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Racism and the Charter School Movement: Unveiling the Myths

(Image: Student erases via Shutterstock)

Rather than an oppressive and manipulative engine for capitalist accumulation, schools should function as centers of creativity and imagination where an ethos of democratic life is grounded upon cultural inclusiveness, social justice and economic democracy.

For almost three decades now, the charter school movement has sought to create the illusion that it is a better alternative to public education. Steeped in a narrow language of choice and student success, charter schools have also begun to quickly populate the terrain of educational justice, despite the conservative roots from which this movement sprang. Despite what was once a central commitment to public schooling in the United States, radical education advocates cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the struggles against racism that exist and persist within charter school environments, despite the rhetoric of equality and justice. This is particularly necessary because many of the most vulnerable students, with the greatest needs, have generally remained within now even more poorly funded and resourced public schools, while more and more public dollars, under private control, are redirected to serve the privileged few.

Common Myths

Given the growing number of teachers of color and children of color whose lives are directly affected by the consolidation of public-private resources, educators committed to a critical ethics of social justice in education must contend with the myths associated with the racialization process at work within charter schools today. One way to better understand this phenomenon is to consider the many myths at work in the charter school movement.

Myth of a Nation at Risk

In 1983, almost two decades before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT), “A Nation at Risk” served as the reactionary clarion call for a conservative political, educational movement. The neoliberal ideology that informed this movement was anchored in policies and practices of privatization, free-market solutions, deregulation, high-stakes accountability and the rhetoric of choice. This reactionary response was championed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who was a mean-spirited critic of multiculturalism and a vociferous advocate for a national curriculum, school choice and standardized tests, while working under the Bush administration – prior to her much-touted political conversion and enlightenment. The push by these federal agents for the privatization of education was in direct opposition to the struggles underway at the time, being forged by politically progressive and constructivist educational advocates associated with the post-civil rights era. These community efforts sought to place greater emphasis on critical thought and cultural relevance, as well as to contend with important questions of history and identity, long absent within traditional assimilative approaches of US schooling.

The underlying conservative foundation of the charter school movement today has resulted in a variety of deep tensions linked to questions of racism and education, particularly with respect to the education of working-class students of color.

As would be expected, the underlying conservative foundation of the charter school movement today has resulted in a variety of deep tensions linked to questions of racism and education, particularly with respect to the education of working-class students of color. As such, new reactionary discourses have emerged under the guise of welfare reforms, tough on crime legislation and the failure of both teachers and public schools. These discourses, once again, normalize racialized views of morality and normalcy, as if people’s life choices and conditions were not directly tied to the conditions, opportunities and benefits of class location, physical abilities, skin color, ethnicity or gender. Moreover, the increasing talk of accountability and deregulation has reinscribed the old bootstrap mantra, associated with individual effort and motivation. The market logic that informs these views also effectively abdicates the privileged, wealthy and powerful of any social responsibility or commitment to the democratic rights and needs of the most vulnerable populations, despite the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Myth of School Choice

In the neoliberal era of the last three decades, “school choice” quickly became the buzz phrase of conservative advocates of the charter school movement. What seldom is acknowledged here is that the values that inform the current political push for privatization and school choice resurrected much of the same conservative language of the “freedom to choice” campaign of the 1950s, which was employed by reactionaries to avoid the mandates of desegregation in their communities. Deceptively, the masquerade of “choice” has served to reinscribe former segregationist and mainstream notions, which have worked effectively to conceal an overarching, mainstream strategy of class and racialized containment.

The rhetoric of choice effectively capitalized upon discourses of “high-risk” students, “achievement gap” anxieties and victim-blaming notions of deficit – all of which have served well to legitimate racialized inequalities and exclusions. Hence, the charter school movement, driven by the logic of the “free market,” became an extension of former mainstream efforts to ensure class imperatives and the continuing segregation of US schools. The slippery use of language here effectively captured the imagination of conservative voters and detracted focus away from the increasing wealth gap. Yet, the rub here is that charter schools encourage the merging of public and private enterprise, distorting or blurring any separation or distinction between the public and private spheres and the moral responsibility of the state to provide for the educational formation of all its children. In the process, the glorification of the free market simultaneously legitimizes the covertly racialized ethos of the capitalist economy and its persistent reproduction and perpetuation of educational inequalities, in the first place. Devoid of institutional critiques of racism, current educational discourses posit a false portrayal for the persistence of school segregation and school failure.

Myth of Market Freedom

To unpack the myth related to freedom and autonomy for teachers and students, we must return to the politics of containment. Widespread surveillance and the increasing incarceration of working-class people – particularly those who are poor and of color – over the last three decades is another phenomenon associated with neoliberal policies. As the capitalist labor market left more and more workers unemployed or underemployed, many scholars began to write about the school-to-prison pipeline, given that a population of more than 2 million is now living behind bars. According to the Justice Policy Institute report, “The Punishing Decade,” and the US Bureau of Justice statistics, this phenomenon is dramatically illustrated by longitudinal prison data that tracks incarceration rates from 1920 to 2008.

