Are charter schools the answer to systemic racism in public schools? Or, are they the problem?

Charter schools are “uniquely positioned” to address the systemic racism and inequities that plague America’s system of public education, says Alex Quigley, chairman of the North Carolina’s Charter School Advisory Board.

“Charter schools are inherently disruptive to a longstanding system of education that has historically failed low-income children of color,” Quigley said. “It’s been over 65 years since Brown vs. Board of Education and our system of education has arguably made marginal progress ensuring that children receive a high-quality education regardless of their zip code.”

Quigley, a Durham charter school principal, made his comments Monday during a CSAB meeting.

He said the quality of school a child attends often depends on how much their parents can afford to spend on a house.

That, he said, creates a “de facto system of school segregation based on income, and most often race.”

CSAB Chairman Alex Quigley

“Even black and brown children who have the economic means to purchase a more expensive house or are bussed into ‘better schools’ that are majority white are forced to attend schools dominated by a predominately white suburban power structure in favor of integration only as long as they remain the majority and retain control,” Quigley said.

Roughly 116,000 of North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students attend charter schools. That’s about 7.6% of the state’s public school enrollment. White students account for 54% of charter school enrollment while blacks make up 26 % percent of students enrolled in charters. Hispanics are the next largest group charter school students at 10.7%.

Quigley said charter schools offer parents of color power and choice, which they’ve historically been denied.

“Why should parents who lack economic means not be able to choose where their children go to school?” Quigley asked. “Choice shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be a right, but it can’t happen unless we ensure excellent schools of choice abound.”

He said that when parents choose charters, the transfer of power is immediate.

“So, parents don’t have to wait for another 65 years for the government to attempt to solve seemingly intractable issues such as income inequality before their kids can go to a decent school,” Quigley said.

DPS Board of Education Member Natalie Beyer

Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham Public School’s Board of Education and outspoken critic of charter schools, challenged Quigley’s remarks.

“In North Carolina, charter schools are unfortunately not a valid policy tool to address racism and social justice concerns,” Beyer said. “Rather due to minimal state oversight, charter schools tend to be more racially isolated than local public schools and over time have led to ongoing issues of resegregation.”

Beyer added that charter schools have become a way for white and affluent families to “opt out of their local public schools, which has led to further disinvestment and underfunding.”

Quigley started Monday’s meeting by addressing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic  and the civil unrest that has gripped the nation since George Floyd died in police custody 14 days ago.

A chilling video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee planted lethally on Floyd’s neck sparked outrage across the nation and throughout the world.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Three other officers on the scene are also charged in Floyd’s death. Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng each face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

“I’m compelled to not be silent on the issue of racism, white privilege and the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Their lives mattered. Black lives matter,” Quigley said.

Arbery was shot to death while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. Police arrested Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael in the death, and charged them with murder and aggravated assault. Meanwhile, Taylor was killed during an errant “no-knock” drug search warrant. Her family has sued Louisville police officers, accusing them of  “wrongful death, excessive force, and gross negligence.”

“The grief, pain, trauma and hearing the anger that people of color feel right now in our country and have felt for hundreds of years, is real,” Quigley said. “It’s not something that I have the capacity to fully understand, but I will continue to work, listen and learn from my colleagues of color.”

Floyd’s death has led to much discussion about how systemic racism impacts people of color. State education leaders have pledged to find ways to better serve children of color who often fall at or near the bottom in measurements of academic achievement but are disciplined at higher rates than their white counterparts.

“Like COVID-19, which is seemingly invisible, which can be carried, transmitted and received unknowingly, inequity and racism are in the air we breathe,” State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said last week. “And like COVID-19, we must first mitigate its spread and ultimately vaccinate ourselves and remove it from our society.”

Quigley outlined steps the board can take to begin to address systemic racism in the state’s charter school movement. Those include more closely scrutinizing charter applicants to ensure they act in good faith in dealings with low-income families of color.

“We must challenge the motivation and the integrity of boards that promise to serve low-income students of color but have no plans for free lunch, no intention to provide transportation or provide no data to support the rationale in their plans,” Quigley said.

CSAB member Cheryl Turner said there have been times when the board has not adequately addressed racism. “I think that we have to hold people highly accountable,” said Turner, a Charlotte charter school leader. “I think that schools that go on for years and years and years teaching black and brown kids and are low performing forever and ever is a tragedy and we can’t allow that to happen.”

Turners said CSAB must set standards. “There is no reason there should be an achievement gap that has lasted for decades,” Turner said. “That can’t be about the children because there’s nothing wrong with the children. That’s about us.”

Quigley wants the Office of Charter Schools to establish a program to recruit and develop charter school leaders of colors who can take leadership roles when vacancies arise. He warned his colleagues to be careful to not fall into the trap of setting low expectations for charters because they serve black kids, English learners or poor kids.

“Across the country, we see a movement to strip away standards and accountability in schooling to focus more on socio-emotional learning, the whole child and curing poverty rather than holding those charged with educating children accountable for actually doing their jobs.”

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Are charter schools the answer to systemic racism in public schools? Or, are they the problem?