Education Opportunity Network

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Charter Schools Won’t Solve Racial Injustice In Baltimore, Or Anywhere Else

The disturbing death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore while in police custody, and the ensuing riots after news of his death spread, have continued to prompt countless analyses of the chronic problems in our nation’s urban centers.

My colleague Terrance Heath correctly assigns blame to a direct source: chronic abuse committed by police against people, especially black and brown people, taken into custody. A recent report from progressive news outlet Alternet reveals “nearly 2,600 detainees” from Baltimore police were turned away from the city’s detention center in the past three years because they were too injured to be accepted.

Jelani Cobb, writing for The New Yorker, expanded his analysis to historic cases – including a similar event in Ferguson, Missouri – and found, indeed, incidents of police brutality sparked “every major riot by the black community of an American city since the Second World War.”

Cobb correctly connects police violence against communities of color to “historical roots in segregation” that plague the country yet remain largely unaddressed as incident after incident persistently calls our attention to racial discrimination.

Editors of The New York Times seem to agree, declaring, “Racism doomed Baltimore.”

However, this common sense analyses hasn’t stopped others from spinning Baltimore, and other big metropolitan communities plagued with racial inequity, into an argument de jour for more charter schools.

Will Charters “Save” The City?

After riots broke out in Baltimore, prominent advocates for charter schools took to Twitter to contend their schools had the power to “save” the city.

Editors at The Washington Post, in an editorial, “The schools Baltimore needs,” declared, “Baltimore’s tumult underscores the need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that welcomes high-quality charter organizations.”

The editors contend “competitive pressure” charters impose on public schools “might help,” and they criticize Maryland state lawmakers for being “so hostile to charter schools.”

Similarly, editors of The Wall Street Journal make the same illogical leap in their support for charter schools while criticizing anyone who stands in the way of expanding these institutions willy-nilly. While claiming that charter schools are “an escape for poor children,” the editors rail against Maryland laws that give local authorities governance over new charter start-ups – a bizarre argument coming from a conservative news outlet for sure.

First, let’s be clear that what plagues public schools in Baltimore, and other big cities for that matter, is not lack of charter schools.

The Equity Problem

Writing at his personal blogsite, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains that a long time ago Maryland isolated Baltimore as a segregated, high-poverty school district with inadequate funding and support.

“Baltimore City really isn’t provided sufficient resources to address its extreme needs,” Baker argues, pointing to data indicating that, relative to the socio-economic conditions of students across the state, Maryland earns a grade “D” for the way it funds high-poverty schools like those in Baltimore.

Maryland’s new Republican governor Larry Hogan is likely making matters worse. As Politico points out, in its daily education newsletter, Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has demanded the governor “release $68 million in funding for school districts” including hers. And the state’s teachers’ union has held events “urging Hogan to release the funding,” which would send nearly $12 million to Baltimore’s schools.

A recent report on these events in The Baltimore Sun notes that advocates want some of the money targeted to turning more city schools into community schools, which provide health and social services to children of low-income families who often come to school with learning problems associated with poverty.

Further, Baker points out that given the way funds are spread within the district of Baltimore, schools serving the highest percentages of the lowest-income children spend less on teacher salaries – a pretty good indicator that the city’s high-poverty schools have lower ratios of certified teachers per student and higher percentages of novice (first two years) teachers.

Charter schools in particular have high ratios of these novice teachers, “a staffing model,” Baker argues, that “isn’t likely sustainable in the long term, unless as a matter of policy, large shares of teachers are annually dismissed.”

Although charter schools advocates like to point to data indicating charters in Baltimore serve some of the city’s neediest kids, these statistics are skewed in a really crafty way. As Baker points out in an older post, charter schools located in lower poverty zip codes in the district tend to enroll the lowest income kids. “But, in the higher poverty zip codes, charters tend to be serving lower poverty populations.” See how that works? Get your poverty cred from serving the lowest income students in the part of town where families are generally better off, and then cream the best students in neighborhoods where families are really struggling. How clever.

