Equity & Diversity Opinion

Civil Rights Hero: ‘Charters Are an Important Part of the Answer’

By Joe Nathan — April 09, 2015 5 min read
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Today Joe Nathan and Deborah Meier discuss a 2011 speech by Children’s Defense Fund founder/president, Marian Wright Edelman. Joe begins, and Deborah responds.

In a 2011 speech, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, explained “I’m deeply grateful” to people involved in the charter school movement. “Charters are an important part of the answer” to what American children, especially low income and children of color need. She also stressed the importance of effective district, as well as chartered public schools.

Wright Edelman recalled growing up in rural segregated public schools in the South. Does she see charters as a perpetuation of southern forced segregation, as some charter opponents suggest?

Quite the contrary. Among other things, she told people working in chartered public schools: “You are doing God’s work.”

Edelman stresses the importance of “building bridges.” She also criticizes “powerful greedy corporate pirates” and urges, “Let’s build a broad voice for children.”

Ms. Wright Edelman has been one the nation’s most dedicated civil, human and economic rights advocates for decades. She was speaking here at the 2011 National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference.

She eloquently describes the importance of working simultaneously to improve schools and improve conditions outside of schools. Not one or the other, both. I’d urge readers to watch this video of her speech.

Deborah Meier responds: Most of what Marion Wright Edelman says I would agree with. It’s an interesting family. Her son, Jonathan, has joined the “dark side”, and her husband remains one of my heroes: he broke with President Clinton over ending “welfare as we know it.” How rarely do people choose to give up prestigious positions for principled reasons?

Maybe her “building bridges” is a call for exactly what I’m proposing? I’m glad she recognizes that “powerful greedy corporate pirates” are up to no good. Who is she hoping to “build bridges” with? Is she not aware that these pirates lead the new “reform movement” in education--doing God’s work?

I’ve been disappointed in the traditional civil rights leadership for not spearheading a movement for economic justice at a time when the Black middle class was been economically wiped out by the skullduggery of those greedy Wall Street hedge funders. How can they be so easily led astray by the very folks that betrayed their hopes.

More market place “choice” will reproduce even more inequality. We need instead the kind of political unity that’s still lacking. Note the absence of traditional civil rights leadership in the race for mayor in Chicago--as an experienced Latino leader came close to defeating Mayor Rahm with his millions of dollars in support from Chicago’s wealthy, the same pirates who lead Chicago’s “education reform” movement.

I think she is on this as well as many other things ignoring the thrust of what, why and who is leading this reform strategy.
I think it’s leading to privatization. She doesn’t. And you agree with her

What am I missing??

Joe responds: Deb, you agree with “much of what she said,” but it’s not clear what you agree with other than her comments about “greedy pirates.”

As to what Wright Edelman means about building bridges - I’d encourage you and others to listen to her eloquent speech. She’s urging district and charter educators work together to help more students succeed. This means collaboration across schools, and collaboration with people working on community problems. In previous blogs, I’ve cited examples of this.

You criticize “market place choice” but seem to ignore the largest and most unfair publicly subsidized school choice program: exclusive suburban “public” schools.Their admission price is the ability to purchase a home that most Americans can’t afford. Then suburban families can deduct real estate taxes and house payment interest from their taxes. Their real estate taxes often mean that much more is spent on the education of children from wealthy families, than of children from poor ones.

You criticize “privatization.” We should talk about what that means. Many exclusive suburbs are in effect, quasi-private, publicly supported and subsidized schools, open only to those can afford to live there. Some of those suburbs hire detectives to insure that only people living in the district can attend those schools.

You criticize “the failure of the traditional civil rights movement for not spearheading a movement for economic justice.” Wright Edelman has been doing that for decades.

You criticize her son as having “the dark side.” Deb, some African American educators have encouraged many of us to avoid equating “dark” with “bad.”

Another civil rights legend, Rosa Parks also understood the potential value of chartering to help create more strong options for inner city youngsters, and students from low-income families. She spent the last few years of her life trying to help start charters in Detroit.

Another long time civil rights activist, Dr. Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee superintendent has pointed out, “We’re not having a debate about school choice for all. The wealthy already have it. We’re only debating what options will be available for low and moderate income families.”

Like you and me, Wright Edelman is deeply committed to building a broader, stronger, more effective coalition to advocate, act on behalf of and work young people from low-income families and communities of color.

Fuller, Wright Edelman and many terrific leaders of charter schools so far from “greedy pirates” that you condemn. And while I sometimes agree, and sometimes disagree, with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, I would describe their staff, headed by Nina Rees, as deeply committed to a more justice, equitable America.

Are there some extremely wealthy people involved with charters? Absolutely. But there also are similar people who’ve helped support district public schools. Some of them have been huge supporters of exclusive, quasi-private exclusive suburban schools.

Like Howard Fuller, Wright Edleman wants to build the widest, strongest most effective coalition for work for justice. And, as noted above, she sees the charter movement as “an important part,” along with district educators, of that coalition.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.