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Op-Ed: Charter School Debate Sheds Light on Crisis of Identity Politics

Chigozie U. Onyema | March 1, 2013

Are charter schools the latest instrument intended to transfer wealth from public to private hands?

There was an interesting, and telling, article recently in NJ Spotlight. It looks at a charter school debate in Florence Township, a small suburb in Burlington County. The article sheds light on the tension between the public and private sector, and the crisis of the original identity politics -- white identity politics.

It is interesting, because the local school district, and many in the community, oppose the expansion of a K-3 charter school. If the charter school expands, the district is required to foot the bill for students who elect to matriculate past third grade in the charter. The school district is against the expansion, because it would further strain its already limited budget, while the charter school argues that it offers more options to parents.

It is telling, because New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, and members of both parties in the New Jersey Legislature take what appears to be a convenient position.

The administration claims that it is more inclined to support charter schools where the traditional public schools are failing, and the school district is big enough to withstand the fiscal blow of losing students. It seems that the administration wants to keep their rationale for supporting charter schools in predominantly black school districts like Newark and Camden, while pleasing predominantly white suburban school districts that oppose charter schools in their communities. Otherwise, the administration’s stated rationale for supporting charters in the former, and not the latter instance, is indefensible.

First, there is no credible evidence that charter schools, on the whole, outperform their public school counterparts. In fact, the Center Research and Education Outcomes (CREDO), which is a part of the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, wrote a report in 2009 that found that about 46 percent of charter schools performed as well as public schools, while 37 percent performed worse, and only 17 percent performed better. The study based its findings on 16 states across the nation, and no glaring methodological concerns were raised about it.

More recently, the same CREDO allegedly found] that charter schools outperformed public schools in New Jersey.

But a closer examination suggests otherwise. Julia Sass, Ph.D., associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, wrote an op-ed for NJ Spotlight that raised a number of questions about the latter CREDO report, most notably the dramatic demographic differences between the public and charter school students examined in the study. The demographic differences cited suggest that the study did not compare similar students across public and charter schools, which undermines the integrity of the study, and could have distorted the findings. Dr. Sass also speculates that the study’s outcome could have been politically motivated.

Second, it is increasingly apparent that bigger school districts are fiscally impaired by the presence of charter schools, as evidenced by the number of traditional public school closings in cities like Newark and Philadelphia, both of which had an influx of charter schools in recent years.

The school closings have reached such proportions that they are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education at the urging of community groups around the country.

I think the Christie administration’s conflicting positions on charter schools in urban and suburban communities are a microcosm of the crisis that the original identity politics -- white identity politics -- confronts. As a general matter, the (overwhelming white) capitalist class, colloquially referred to as “the one-percent,” wants to extract money from the public sector. Elected officials (overwhelmingly white, but increasingly black) accept huge sums of money through political action committees (PACs), political donations, and lucrative positions on the boards of directors of private companies after public life, in exchange for doing the capitalist class's bidding. Thus, the elected officials facilitate a transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector through privatizing public utilities, roads, parking meters, and even military personnel.

More recently, charter schools have come to the fore of the wealth transfer from public to private hands. They have served as the leading edge of the sword that transfers money from public school budgets to private actors, and investors, that operate ostensibly public charter schools.

Elected officials are pleased to allow a run on the public sector when it primarily disadvantages cities, which are often predominantly black and sustain the largest budgets within a given state. But because capitalism is colorblind, the same capitalist forces ineluctably come for the white working class. Now elected officials must confront whether to allow those forces to extract wealth from the white suburbs, thereby disadvantaging white communities who are their chief voting base, or to hold the capitalist forces at bay in a measure of white solidarity. Thus far, elected officials seem content to hold them at bay, but stay tuned the story is still developing.

To be sure, charter schools are not all bad. Many are organized and run by thoughtful members of the community. In addition, many charter schools can, and do, contribute to the wellbeing of the community, particularly those with African-centered curriculums. But it would be a mistake to ignore the private interests that loom over the public/charter debate, or how the association of people of color with the public sector, and not facts, shape perceptions about public services generally, and public schools specifically.

Chigozie U. Onyema is a policy analyst at a national nonprofit. He is interested in the impact of race and class on public policy. He earned his J.D. from NYU School of Law and his B.A. from Howard University.

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