaine’s amendment failed at the national level in 1875, its legacy lives on in thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia. Some states enacted their own versions of the amendment after the federal amendment failed. Others were required by Congress to include versions of it in their state constitutions as a condition of statehood. Some took shape before Blaine ever took the stage – when anti-immigrant bigotry was in its earliest stages. Regardless of the circumstances or timing surrounding their adoption, these mini-Blaine Amendments stand today as a reminder of an embarrassing period of American history. Though originally crafted just to beat-back American Catholicism, those statutes are being used today to condemn an entire class of society by denying parents the right to freely choose a school for their child.

  3. Pat Price April 8, 2015 at 4:23 PM - Reply

    After 25 years in public school education, as a teacher and later as an administrator, I feel that this is an accurate description of how education is headed. I am heartbroken at the successful attempts to segregate by the Magnet school movement and now Charter Schools. The children who are most needy are the recipients of this unjust sentence.

  4. Kay July 24, 2016 at 11:03 AM - Reply

    This article mixes Voucher programs and Charter Schools. While both mingle in politics, there is a difference. The privatizing and tapping tax funds earmarked for education history of vouchers is now a mainstay in promises to the poor of \”equality.\” Standardized tests were created and are being used, not only to sift value of children based upon their ability to answer questions designed for the upper middle class, but to offer \”data\” to seize schools and privatize the funds raised for schools. Those tests are tools of the voucher system and Charter Schools have a different history. Charter Schools sprung in rebellion, by local educators who saw the injustice of the suburban white protestant measuring stick on urban and second-culture children. They bargained their own measuring devices, defined in their Charter, for freedom from the political testing schemes. Many did and are doing wonderfully but the politicians designing the voucher system have added the very same testing requirements in effort to convert the Charter movement to a voucher movement with a turnkey school model. True Charter Schools use the knowledge and expertise of dedicated professionals, and parents and community members who know their students and community needs. Empowering from within. Public Schools are not imposed upon children but a place children can go to build themselves. Educators focus on that while politicians and other bankers focus on money value of each child body.

  5. Cynthia July 24, 2016 at 8:55 PM - Reply

    The mere fact that most charter schools are located in Black and Brown communities smacks of racism. In the majority of charter schools are established areas in which the communities are often times impoverished, lack investment and parents have little say as to what happens in their communities and schools. Just google the school closures held in Chicago. The Chicago BOE had already decided before these hearing took place. In a the article Choice Without Equity, Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang found that more often than not, charter schools created even more segregation, isolating Black students from White Students. They also found, as I stated above that many of these charter schools are located in areas of high concentrations of poverty and in Black and Brown communities. It\\\’s a great study to read and they have expanded this students to include a civil rights component. Why should only \\\”some\\\” children receive a high quality education? What should there be a competition to sit in a seat at a school where teachers have the necessary books and materials to lead instruction? Chicago, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Detroit are all suffering from the effect of what I call the charter school movement. In recent months, the state of Louisiana has returned a number of schools back to local control, of course after there is limited funding for education. Finally, charter schools have shown little success. There are those who claim 100 percent graduation rates but these rates are not real. Here\\\’s what they fail to tell you, they don\\\’t count the students who leave. For example, if a cohort of 300 students enroll at the same school in the 9th grade four years later, 300 students should graduate thus giving 100 percent graduation rate. Charter schools are not required to report this information. They are not required to report standardized test data, yet we are to take their word for it that they graduation 100 percent of their students and 100 percent are being accepted into college. Except those who never made it to 12 grade.

  6. Bob George July 25, 2016 at 8:31 AM - Reply

    While it is true that charter schools and voucher schools are not the same, it is not true that charter schools are benign. Mostly charter schools are highly segregated, selective enrollment , profit centers for hedge funds. Many are not at all accountable to the parents and children, regularly turn children away with disabilities and routinely kick out children that will harm their scores .

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