It is actually a “prison-to-prison” pipeline, in that attitudes toward poor and working-class students of color and the structural conditions that result within many public and charter schools more correctly reflect deeply authoritarian disciplinary and surveillance tactics which closely mimic the culture of incarceration.

And, while so-called “at-risk” student enrollment in charter schools is often touted to demonstrate charter school success – which actually says little about any benefit to students – the gross inequality of resources available to charter schools that predominantly serve working-class students of color, when compared with their more affluent mainstream counterparts, is seldom interrogated publicly. For if it was, this would readily unveil the equality myth of the charter school enterprise.

Moreover, the troubling lack of resources for the lion’s share of charter schools serving mostly students of color is an issue that begs interrogation, in that it would also quickly expose the myth associated with the redemptive power of market-driven solutions to ameliorate racism in education. Rather than a grand panacea for disenfranchised students (as much of the charter school rhetoric would have us believe), the privatization of education has persisted in the reproduction of educational inequalities that simultaneously thwart freedom and autonomy of not only students and their communities, but also of many of the teachers working in charter schools.

Wittingly or unwittingly, charter schools, as do their public school counterparts, cater to the political economic demands of the wealthy, in the name of progress, capitalist accumulation and national superiority within the global scheme. Hence, we could argue that the notion of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is incorrect. Rather, it is actually a “prison-to-prison” pipeline, in that attitudes toward poor and working-class students of color and the structural conditions that result within many public and charter schools more correctly reflect deeply authoritarian disciplinary and surveillance tactics which closely mimic the culture of incarceration.

Myth of Innovation

Despite all the rhetoric of innovative teaching practices and assessment protocols in charter schools, one of the major criticisms of the charter school movement, with few exceptions, is precisely the absence of overall innovation, particularly in terms of pedagogical practices, including curriculum and assessment. The tendency has been, instead, to hammer in the success rhetoric of “college readiness” and “high student expectations,” while ignoring the fundamental social and economic inequalities that impact the lives of students and their communities, daily. Given the economic disparities at work within the charter school movement, the lack of innovation is particularly noticeable among the poorest charter schools, which are located within Black, Latino (more than 60 percent Chicano), and Native American communities.

Although much was initially promised to gain buy-in to school choice campaigns, most teachers, parents and communities of color have not experienced greater participation within charter schools.

And, despite the academic veneer, underneath it all, there abound deficit notions that are used to justify authoritarian pedagogical approaches, which stifle the social agency and empowerment of poor and working-class students, who can be readily expelled if they resist the limited choices for success peddled by most schools, charter or public, across the nation – despite the increasing debt crisis and unemployment experienced by recent college graduates.

Similarly, there is often little innovation in the high-stakes manner in which students are perceived and assessed, which begins from the moment that students apply. Accordingly, norms for application and enrollment into many charter schools are such that the criteria automatically deter the admission of students of color with limited English competency, learning difficulties or physical disabilities. In addition, similar to many public schools, the competitive nature of the charter school movement results in great faculty instability and recurrent administrative changes, particularly within poor and working-class communities of color. Hence, the lack of innovation or transformation of the structural nature results then in very similar forms of racialization, within both charter and public schools.

Myth of a Better Alternative

Another myth seldom unpacked is related to the high number of people of color that flocked to these new charter schools as a better alternative to their local public schools. With the long-held popular notion that “private” schooling is better than “public” education, along with the conservative media assault on public education, parents were easily enticed to hitch their children onto the charter school bandwagon.

Similarly, many teachers of color also bought the story, hoping for a better alternative. These educators sought improved teaching conditions, hoping they would enjoy greater autonomy and control over classroom instruction. The autonomy, however, that many thought would be found within charter school classrooms, for the most part, failed to materialize beyond the often repeated rhetoric. Therefore, despite all the grandiloquence of inclusion and diversity, a familiar resegregation ensued, raising necessary questions about the racializing and social class consequences of market-driven policies of school reform.

Myth of School Ownership

Another important myth that cannot be ignored is the myth of school ownership, which vowed to expand participation in classroom decision-making for teachers and school decision-making for parents and their communities. Although much was initially promised to gain buy-in to school choice campaigns, most teachers, parents and communities of color have not experienced greater participation within charter schools, than they did within public schools in the past. Instead, the governing boards of large charter school management companies have been comprised primarily of mainstream business people and education advocates, who have simply replaced the decision-making school boards of public schools and built a charter school bureaucracy with even fewer accountability restraints, which failed to translate into the school ownership initially promised.

