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Ten Years After Katrina: Lessons From Charleston, South Carolina

South Carolina’s Charleston fits the same complicated and troubling profile as Louisiana’s New Orleans.

Mention a coastal city notable for both its diverse cultural history and the twin scars of natural disasters as well as the human-made cancers of racism and generational poverty, and most people across the US will think New Orleans, especially now as we confront the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the decade of a city rebuilding itself.

However, South Carolina’s Charleston fits that same complicated and troubling profile.

Charleston also shares with New Orleans the historical failure of public schools to serve poor and black children and families, which has resulted in both cities being the target of wide-scale and often reckless education reform driven mostly by political and ideological forces.

While I have regularly criticized mainstream media for covering education and education reform carelessly, I was genuinely impressed with The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) publishing an extensive and detailed examination of education reform in the large school district serving the city: Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice.

This news account and the related data are actually not new for those of us having taught in SC for decades. It takes very little effort to recognize that both traditional public schools (how they are funded, how teachers are assigned, how students are tracked, etc.) and education reform driven by accountability and market forces over the past three decades have not served well vulnerable populations of students, black and high-poverty children.

Charleston is just one example of the Corridor of Shame that has been highlighted in SC for decades, in fact, through the legal system and a widely heralded documentary.

It also isn’t news that the political leadership and even the public in SC have failed to acknowledge the problems of racial and socioeconomic inequity in any real ways that address public policy.

Nonetheless, the P&C’s Left Behind series is a rare and fertile opportunity to change all that because the coverage does, despite some flaws, present the complicated challenges that face both public education and society, challenges that are inextricable from confronting racism and poverty.

Regretfully, one of the responses to this series is also nothing new—and entirely predictable: a South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) Op-Ed titled School choice is a solution, not a problem.

First, I must emphasize that reducing the lessons of Charleston public schools to a narrow debate about school choice is a fatal distraction that will never serve students, families, and the community well.

Next, as I have examined on far too many occasions, free market think tanks (and think tanks masquerading as university departments) will never represent accurately school choice because they have committed entirely to one ideological focus that trumps any different or larger goals—such as educational equity for black and poor children.

On the SCPC’s web site, they clearly express their one and only position:

The South Carolina Policy Council was founded in 1986 as an independent, private, non-partisan research organization to promote the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty and responsibility in the state of South Carolina.

The Op-Ed response to Left Behind, then, is peppered with cherry-picking, overstatements, and loaded nods to “gold-standard research,” but the claims are advocacy, and not credible conclusions about either the results or promise of school choice in its many and shifting forms (vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools).

Having spent more than a year doing a book-length examination of school choice, I regret that the debate remains trapped in ideological and political squabbles while children are in fact left behind.

So what do we know about school choice? (See Bruce Baker, The Shanker Blog, and the National Education Policy Center for extensive reviews of the research on choice and charter schools.)

  • Private, public, and charter schools have about the same range of measurable student outcomes, regardless of the school type and strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the child’s home. (See this discussion of “charterness.”)

  • Research on school choice has shown mixed results at best, but even when some choice has shown promise of, for example, raising test scores for black, brown, and poor students, those increased scores are linked to selectivity, attrition, greater funding, and extended school days/years—none of which have anything to do with the consequences of choice and all of which expose those “gains” as false success.

  • School choice, notably charter schools, has been strongly linked with increasing racial and socioeconomic inequity: increased segregation, inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes.

  • SC advocacy for charter schools as the newest school choice commitment fails to acknowledge that charter schools in the state are overwhelmingly about the same and often worse than comparable public schools (see analysis of 2011 and 2013 data here), and the South Carolina Public Charter School District is among the top four worst districts in the state for racially inequitable discipline with blacks constituting about 19% of the enrollment but over 50% of suspensions/expulsions.

The research on school choice does not support the claims made by SCPC, and the rhetoric is also deeply flawed.

School choice advocates often fall back on “poor children deserve the same choices that rich children enjoy.”

However, several problems exist within this seemingly logical assertion.

The greatest flaw is suggesting that affluent and mostly white affluent children are thriving because of choice is itself a lie, a mask for the reality that the key to their success is their wealth and privilege. Being born into a wealthy family trumps educational attainment, and white privilege trumps educational attainment by blacks (see here and here).

In its most disturbing form, then, school choice advocacy is a distraction from the consequences of racism and poverty, both of which are reflected in and perpetuated by the education system.

Further, arguing that we must see school choice as a solution fails for essential conditions in a democracy.

For example, no one should have to wait for the Invisible Hand of the market so they have access to health care, justice, safety, or education. The great irony is that for the free market to work, a people must first secure the foundations of public institutions.

As Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in 1967: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

A full and robust commitment to public institutions, specifically universal public education, is essential to the concurrent commitment to the free market.The paradox is thus: In order for choice of most kinds to work in a free society, some essential institutions must render choice unnecessary in terms of health care, justice, safety, or education.

As we can witness in New Orleans, the lessons of education and education reform in Charleston are two-fold: (1) historically and currently, traditional public schools have failed/do fail vulnerable populations, specifically black and poor children, and (2) accountability-based and free-market education reform has also not alleviated the burdens of racism and poverty, but has too often exacerbated the devastating consequences of both.

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