School choice isnt the path to enrollment diversity
BY THE REV. JOSEPH A. DARBY
Philosopher and essayist George Santayana wisely said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” I thought of his words when I read Monday’s Commentary page column by Leroy Connors, Park Dougherty and Arthur Lawrence.
They compared the success thus far of the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science (CCMS) in accomplishing both diversity and achievement to the ongoing academic struggles of urban public schools like Burke Middle and High Schools and Memminger Elementary School — which are now as segregated as they were when Charleston’s public schools “desegregated” in the 1960s. They argue that charter school conversion would bring diversity and achievement to urban public schools, but their argument disregards the history that led to the present state of those schools.
When Charleston finally chose in the 1960s to abandon resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing legal school segregation, many white families abandoned public schools and opted for private schools, believing that formerly black schools were inferior, that formerly white schools would become inferior and that their children would not be “safe” in schools with black children.
Many black families also sent their children to formerly white public schools seeking better academic options, thereby creating less academic and economic diversity in formerly black public schools.
The flight from the public schools was accompanied by flight to suburban areas like Mount Pleasant, which made the family base for urban public schools less racially and economically diverse. Those circumstances, coupled with the chronic underfunding of public education, created the present urban school climate decried by Messrs. Connors, Dougherty and Lawrence. That climate was not vigorously questioned or condemned until gentrification brought white families back into urban neighborhoods and until many private schools became uncomfortably expensive.
That history must be considered in any substantive discussion of urban school improvement. Messrs. Connors, Dougherty and Lawrence suggest that charter schools like the CCMS are the answer, but a direct comparison of charter schools to the urban schools in question is disingenuous at best. CCMS occupies the campus that once housed all-white Rivers school — which became the virtually all-black Rivers school after 1960s desegregation — but it’s not a direct descendant of the Rivers school. The Rivers school was closed before CCMS was established and given both the campus and substantial public funding. CCMS is not a neighborhood school, but draws students from across Charleston County.
Charter schools like CCMS are publicly funded, but their funding adversely impacts funding for already underfunded traditional public schools. Charter schools are self-governing, but self-governance is not inherently equitable. History teaches us that educational equity is more likely with even-handed, central governance afforded by a school district.
Messrs. Connors, Dougherty and Lawrence accurately note that over half of the students in the Burke and Memminger attendance zones are white but over 90 percent of those schools’ students are African-American.
The remedy for that imbalance does not lie in new charter schools open to countywide attendance. It lies in the district broadening course offerings and parental options in existing neighborhood schools and in reluctant white parents enrolling their children in and getting involved in those existing neighborhood schools. The question of whether those parents will overcome the racial fears that led their predecessors to abandon public schools in the 1960s still yields uncertain answers.
Charleston’s Academic Magnet High School was originally housed on the Burke High campus but was moved, primarily because of parental concerns. Citizens United for Public Schools, a coalition of public education advocates, suggested that CCMS be housed as a separate school on the underutilized Burke High campus, but those who established CCMS rejected that less costly option that would have further enhanced the diversity experience.
What’s needed is not more charter schools that would financially decimate existing public schools. What’s needed is to assure that those elected to the school board are committed to quality and equity in all public schools and that the school district, parents and school advocates genuinely embrace the lofty goals of 1960s school desegregation — to make every public school a quality school, to support public education by enrollment and involvement, and to abandon the decades old fight to mask division by race and economic status under the often misleading and dubious veneer of “choice.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of Citizens United for Public Schools.