Finding common ground between charters and traditional public schools in the RCSD.

There are rarely simple solutions to complex issues. Students in my Leadership classes get used to hearing me say that we must look at problems “in context” and try to find some common ground.

The role that charter schools play in the Rochester City School District is one of those complex issues.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

A recent article in Education Week (June 8, 2016) reported that charter schools started 25 years ago with the support of then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Albert Shanker. The intent was to give teachers a chance to create their own experimental schools under the umbrella of the school district.

The rift between the traditional schools and the charter movement was created some years later when court rulings allowed charter schools to become unbound by district rules and teacher contracts. Some of us in the field saw these changes as another iteration of “teacher bashing,” a practice that has occurred with regularity since the advent of schools. We also worried about the “industrialization” of education. Indeed I remember reading an article in a business journal years ago that advised people to get in on the ground floor of the education industry since oil, steel and textiles were not going to be as good an investment.

The foundations and institutes that moved into chartering schools made no apologies or excuses for doing away with unions. They believed that that schools could and should be run more like businesses with a bottom line measured mainly by student test scores. They correctly pointed out that over the past decade 2/3 of people nationally supported charters and that, in their view, school choice was a civil rights issue.

The Education Week article reported that charter school students represent about 5 percent of the 50 million K-12 public school students in the United States. Charters in 14 cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, enroll 30 percent of the schoolchildren in the district. Nationally African American students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollments. Overall they make of 15 percent of the public school population.Thirty-five percent of all charter school students are white, while 50 percent of all public school students are white. The article goes on to say that Latinos do not attend charters at the same rate as African American perhaps because they often hit a language barrier.

None of these data surprise anyone. Indeed closing the achievement gap for African American students is a priority for many charter schools. In Rochester, charters almost exclusively serve children who would otherwise be attending the Rochester City School District. Many of the students are poor and black. Some of these schools are to be commended for their work.

But charter schools have contributed to the maintenance of racially segregated schools. Few charter founders have advocated for or designed schools with programs or curriculum that would attract a middle class population with the exception of Genesee Community Charter School (full disclosure—my kids attended prior to being accepted to School of the Arts).

But to counter that argument a school choice advocate offers a defense of all black urban charters by stating that segregation is when the state forces people of color into inferior circumstances. Black people choosing to stay with schools that have a lot of other black people in the city is not segregation. This is an important point. Given the choice between a struggling public school in a poor neighborhood and a charter, families often chose charters.

So where is the middle ground between recognizing that the best chance for poor non-white kids to achieve is in more integrated settings and the reality that for many city residents the charters provide a viable alternative even though they may perpetuate segregated schools?

Here are some ideas:

  • Charters should allow teachers to sign a three- or five-year contract. This solves the problem of inept leaders firing teachers who disagree with them. It also addresses the charter agencies’ wish to do away with tenure. And while I disagree with eliminating tenure, this solution may be a “win-win” by offering some job security for teachers while incentivizing innovation, as was the original intent of charters. Teachers with job security will gain more ownership in the school and be more likely to stay for the 6 to 8 years it takes to start to master their craft.
  • Charters should sign contracts with parents promising that they will not give up on a child and return him to the public school system because he did not fit into their system. Then we can stop resenting charters for wanting it both ways. Everyone knows that this happens and if charters agree then we can put to rest the tired argument of “creaming students” that has driven a wedge between the sides. But to do this the charters need more resources and professional development on working with Special Needs Children. And that must come from the existing district, which could include them. Could this be another win-win?
  • Actively recruit and provide funding for existing charters to become magnet schools that develop unique programs and curriculums that attract an ethnically and socio-economically diverse We need both traditional schools and charters to innovate and design Technology, Health Care, Arts and Dual Language Schools that attract all socioeconomic classes and ethnicities.
  • Expand “choice” programs to inner ring suburbs. The GS4A legislative group continues to work with our political leaders to allow poor students more options in more affluent school districts. That is real choice.

Racially and socio-economically diverse schools still provide the most powerful path for poor and non-white kids to graduate from high school and college and join the middle class.

This has been our mantra at Great Schools For All from the start. And we have to find common ground to make this a reality. Charters are part of the solution. Our public schools in Rochester are also part of the solution. And our Monroe County school district neighbors are part of the solution.

You may not agree with my views on what our schools could and should become. And that’s ok. But I hope that you agree that the education of 28,000 students in the RSCD and the urban charter schools are linked to the health of our city and region and that we can learn from each other.



The tide is turning in favor of integration

Believe me, I know that school integration is a heavy lift, and often it feels like an impossible lift. I’ve been engaged in conversations around the topic for more than 30 years in Rochester, where conventional wisdom has it that nothing can be done because there is no support for any further programs to address the isolation of the poorest children in our community. That’s what Urban-Suburban is for, right?

As an aside, CW also once held that the Soviet Union would never fall, that Ronald Reagan could never be elected president, that our state Legislature could never pass an on-time budget, and that the Red Sox would never end the curse of the Bambino. In other words, conventional wisdom—like its kissing cousin, common sense—always holds that something that has not happened will never happen. This is neither wise nor sensible.