Of even more heart-wrenching concern is the manner in which the charter school movement publicly used the school ownership rhetoric to effectively split progressive, grassroots public school efforts in many working-class communities of color. Appropriating the rhetoric of the “achievement gap” crisis and fueling reactionary sentiments about the failure of public schools, conservative education pundits pushed for greater accountability by way of high-stakes testing, which was used not only to supposedly measure “scientifically” student achievement, but also teacher and school performance. Given historical concerns with institutional racism at all levels, the frustration of parents of color was well rallied by conservatives to push their conservative agenda. In the process, a context of institutional racism was simply exchanged for another, as the majority of the resources, power and privilege still remained in the hands of a few.

Racism and Economic Apartheid

Beyond the unveiling of the myths perpetrated by the movement to privatize education, the serious tensions between racism and economic apartheid with respect to the dynamics of inequality within US society need to be addressed. There is persistent public opinion that the move to open charter schools is out of dissatisfaction with public school education. This view too needs to be unpacked further, particularly, given the manner in which racism in education, as a microcosm of the larger society, has had a negative impact on our children. This has been so not because of public education, but rather because of the economic gap or deep inequalities in the material conditions of working people of color – conditions that have persisted throughout the history of this nation. Racism, then, cannot be simply discussed as a sociological problem or a psychological aberration of white people who hate our “races.” Rather, we must understand the ways in which the historical process of economic apartheid has been a persistent feature of communities of color in the United States and has been directly tied to the racialized imperative of class privilege and the institutional hegemonic design of the ruling class.

We must contend with the manner in which schooling, whether public, charter or private, functions as a means of social control and as a hegemonic mechanism for exploitation of the talents and strengths of conforming students.

Moreover, while communities of color have moved to open charter schools, in the spirit of increasing educational opportunity and seeking needed reform, affluent mainstream communities have appropriated the rhetoric of charter school reform to open largely homogenous charter schools that have enjoyed far greater access to and greater success at procuring public economic resources. Similarly, the homogenizing language of charter school legislation has opened the way for any community to open schools and access the resources, without ever contending with the enormous disparity in resources available. Yet, this disparity of opportunities across charter schools is seldom engaged in forthright ways, despite major differences that prevail between school and teacher persistence and student achievement or success.

While many scholars still look at this question as solely an issue of “race,” I argue that racism must be understood as central to the perpetuation of neoliberalism, racialized inequalities and class formation. Hence, efforts to simply define the myths, contradictions and tensions linked to the charter school movement as a matter of colorblind policies or the problem of race fail to acknowledge educational inequalities, in ways that can challenge what Iris Marion Young called the five faces of oppression – namely domination, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness and violence. As such, we must contend with the manner in which schooling, whether public, charter or private, functions as a means of social control, on one hand, and as a hegemonic mechanism for exploitation of the talents and strengths of conforming students, on the other.

The wholesale attack on public schools has been part of a systematic political campaign of the right, ushered in by the emergence of neoliberal policies, with the primary purpose of discrediting the larger democratizing project of public education – along with other social welfare services associated with the safety net. Hence, in order to contend with racism within the charter school movement, as in the larger society, it is imperative that we recognize – despite the discourse of “choice” and accountability – that this constitutes a school reform effort founded on the logic of schools as economic engines. From this perspective, the purpose of schooling is principally to produce workers who can meet the needs of both a stratified labor market and a culture of perpetual war. This is driven principally by a political economy that sustains and protects the interests of capital, over the needs of human beings. Hence, despite all the talk about choice, charter schools have fallen miserably short of the promises made to educational equity, particularly within working-class communities of color, to the point that the charter school movement has become simply another mechanism for the perpetuation of racism in education.

Disrupting Meritocracy

In many ways, our work as critical educators must be informed by a process that also unveils the hidden curriculum of meritocracy and ruptures uncritical notions of deficit, privilege and elitism, which permeate policies and practices of education within charter schools today. Important here, for example, is the manner in which accountability discourses, linked to meritocracy and high-stakes testing, function effectively to dole out resources and opportunities to those students, of color or not, who can function within the narrow rationality of a mainstream curriculum, as delineated by standardized knowledge or the now infamous Common Core curriculum. In the process, ethnocentric mainstream values and structures attached to hierarchy, individualism, competitiveness, instrumentalism and consumerism are preserved. As such, the onus of change is always placed on the shoulders of disenfranchised students and teachers who are not adequately educated to meet their needs. The notion of failure, moreover, is defined as the failure or unwillingness of the student to conform or to demonstrate effort and motivation according to a limiting and prescribed educational curriculum. In the process, seldom is there an ongoing interrogation of the larger societal and material issues that impact effort and motivation, as well as student capacities to be present in ways that allow them to genuinely learn in the classroom.

