No-Excuse Charter Schools and Racism

I read two interesting articles this weekend that seem to speak volumes about the inherently flawed notion that charter schools are the panacea for students, overwhelmingly of color, living in urban areas.  The first is Sarah Carr’s article in The Atlantic entitled “How Strict is too Strict? The backlash against no-excuses discipline in high school.”  The second is Antonia Darder’s op-ed published on the Truthout website entitled “Racism and the Charter School Movement: Unveiling the Myths.”

Carr’s article sheds light on the discipline policies associated with the no-excuses charter schools that are increasingly becoming the norm within inner cities across the U.S.  Her examination of some of the charter schools in New Orleans, a city that has served as the vanguard for other urban cities, raises some interesting points.

When the KIPP franchise opened their Renaissance High School in 2010, many parents were eager to enroll their children.  Far from being concerned about the myriad of rules outlined for the no-excuses charter school, parents cheered.  Carr reported that after one administrator “noted that the Renaissance staff hadn’t been vigilant enough about preventing the students from rolling up the sleeves of their uniforms, a mother shouted, ‘Get even stricter, Mr. Dassler! Do it!’ Another chimed in, “You have to be hard and strict. You can’t be soft, because you know how these kids are.”

In no-excuse charter schools like KIPP, the rules are numerous.   Rules dictate how students walk, how they talk, how they sit in their desks, how they respond to teachers in the classroom, how they dress (down to the color of the undershirt they were), where they look in the classroom (tracking the teacher or other speaker), and the list goes on and on.  The school environment is so rigid that students often jokingly refer to the KIPP school as the Kids in Prison Program.

While parents may have applauded the strict discipline policies at first, as Carr points out, there is a racialized aspect to the discipline policies within many charter schools:

“…  the zealous disciplinary tactics at the paternalistic charters that are overrepresented in poor urban districts contribute to persistent racial gaps in students’ experience. Starting in preschool, black children are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than white students are, despite little objective evidence that they behave any worse. The discrepancy persists as children get older and the number of overall suspensions rises. In high school, black students are more than three times as likely as white students to get suspended at least once. Untangling causation and correlation is obviously no easy matter, but one statewide study in Texas reported that students suspended or expelled for a “discretionary violation”—having a bad attitude, for example—were nearly three times as likely to come into contact with the juvenile-justice system the following year.”

At the Carver Collegiate charter school in New Orleans, 69% of the students were reported to have been suspended and at the Carver Prep charter school, 61% had been suspended.  Although school administrators explained that 80% of the suspensions were for a single day, several students claimed that they were sent home from school “off the books” so that their disciplinary dismissal  was undocumented.  According to Carr, some charter school operators are attempting to temper their stance on discipline and be more responsive to their students.  However, this may very well simply be a response to the negative press about suspension rates that can impact the public relations campaign engineered to promote charter schools.  And, in fact, the American Psychological Association reported in 2008 that there is no evidence that suspensions and expulsions have any positive impact on student behavior or school safety.

Why, then, do so many parents in inner cities readily embrace the no-excuse behavior policies of charter schools? Carr quotes one New Orleans parent as saying, “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys.”  The statistics seem to support his assertion.  For example, as one study found, marijuana use is slightly higher among whites than blacks.  However, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested.  Carr cites another reason for parents’ acceptance of strict discipline policies:

“For generations, the New Orleans public schools have graduated countless students straight into low-paying work in the tourism business. With only a few exceptions, the industry’s dishwashing, housekeeping, and other positions are nonunionized and come with little job security. Employees who make even a small misstep can be speedily replaced with new hires who don’t show up late, forget their uniform, or talk back to customers—as anxious parents are well aware. ‘If you mess up once at Harrah’s [a New Orleans casino], you are going to be fired!” a parent called out during the KIPP Renaissance meeting.’”

Antonia Darder explains that charter schools, as well as public schools that implement no-excuse strict disciplinary policies, reflect the ideology of the dominant elite.  She asserts 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.” Thus, students who nickname KIPP schools as the Kids in Prison Program may not be too far off the mark.

And just what is the value of a charter school education for poor children?  Are strict codes of conduct designed to enable them to enter a non-unionized and low-paying job market prepared to follow the rules, accept the status quo, and never question authority?  Is that what is meant by being college and career ready?  Is that what we really want from our education system in the U.S. — one system of education for poor children that will enable them to fulfill their predestined roles in society by being compliant followers and a different system for the middle and upper middle class children who are prepared to enter society as innovators, creative thinkers, and leaders?

Darder explores the myths that are associated with the charter school movement.  One of these myths is the innovative practices supposedly employed by charter schools.  The pedagogical reality, however, is far from innovative.  Like traditional public schools, charter schools live and die according to standardized test scores and, therefore, employ all available strategies to raise student achievement — even when that means “disappearing” students through suspensions and expulsions who do reflect the mission of the charter school to demonstrate the movement’s assertion that they produce a superior product in the form of higher student achievement.

The roots of the current obsession with school choice and privatization, as Darder explains, can be traced back to conservative efforts to avoid the Brown decision in the 1950s when “freedom of choice” campaigns were employed to maintain segregated schools.  Choice, whether under the guise of school voucher programs or charter schools, cannot be delinked from the conservative assault on public education or from its endorsement by racist societies as a way to use public tax dollars to maintain segregated schools.  Therefore, it is not possible to discuss the charter school movement without broaching the often uncomfortable and unpopular topic of race and class.  To do otherwise is to ignore the history of school choice and to run the risk of repeating a history in which segregated schools were an accepted, and too often preferred, norm in the United States.  This is why I thank the NAACP for their position on charter schools.  As always, they speak for the rights of all children.

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