College access

Our common cause: Black Lives Matter and urban charters

By Steven F. Wilson September 7, 2016

This summer, both the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizations, proposed moratoriums on the growth of charter schools.

That the venerable NAACP, long captive to the education establishment, would take this position is unsurprising, if unconscionable.

But Black Lives Matter is another matter. Conceived by a new generation of leaders, it has not hesitated to challenge failed institutions and demand radical change. Black Lives Matter should be charters’ fervent ally in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ascend’s schools are located in the most historically educationally underserved communities of Central Brooklyn, where 40 percent of students drop out, 18 percent of residents have a college degree, the unemployment rate is 16 percent, and incarceration rates are the second highest in New York. Ninety-seven percent of our students are black, and our school leaders, faculty, and staff are among the most diverse of charter school networks. When the Movement for Black Lives proclaims that “we can no longer wait” for America to realize “the ideals it articulates but has never achieved,” we are powerfully reminded of our own organization’s mission for social justice. We refuse to wait; we act.

Waiting, however, is exactly what the Movement’s charter moratorium would ensure.

In 1966, sociologist James Coleman issued his groundbreaking 773-page report “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” which found that the average black 12th grader read at the 13th percentile of the score distribution for white students. A half century later, the average black student scores at the 22nd percentile of the white distribution in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress. All this despite a quadrupling of per-pupil spending in real terms on the schools since 1960.

As economist Eric Hanushek has noted, at this rate of progress it will take 150 years for the reading gap to close.

Urban charter schools are upending that tragic timeline. A 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that urban charters significantly outperformed their district school counterparts, providing the equivalent of about 28 days of additional instruction per year in reading and 40 days in math. Black students from poverty benefited the most, receiving the equivalent of 44 days more instruction in reading and 59 days in math each year compared to their district-educated peers. Here at Ascend, our first schools have begun to not only close but reverse the achievement gap in Brooklyn, with black students outperforming their white counterparts in reading on the New York State Common Core exams. We equip our students with a liberal education, the ultimate weapon for advancement of social justice. And we spend less than the surrounding district schools, with no reliance on philanthropy.

A million students are on charter waiting lists nationally. Their parents know what is possible in public education, and they want it for their children now.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham for leading a nonviolent protest without a permit. From his jail cell he famously replied to the eight white ministers who had publicly called his actions “unwise and untimely.” “For years now,” he wrote, “I have heard the word ‘Wait!’… This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Urban school systems that fail generation after generation of children make a lie of the nation’s promise of equal opportunity. Surely the chapters of Black Lives Matter, who have inspired so many of us, will join hands with us in the “direct action” of our times: the creation of new schools that offer black Americans, and Americans of every color, every life chance. Not in some distant future, but today. “There comes a time,” Dr. King wrote the ministers, “when the cup of endurance runs over.”

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