Williams: School Choice Panel at National Urban League Summit Shows We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Charter Schools
The National Urban League recently organized an esteemed panel of activists at its Young Professional L.E.A.D. Summit to delve into the current state and future potential of school choice programs for African Americans in public education. With notable figures such as journalist Roland Martin, choice advocates like Curtis Valentine from the Progressive Policy Institute, and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, who famously called for a halt on new charter schools in 2016, this summit aimed to provide valuable insights and perspectives.
As expected, the panel discussion was intense and passionate. Different voices emerged, and strong rhetoric ignited. However, one key realization prevailed throughout the conversation: the debate surrounding school choice could not be confined within the usual parameters.
According to Johnson, "We are having the wrong conversation. This is not about choosing one option over another; it’s about ensuring quality education for all children. We need to shift our focus back to that essential goal."
On this point, Johnson found ample agreement. Tomeka Hart of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a former member of the Memphis school board, emphasized, "We should be discussing the quality of schools in general. Rather than fixating on the structure and governance aspects, we should emphasize giving communities real choices. These choices should range from charter schools to traditional district schools, and we must also acknowledge the significant number of students opting for independent schools."
Repeatedly, participants highlighted the fact that the current discussion was flawed. This sentiment, when consistently voiced, crystallized into a tangible reality. Much of the controversy surrounding charter schools stems from a lack of clarity regarding their purpose.
In essence, debates about the value and challenges of charter schools are less about objective facts and more about framing the issue correctly. While charters enroll only approximately 3% of American students, they disproportionately dominate the public education discourse because they have become symbolic of broader debates. That is why panel members of the discussion titled, "School Choice Is the Black Choice: Black Excellence in Education — The Role of Civil Rights and Black Advocacy Organizations," insisted on reframing the conversation.
Johnson clarified that charter school conflicts should not revolve around labor unions but instead focus on quality and equity. He also stressed that the objective should not be to completely halt the establishment of charter schools but rather to ensure that they operate in states with adequate quality monitoring and oversight. Similarly, Hart argued that the issue was not about charters siphoning funds from public systems but rather the inadequacy of state education funding. Valentine further emphasized that it was not a dispute about governance but rather about accurately labeling schools to avoid unnecessary controversy. Brantley, the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Friendship Public Charter Schools, contended that it was not a conflict solely targeting low-quality charters, but rather a fight to establish high academic standards for all schools, both charter and traditional, across the nation.
Each of these alternative perspectives shifts the discourse towards specific priorities while diverting attention from others. For instance, if the debate focuses on whether traditional public schools receive adequate funding, it becomes easier to portray charter schools as problematic. Charters can place significant fiscal burdens on local and state leaders and often compete for limited public education funds. By emphasizing the fiscal solvency of traditional districts, concerns naturally lean towards that aspect.
However, this is not the only angle from which to approach a discussion on implementing a charter school moratorium. By centering the conversation on whether charters are held accountable for their performance, it becomes simpler to avoid discussing or comparing the relatively relaxed academic accountability pressures faced by traditional public schools. Charter schools are frequently closed when they fail to meet agreed-upon academic goals, which were set when they were authorized to operate. Brantley emphasized this gap in accountability, stating, "In my district, schools are never closed due to poor performance; only for financial mismanagement. That is not right, and we all recognize it. If our public schools were exceptional, we wouldn’t need charters." A discourse that prioritizes raising academic standards for all schools redirects the debate towards outcome-based accountability.
In conclusion, the panel discussion at the National Urban League summit shed light on the need to reframe the conversation surrounding school choice for African Americans in public education. By centering the discussion on quality, equity, and accountability, and by avoiding unnecessary conflicts over funding and governance, a more productive dialogue can be fostered. The ultimate aim should be to provide quality education for all children, irrespective of the type of school they attend.
These are just a few examples. However, the main point to understand is that discussions about charter schools are not solely about charter schools. They encompass broader issues such as insufficient funding, student outcomes, unequal housing policies, and other significant aspects of public education. These concerns are being brought into charter school debates because individuals genuinely care about these issues and because they want to shape the discussion in their favor.
This type of rhetoric manipulation occurs frequently and indicates that the issue is more complex than commonly acknowledged. None of the perspectives mentioned above are inherently incorrect. It is important to address the sufficiency of public education funding, accountability for academic achievements, and enrollment systems that perpetuate social inequities. All of these aspects evoke strong emotions and deserve our attention.
However, the problem with constantly debating the purpose of charter schools and the appropriate boundaries of the discussion is that it consumes time and hinders urgent action. It becomes difficult to make progress in a conversation when most of it revolves around whether we are having the right conversation. Eventually, if we are unable to establish a framework, set priorities, and take concrete steps, we are implicitly choosing to maintain the status quo in education.
Brantley made a crucial point and highlighted the importance of the issue. She emphasized that "the argument is real for kids every day where kids cannot start because of moratoriums," referencing the NAACP’s decision in 2016. She questioned why a moratorium is not called for traditional public schools that are not succeeding. She stressed the need for action, especially for parents who have to make decisions for their five-year-old children while we discuss the need to fix systems.
Valentine agreed with Brantley’s perspective and acknowledged the danger of reaching a stalemate. He emphasized the children who are not present in the discussion but are eagerly waiting to start school and rely on us to provide them with the best possible education.
Conor P. Williams, a fellow at The Century Foundation, has extensive experience in education and holds advanced degrees in government and education. It is worth noting that The Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to , in which this article is published.
In conclusion, the complex nature of the charter school debate requires us to address various underlying issues. However, it is essential to move beyond endless arguments about the purpose and boundaries of the discussion in order to take meaningful action and improve education for all students.