Hidden Racism of Charter Schools

There was an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch today, "Some St. Louis charter schools worry their popularity threatens diversity". The article stated, "A few of the city’s charter schools are becoming so popular that they’re struggling to stay accessible to low-income families." On the surface, this may seem like some innocent accident, but it may have been part of the design.

The easiest way to hold back or control a group is people is to control their education. Just as Southern slave owners understood that denying slaves an education reduced the capacity of slaves to think, substandard education reduces the capacity to do for yourself and increases reliance upon others. See our Educational Oppression page.

The St. Louis Public School System has and will continue to decline. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I taught in the St. Louis Public Schools. Even then, you could see the games being played with the desegregation program.

Many of the best and brightest black students were being taken out of the city system and the county was transferring some of its poorly performing or trouble maker white students into the city system. Hundreds of millions of city school dollars ended up going to county schools which helped pay for modern facilities and amenities. The obvious results were declining enrollment, older facilities in disrepair and lower student performance which opened the door for charter schools.

Charter schools stripped, even more, dollars from the public school system and were not accountable in the same ways as public schools since they were considered independent even though they were funded with public education funds.

Below you will find excerpts and links to three different sources that make a pretty good argument for the racist nature whether planned or unintentional.

The Racist History of the Charter School Movement

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.”  

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.” 

NAACP Sounds the Alarm on Charter Schools, Warns of Racist Discipline Policies, Segregation, Lack of Oversight and Accountability

The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, recently passed a resolution at their national convention in Cincinnati calling for a ban on privately managed charter schools.  The resolution said the following:

* “Charter schools have contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

* “Weak oversight of charter schools puts students and communities at risk of harm, public funds at risk of being wasted, and further erodes local control of public education.”

* “[R]esearchers have warned that charter school expansions in low-income communities mirror predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage disaster, putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm…”

Understanding the “New” Racism through an Urban Charter School

In 2005, a research paper, published by Beth Hatt-Echeverria, a White female assistant professor of Education at Illinois State University and Ji-Yeon Jo, a Korean female independent researcher, discuss a subtle form of racism based uncovered by research conduct at Eagles Landing Charter School. Excerpts from their findings are below.

“There is a charming story by Dr. Seuss…In a society of beings called Sneetches, there were plain and star bellied speeches. The star-bellied Sneetches were the ‘best’ and dominated the plain-bellied folks. Recognizing the injustice of the situation, the oppressed Sneetches decided to paint stars on their own bellies. Now there was equality! But not for long. The original star-bellied Sneetches had their stars painfully removed and claimed, of course, that plain bellies were now marks of superiority. Power structures do not crumble easily.”

Even though there has always been racism in American history, it has not always been the same racism. Political and cultural struggles over power shape the contours and dimensions of racism in any era”. The “contours and dimensions of racism” change as if dancing with civil rights to ensure that White privilege remains the lead dancer. As legislation and policies occur to provide opportunities for people of color, Whiteness shifts to make certain White privilege remains dominant. Giroux (1999) claims that the new shape of racism is a White, conservative backlash to racial minority rights and changing demographics of U.S. cities such as increases in the U.S. Latino population.

As race became paramount in shaping U.S. politics and everyday life from the 1980’s on, racial prejudice in its overt forms was considered a taboo. While the old racism maintained some cachet among the more vulgar, right-wing conservatives, a new racist discourse emerged in the United States. The new racism was coded in the language of ‘welfare reform,’ ‘neighborhood schools,’ ‘toughness on crime,’ and ‘illegitimate births.’ Cleverly designed to mobilize White fears while relieving Whites of any semblance of social responsibility and commitment, the new racism served to rewrite the politics of Whiteness as a ‘besieged’ racial identity.

One of the ways that racism transforms and shifts to maintain White privilege is through the (re)defining of Whiteness as what is “moral” and “normal” in such a way that Whites, especially the upper middle class, benefit.

Eagles Landing Charter School arose from a group of White parents and White educators being frustrated with the local school system. All of the original Board members were parents and teachers connected to one local middle school. A key characteristic of the middle school was that over the past five years it had become more racially integrated. Students of color were beginning to become a majority in the school.

The following statements seemed to be the mantra of the original board members: Class sizes are too large. Too much violence. Too many drugs. Teachers should be allowed more voice. These statements are similar to Giroux’s (1999) description of the new racism as involving coded language that addresses issues of race indirectly by discussions of “Toughness on Crime,” “Welfare Reform,” and “Illegitimate Births.” When interviewing White students, teachers, and parents, the majority of them mentioned some form of the statements above as an explanation as to why they were going to the charter school. Additionally, many of them had left the previously mentioned middle school. On the contrary, many of the African-American students chose to attend the charter school because it was located close to their homes.

Initially, Echeverria and Jo saw the school positively, but then they both felt like the school was almost too perfect. The school staff had maintained some control concerning the student interviews. However, a group of Black students wanted to speak to the researchers without any school staff present. 

For these Black students, the school was not only a very negative experience but it was directly influencing their school achievement. They were experiencing differential treatment, lower expectations by teachers, and alienation. It was the hidden transcript that encouraged us to ask how the ideals and realities were so different in the school and how the teachers and administration constructed their “innocence” in contributing to the experiences of the Black students.

Additional articles:

Charter Schools Propping Up the School-to-Prison Pipeline – US News& World Reports

In Missouri, Race Complicates a Transfer to Better Schools – New York Times

Colonizing the Black Natives: Charter Schools and Teach for America – Seattle Education

School types: The difference between public, private, magnet, charter, and more

Public, Private, Charter, Magnet – What's the Difference?