Charter school students are either being prepared to be “successful leaders” or dependable workers, good soldiers and unbridled consumers.

Similarly, authoritarian discipline policies of zero tolerance reinscribe racialized and class-based relations of power. More specifically, these reinforce authoritarianism in the guise of a well-controlled and well-planned curriculum and school culture. In the process, differences are more aggressively disciplined, student critique and dissent is quickly squelched, and the fear of difference persists, in similar ways as in the larger society. As a consequence, structural and systemic conditions of inequality are generally ignored, while racializing attitudes toward students and parents prevail and deficit views of poor and working-class students of color persist. In many instances, working-class students of color are often perceived as more capable of violence and less capable of academic success, thus requiring more surveillance and physical discipline – echoing in disturbing ways the racializing discourse and practices of slavery.

Accordingly, student differences are generally deemed the problem, while disabling attitudes of difference among educators and policy makers are seldom challenged. Overall, racism within the charter school movement is still perceived as the problem of racialized communities, rather than a systemic condition tied to economic oppression that implicates all. As such, the liberal rhetoric of citizenship is a hugely problematic feature of the charter school movement. Good citizens are expected to assimilate to mainstream values, through acquiescing behavior associated with achievement and obedience to school culture. From this view, the focus is on the student’s capacity to modify their behavior to the standard protocol. In the process, critical engagement of their everyday reality or cultural knowledge beyond perfunctory celebration is absent, as the right of students to be genuinely different, from an epistemological sense, is suppressed, through common practices associated with good citizenship and college readiness.

In camouflaged ways, traditional discourses of leadership within the charter school movement, with its unexamined mantra of college admission as its predominant measure of success, effectively function to limit the curriculum and the development of critical consciousness among teachers, students and parents. Rather than a pedagogical approach that works toward expanding and supporting democratic life – so necessary to the emancipatory evolution of the world today – students are equipped with blinders that limit their imagination, meant to filter out anything that might contradict or distract them from the prescribed mythology of success. For the most part, charter school students are either being prepared to be “successful leaders” or dependable workers, good soldiers and unbridled consumers. Those who seem unfit for any of these categories will find themselves excluded and ignored very early in the current academic terrain of winners and losers.

The consequence here is that contradictory veiled notions of “inclusion” or “diversity” are enacted in the name of democratic schooling, when all along, the neoliberal definition of “inclusion” or “diversity” or “multiculturalism” promotes a false sense of unity and opportunity, where asymmetrical relations of power and stifling classroom structures remain intact, whether it be in public or charter school environments. Hence it is not surprising to discover that inflated claims about the efficacy of charter schools in comparison to public schools with respect to low-income students of color have been brought into question, given the pretense of difference at work between the two.

Schools as Cooperatives

What is evident is the need to unveil and challenge how racism, class, privilege and ethnocentrism are embedded in the charter school culture, as they are across most schools and societal institutions, in this country – and no amount of privatization will solve this inherent contradiction in the land of the free. What we need is to work toward dismantling the myths, dismantling traditional practices of meritocracy and breaking through the narrow rhetoric of success that perpetuates social inequalities and injustices of domination, exploitation, disempowerment, marginalization and violence, which persists within poor and working-class communities. But more important, there is a critical need to truly overhaul, from the ground up, the enterprise of education in this country, in ways that can move us away from racialized practices of schooling and the neoliberal logic of capitalism.

Instead, we need to call for a truly humanizing and socially conscious school movement that embraces a genuine commitment to social and economic justice in educational funding and community-centered approaches to schools as true cooperatives, in order to support the communal consciousness and participation that must be the cornerstone for a genuinely democratic society of the future. Our children require schools that are ethically committed to a humanizing ethos of education, restructured in ways that breakdown the false dichotomies of public/private and, instead, establish public policies and practices that support genuine forms of economic and cultural democracy in everyday life.

There is an international movement already taking root for a socially conscious world citizenry, which calls for the development of schools as cooperatives within all communities. Inherent in this concept of education are important democratizing principles, focused on a culture of both society and schooling, which reclaim our right to public space and recommit uncompromisingly to a politics of the commons. Such a movement toward schools as cooperatives is in sync with Paulo Freire’s view of education, as it is with that of many other critical educators in this country and abroad.

Rather than an oppressive and manipulative engine for capitalist accumulation, schools should function as genuine learning centers of creativity and imagination, where an open ethos of democratic life, anchored in an ethics grounded upon cultural inclusiveness, social justice and economic democracy informs the structures, polices, practices and relationships between all who participate, including students, parents, teachers, administrators and the larger community. This can only be accomplished through a set of critical principles of schooling that fundamentally support love, faith and a practice with people, rooted in an abiding political commitment to struggle against all forces that defile the humanity of our children and the emancipatory future that is our birthright as free cultural citizens of the world.

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