So take heart. We may now finally be at a breakthrough point. How so?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Resistance can still be found to particular integration initiatives. As an April story in The Atlantic reported: “Pushback comes both from families at high-performing schools who are happy with the status quo, and from families at struggling neighborhood schools who want them improved instead of turned into a citywide series of magnet programs that might result in their kids trekking across town each morning. ”

There is, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg says in the same story, a “discrepancy between what science suggests and how politicians act.” The consensus of social scientists, he noted, “is that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the best things communities can do for young people to help them succeed in school and in the workforce. But politicians are ‘scared to death of the issue.’ However, Kahlenberg said, he thinks there are signs that change is beginning to happen.”

As a recent Century Foundation report notes, at least 91 school districts now use socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students, up from just a couple in 1996, and around 40 in 2007.

It always takes time for political change to catch up with changes in public opinion. Conventional wisdom is hard to reverse even when it’s so clearly wrong. But in Rochester, the new GS4A parent survey (link to it off this page), has shown that today’s parents of school age children do not object to integration at all—when it comes with new and exciting types of curriculum. Huge majorities of both city and suburban parents here now say they want (not just tolerate) much more diverse schools for their children because they believe that when schools look more like the world we live in, they will  better prepare children to succeed in that world.

Further evidence that the tide is turning: The Obama administration has proposed incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity as central to turning around failing schools. As a story in Education Week reported earlier this month, while the president’s proposed $120 million for diversity programs was rejected by a Senate panel, “the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation sent a letter to state and local leaders …asking that they put their heads together and figure out how to knock down barriers to diversity in housing and schools.

“The education department has also proposed giving projects that seek to improve socioeconomic diversity a leg-up in grant competitions. It has proposed funding projects through the Investing in Innovation program that would focus on diversity.”

This is how change happens. It’s never as quick as we’d like. And it is never easy. But the door is open. And the time is now.



Great schools for all require great public policy

At Great Schools for All, we know that socioeconomic diversity is the bedrock of any successful reform of high poverty segregated urban schools.

But I am always reminding myself that what we propose is not magic. For decade many urban school districts have played a huge part in the marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overwhelmingly poor.

And reversing the consequences of  bad choices is going be difficult.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

First, there are institutional dilemmas. Rather than follow the evidence—integration is the building block of academic success and higher level creative and critical thinking skills—policy makers in most states, including New York, chose instead to believe that throwing money and resources at segregated high-poverty schools would lead to educational equity.

Instead, the poorest schools are in worse shape than ever and the proponents of more resources blame teachers (and teacher unions), school boards, parents and even the students themselves for the crisis at hand.

It is extremely difficult now to persuade the policy makers who have poured vast sums of public money into failed educational ventures that it’s time to try something else.

But parents, too, face dilemmas when it comes to integration.

If you are not familiar with the work of New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, you should be. She is without question one of the most compelling and knowledgeable journalists writing about the struggle for educational integration.

In a magazine story headlined,”Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Hannah-Jones explains that she and her husband and daughter live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, “a poor but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn.”

The schools in Bed-Stuy, like most of the schools in one of the world’s most diverse cities, reflect deep “racial and socioeconomic divisions.” Most middle class families send their kids to private schools or to one of a handful of diverse, academically exceptional magnet schools. The poor are left behind in schools that reflect the academic and social consequences of marginalization.

Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where, thanks to a court-ordered desegregation plan, she was able to attend a “rich white school.”

“I remember those years as emotionally and socially fraught, but also as academically stimulating and world-expanding,” she writes. “Aside from the rigorous classes and quality instruction I received, this was the first time I’d shared dinners in the homes of kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers and scientists. My mom was a probation officer, and my dad drove a bus, and most of my family members on both sides worked in factories or meatpacking plants or did other manual labor. I understood, even then, in a way both intuitive and defensive, that my school friends’ parents weren’t better than my neighborhood friends’ parents, who worked hard every day at hourly jobs. But this exposure helped me imagine possibilities, a course for myself that I had not considered before.”

After plainly explaining the benefits of integration, her thinking takes a turn:

“Integration was transformative for my husband and me. Yet the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create ‘diversity.’ ”

In New York, she says, just 15 percent of more than one million students are white, but they are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, “which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers.”

She acknowledged that all the research says children like her daughter would be better off in one of the city’s integrated magnet schools, but she persuaded her husband (after many arguments) to send their daughter Najya to P.S. 307, one of Bed-Stuy’s poorer schools.

“One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.”

Turns out that P.S. 307, led by a charismatic principal was a great fit for Najya, but within a couple of years, school officials redrew feeder boundaries to ease overcrowding in a largely white middle class school nearby—assuring that P.S. 307 would be more segregated than ever.

Hannah-Jones and her husband had done what they could to open P.S. 307 to a more integrated future, but the system seems likely to overwhelm their efforts—and those of a few other pioneering  middle class families.

Integration is a heavy lift in a country where it is no longer national policy.

Parents have a duty to make the best choices they can. We can admire middle class parents who commit to poor urban schools and work doubly hard to make sure their children get the educational benefits they won’t get in those schools. And we can understand why middle class parents who have the means, relocate to a suburban district that promises great academic outcomes.

But Nikole Hannah-Jones’ very moving story is a powerful reminder that even the most thoughtful parents cannot always find a great school for their kids.  The only way to make that a reality is through public policy that guarantees it.