August 3, 2007

Black Child Left Behind

People wonder why so many black children are failing in school and what the heck is wrong with the educational system. Well, a lot of things and this Supreme Court decision in June of this year reflects one of them which is that "diversity" has become an end in itself in our schools. It doesn't appear that anyone is really being critical about the issue and recognizing that the integration approach created when Brown vs. Board of Education was really about getting black kids into the better white schools they were denied entry to. This was the real point of the battle. Black kids were forced to attend poorly supplied and resourced schools and denied access to the well resourced and supplied schools of whites. I'm quite certain that Thurgood Marshall didn't think we needed to attend white schools because diversity was so wonderful. He fought to reverse the forced denial of education to our kids and get them in to better schools. That was the point then and it should be the point now.

But its not. Now, we fight tooth and nail for integration as an end in itself. TV debates in the wake of the decision were all cast as a fight about whether or not achieving diversity was a compelling interest. But we are missing the forest for the trees. We should be fighting to get our kids educated well, not whether or not they can attend a white school and achieving the latter does not assure the former. Its not a necessary fight in the modern age, because we can attend most any school if we can afford it or if we live in its attendance zone if its a public school.

But we are wasting time with diversity while our kids are falling further and further behind, refusing to face facts, one of them being that centralized public school systems lack the management and educational fire power to address the educational needs of urban populations stressed by a variety of socioeconomic conditions. Like the auto companies, they are saddled with legacy labor costs they cannot shed and union structures that are part of the problem, not the solution. These centralized bureaucratic systems are not nimble enough to deal with whats happening to our kids in and out of school. Furthermore, they are expensive and inefficient. We are spending two or three times what we should because these systems allocate their resources for education poorly and our money is not doing the work it should.

I'm not just long on critique. I've got a big gun answer - charter schools. Why are they the answer? Because they drive accountability for performance down to the school level, they are driven by market forces such that the good ones will thrive and the bad ones will fail, they are open to a variety of configurations and approaches and they do it all for about a third of what public schools do it for.

Lots of places in the US have charter schools, but there are only a few that get it right. The one that has the best system in place in my view is Indianapolis. Bart Peterson, the mayor of Indianapolis is the only mayor in the country currently with the power to charter schools. In nearly all big cities, Mayors are confronted with failing public school systems, but since they don't hire the superintendent and they are not on the school board, they have little ability to actually affect how school systems run. However, they have to deal with the consequences of a failing system such as aversion to homeownership investment and poor workforce preparation. Bart Peterson's response? He obtained the power to charter schools and has essentially built a school system for which he has the power to require accountability. Charter applicants must pass through a rigorous examination to obtain a charter and perform to standards in order to retain it.

Why are charters better? In my view, all of the accountability for performance is right at the school level. You don't have to mediate accountability for performance through superintendents and school boards. Charters must exercise care to serve the needs of their students and their families or lose their enrollment to another. Secondly, the charter approach permits tremendous variation in educational approach and philosophy. It is far more flexible in responding to the needs of students.

Sadly though, the charter approach is often hotly protested in the cities where its needed the most. We fight tooth and nail to preserve a public school system that consistently under performs for our kids, that promises to improve and rarely if ever does. We fight to preserve centralized bureaucratic school systems as though they have a right to exist, as though they are the only way to do education. I have conversations with people about education and they argue strenuously for more propping up of centralized bureaucratic education systems, but they are never very clear about why it can't be or should not be done any other way. Case in point Detroit. In 2003, Michigan millionaire and philanthropist Robert Thompson offered the city $200 million to build 15 Detroit charter high schools. His offer started a full scale war by the unions on the Mayor and the Governor and when the dust had cleared, Thompson had been run out of town along with his $200 million. Lest you think I'm just harshing on Detroit, I lived there for 8 years and I was around for that particular fiasco.

Education is an imperative for the African American community, but we are going to continue to lag in this area if we do not divorce ourselves from dependence on centralized bureaucratic public education systems in our urban centers. They don't work, have not worked for decades now. The charter approach, as exemplified by the Indianapolis model (which won a Harvard Innovation in Government award) should be speedily adopted by mayors of urban centers across the country. The black activists for education who fight to preserve these poor performing systems need to start championing what works, rather than what doesn't.