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School choice week

Friday, February 1st, 2013

St Jude Education Institute, Source WikipediaIn celebration of National School Choice Week, we have been highlighting our ongoing case study series “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools.” The series explores how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture. We have published three case studies so far: Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly’s “Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education”; Joanne Jacobs’ “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education”; and, most recently, David Feith’s “Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education.”

But it’s also important to frame our work on civic education in charter schools within the larger school choice debate, and so today take a look at Michael McShane’s recent article in the Huffington Post: “Why I Support School Choice.” McShane, who is now a research fellow with the AEI education policy team, was formerly a high school English and religion teacher at St. Jude Education Institute in Montgomery, Alabama. As he notes, “One of the last remaining historically African-American Catholic schools in the South, St. Jude was (and is) committed to offering its students an alternative to Montgomery’s notoriously languishing public schools.”

He continues:

For the vast majority of my students, St. Jude was the first private school they had attended. They routinely came to my classroom years behind where they needed to be, often reading at less than a 4th grade level. It was in my classroom in Montgomery that the abject failure of our education system to teach our children of color came into stark relief.

The statistics back me up. According to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, Alabama public schools only graduate 65.4 percent of their African-American Students. Sadly, that still beats 17 states and the District of Columbia. And if you think these problems are clustered in the South, I’d point you to Connecticut’s 63.5 percent black graduation rate, Nebraska’s 57.6 percent, and Nevada’s whopping 46.7 percent. We have got to do better. […]

Because the lion’s share of our public schools are residentially assigned, and because our neighborhoods are, by and large, segregated, we see racial and socio-economic stratification in our schools. Houses in neighborhoods zoned for better public schools cost more, and therefore people have to pay “tuition” (in the form of a higher mortgage) to get their children into them.

Look at the breakdown by race of the seven public high schools in Montgomery. The only schools that are less than 80 percent African-American are the three academically-selective magnet schools. This tells us that in Montgomery if you want to attend something other than a hyper-segregated school with a less than 52 percent graduation rate you must qualify for a magnet, move to the suburbs, or pay to attend a private school. That is neither right nor fair. School choice, done right, can offer stronger academic alternatives without sacrificing the public mission of schooling.

Indeed. As Cheryl Miller and Robin Lake note in their report “Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools,” “strengthening civic education in charter schools may be all the more important given the student population served by many charters”:

Just as an achievement gap exists in reading and math, so too does a civic achievement gap. Harvard researcher Meira Levinson notes that “as early as fourth grade and continuing into the eighth and twelfth grades, poor, African-American, and Hispanic students perform significantly worse on the civics test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than white, Asian, and middle-class students.” Other studies have found that disadvantaged students have fewer opportunities to take civics courses and engage in civic activities.

Charter schools serve exactly these students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charters serve a higher percentage of minority students and students from low-income families than other public schools. Giving these students the knowledge, skills, and habits to participate in civic life would seem to be a key priority, deeply connected to the obviously important vocational and professional goals that charter schools have set for themselves.