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The editorial pages of the New York Times have been an echo chamber for school choice for years. The editorials regularly applaud charter schools as escape hatches from public schools and repeat the talking points of the billionaires and hedge fund managers who have gleefully replaced public schools with privately managed schools. I can’t recall an editorial that acknowledged the importance of rebuilding, revitalizing, and strengthening public education as a major responsibility of our society. I can’t recall one that criticized the onslaught of privatization against public education in our nation’s urban schools, where parents of color have lost not only their public schools, but their voice as citizens in creating public schools that serve the entire community. The editorial board has steadfastly ignored the coordinated and bipartisan assault on democratic governance of public schools in cities and states across the nation. The op-ed page, which was created to provide a space for views different from the editorial page has seldom challenged school choice orthodoxy. Almost every regular opinion writer has lauded the “miracle” of charter schools, including David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, and David Leonhardt. The op-ed page recently included an article urging liberals not to give up on charters even though Betsy DeVos likes them too, even though they are segregated and non-union.
But now comes a new and welcome voice.
Erin Aubrey Kaplan writes that school choice is the enemy of justice. She has been selected as a regular opinion writer, which is more good news. She writes about her personal experience as a child in California, a state that is controlled by Democrats but purchased by the billionaires who sneer at public schools and want to replace them with charter schools. She reminds us that school choice was the battle cry of segregationists. In many states and cities, it still is.
Her article poses an essential question: Is public education, democratically controlled, still part of the social contract? And she writes that many white liberals, including Jerry Brown (and in New York, Andrew Cuomo) have said no.
“LOS ANGELES — In 1947, my father was one of a small group of black students at the largely white Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles. The group was met with naked hostility, including a white mob hanging blacks in effigy. But such painful confrontations were the nature of progress, of fulfilling the promise of equality that had driven my father’s family from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the first place.
“In 1972, I was one of a slightly bigger group of black students bused to a predominantly white elementary school in Westchester, a community close to the beach in Los Angeles. While I didn’t encounter the overt hostility my father had, I did experience resistance, including being barred once from entering a white classmate’s home because, she said matter-of-factly as she stood in the doorway, she didn’t let black people (she used a different word) in her house.
“Still, I believed, even as a fifth grader, that education is a social contract and that Los Angeles was uniquely suited to carry it out. Los Angeles would surely accomplish what Louisiana could not.
“I was wrong. Today Los Angeles and California as a whole have abandoned integration as the chief mechanism of school reform and embraced charter schools instead.
“This has happened all over the country, of course, but California has led the way — it has 630,000 students in charter schools, more than any other state, and the Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 154,000 of them. Charters are associated with choice and innovation, important elements of the good life that California is famous for. In a deep-blue state, that good life theoretically includes diversity, and many white liberals believe charters can achieve that, too. After all, a do-it-yourself school can do anything it wants.
“But that’s what makes me uneasy, the notion that public schools, which charters technically are, have a choice about how or to what degree to enforce the social contract. There are many charter success stories, I know, and many make a diverse student body part of their mission. But charters as a group are ill suited to the task of justice because they are a legacy of failed justice.
“Integration did not happen. The effect of my father’s and my foray into those white schools was not more equality but white flight. Largely white schools became largely black, and Latino schools were stigmatized as “bad” and never had a place in the California good life.
“It’s partly because diversity can be managed — or minimized — that charters have become the public schools that liberal whites here can get behind. This is in direct contrast to the risky, almost revolutionary energy that fueled past integration efforts, which by their nature created tension and confrontation. But as a society — certainly as a state — we have lost our appetite for that engagement, and the rise of charters is an expression of that loss.
“Choice and innovation sound nice, but they also echo what happened after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, when entire white communities in the South closed down schools to avoid the dread integration.
“This kind of racial avoidance has become normal, embedded in the public school experience. It seems particularly so in Los Angeles, a suburb-driven city designed for geographical separation. What looks like segregation to the rest of the world is, to many white residents, entirely neutral — simply another choice.
“Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in 2010, researchers at the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found, in a study of 40 states and several dozen municipalities, that black students in charters are much more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to be educated in an intensely segregated setting. The report says that while charters had more potential to integrate because they are not bound by school district lines, “charter schools make up a separate, segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”
“In a 2017 analysis, data journalists at The Associated Press found that charter schools were significantly overrepresented among the country’s most racially isolated schools. In other words, black and brown students have more or less resegregated within charters, the very institutions that promised to equalize education.
“This has not stemmed the popular appeal of charters. School board races in California that were once sleepy are now face-offs between well-funded charter advocates and less well-funded teachers’ unions. Progressive politicians are expected to support charters, and they do. Gov. Jerry Brown, who opened a couple of charters during his stint as mayor of Oakland, vetoed legislation two years ago that would have made charter schools more accountable. Antonio Villaraigosa built a reputation as a community organizer who supported unions, but as mayor of Los Angeles, he started a charter-like endeavor called Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
“This year, charter advocates got their pick for school superintendent, Austin Beutner. And billionaires like Eli Broad have made charters a primary cause: In 2015, an initiative backed in part by Mr. Broad’s foundation outlined a $490 million plan to place half of the students in the Los Angeles district into charters by 2023.
“I live in Inglewood, a chiefly black and brown city in Los Angeles County that’s facing gentrification and the usual displacement of people of color. Traditional public schools are struggling to stay open as they lose students to charters. But those who support the gentrifying, which includes a new billion-dollar N.F.L. stadium in the heart of town, see charters as part of the improvements. They see them as progress.
“Despite all this, I continue to believe in the social contract that in my mind is synonymous with public schools and public good. I continue to believe that California will at some point fulfill that contract. I believe this most consciously when I go back to Westchester and reflect on my formative two years in school there. In the good life there is such a thing as a good fight, and it is not over.“