Published Online: June 25, 2012

Commentary

Charter Schools and the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

In May, we celebrated the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision declaring state-sponsored school segregation unconstitutional. Calling education “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” the court unanimously declared that education was a “right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Brown, and rulings that followed, finally put an end to legally segregated schools. But after more than a half-century, education—a good education—is still not a right made equally available. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the national black-white achievement gap has narrowed in the past 20 years, but it’s not enough. Sadly, many of the children and grandchildren of the intended beneficiaries of Brown continue to get an education that prepares them neither for career nor college.

Over the past several years, initiated by cities such as New York, Chicago, the District of Columbia, and New Orleans, a wave of education reform has begun to spread across the country. Reformers like Joel I. Klein and Dennis Walcott, the former and current New York City schools chancellors, respectively; StudentsFirst founder and former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee; and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have become household names. In time, what they and many others have started will remake public education.

But it will not happen tomorrow, and it may not happen in the time it takes for children to go from prekindergarten through high school. The Supreme Court ordered segregation to be abolished “with all deliberate speed.” That took decades.

"Each anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is reason to celebrate that groundbreaking decision and to mark how far we have come. But it should also be an occasion to take stock of where we are and how far we have yet to go."

Today’s children should not have to wait. In a competitive global economy, we cannot afford to make them wait.

That sense of immediacy, what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now,” gave rise to the charter school movement. Charter schools are public schools that operate under separate management, giving them the freedom to innovate, to refine, and to tailor approaches to specific groups of students. Many charters have longer school days, weeks, and years. We have seen urban charter schools that perform better than their traditional public school counterparts, making up ground that students have lost in traditional schools. They are a right-now education solution for children who need a high-quality education.

Charter schools also model and test innovative solutions that can be taken to scale in traditional public schools. For example, the Apollo 20 project in Houston is testing whether techniques honed in high-performing charter schools can help improve performance in struggling traditional public schools. And, in school districts with less collaboration, I believe that competition between charter and traditional public schools will accelerate education reform.

Perhaps most important—especially to the organization I head, UNCF, formerly the United Negro College Fund, whose mission is to help minority students go to and through college—encouraging research has shown that attending a charter high school boosts a student’s chance of going on to college. In today’s economy, in which almost every good-paying, fast-growing career path requires a college degree, charter schools’ role as part of a college-focused education is absolutely critical.

A recent article in The New York Times vividly and thoughtfully notes that many charter schools do not have student bodies evenly balanced among races and ethnicities. Nationwide, charter schools do enroll a greater percentage of black and Latino students than traditional public schools (27 percent vs. 15 percent and 26 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively), according to a recent publication of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (on whose board of directors I serve). But it is precisely these populations that need better educational options and that are most highly motivated to take advantage of charter school opportunities.

Each anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is reason to celebrate that groundbreaking decision and to mark how far we have come. But it should also be an occasion to take stock of where we are and how far we have yet to go.

Charter schools will never replace traditional public schools. But they have a critical role to play in moving us from where we are today to the future that Brown v. Board of Education imagined, a country in which all children—not just some—get the good education that they need, and that we as a nation need them to have.

Vol. 31, Issue 36

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