So Baltimore public schools are by no means an example of “throwing money at the problem” of racial inequity, and charter schools, rather than helping to solve racial inequity, may be adding to it.

Public School Progress

Also, rather than contributing to chronic poverty and racial injustice, Baltimore’s public schools may be one of the city’s few institutions that is creating some genuine progress.

As Baker finds in his first blog post, “Baltimore has shown reasonable average gains, given expectations,” on the most common measure of academic achievement, the National Assessment of Education Progress.

“Although nearly all the pro-reform commentators insist Baltimore schools are failing, statistics suggest otherwise,” Take Part’s Joseph Williams points out. “According to the school district’s website, 83 percent of pre-kindergarten students emerged ready to learn, state standardized assessment reading test scores jumped nearly 20 percent from 2004 to 2013, and math scores climbed more than 25 percent during that same time frame.”

In the wake of the turmoil in Baltimore, the city’s public schools are promoting some genuine understanding and community healing. According to a report in Education Week, school leaders have declared their intentions to conduct “classroom activities and events to help students process what happened.” How is that effort helped by adding to the divisiveness that has become one of the primary features of charter school expansions?

Further, there are some indicators that new efforts to change from zero tolerance discipline policies to more positive restorative justice practices may be taking hold in Baltimore, which would reduce student suspensions and expulsions and de-escalate tensions that lead to school and community violence and end the city’s school to prison pipeline.

Instead Of More Charters

Instead of adding to the numbers of charter schools in Baltimore, Maryland state lawmakers made the right decision by putting the brakes on Governor Hogan’s plan to expand these schools for what amounts to ideological reasons.

State lawmakers, rather than ignoring the plight of poor kids as they are accused of doing by newspaper editors, are likely paying attention to recent revelations that charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools and are plagued by millions of dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse nationwide.

The federal government has spent billions on charter schools with virtually no accountability. Where there are cases of charter schools out-performing public schools on standardized tests, there doesn’t seem to be anything especially innovative about these schools to indicate they’ve found new approaches that need to be rapidly expanded throughout a school system like Baltimore’s.

Rather than calling for unproven gimmicks like charter schools, advocates for racial equity and social justice would do more for their cause by urging government and policy leaders to actually address these problems directly.

In communities like Baltimore, what’s more likely to advance real progress are new policies that take real steps to end racial discrimination in law enforcement, alleviate the chronic underfunding of high-poverty schools, promote racial integration in housing and education, and transform punitive education policies to practices that advance understanding, cooperation, and respect.

  • Linda Tift says:

    Charter schools divide us.

    May 21, 2015 at 7:39 pm
  • RJ Parker says:

    Mr Bryant’s understanding of what it will take to transform Baltimore education is
    quite deficient. His approach appears to be the usual combination of more $$ +
    policy change + “let’s all get along”. While these may be relevant to the problem, they fail to recognize that all true reform begins in the classroom and depends on significant changes in a school’s culture and in the quality of instruction received
    by each student. Charter Schools may not be the answer, but neither are short sighted solutions. To learn more, please visit our site:

    May 21, 2015 at 8:29 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      RJ, I checked out your website. Your organization seems to assign all the blame for “failing schools” and the achievement gap to teachers’ inability to follow a particular instructional method you favor. That seems unreasonable to me. Research shows that teaching factors between 2-15% of the impact on a student’s academic achievement. I’m not arguing that instruction is unimportant. It certainly is. But education is a process with many systemic influences, most of which you want to ignore. Also, some advice on your ‘net etiquette: In the future, if you’re going to bash someone on his own website, don’t also use your comment as an opportunity to shill for your business. That’s trollish, IMHO.

      May 22, 2015 at 11:46 am
      • RJ Parker says:

        Jeff, please identify the specific source(s) for your declaration: “Research shows that
        teaching factors between 2-15% of the impact on a student’s academic achieve-
        ment”. You have to know that such a statement is absurd and even foolish to pro-
        claim! Our program, “Teach for EXCELLENCE” (as described at is
        solely based on the findings of such renowned education researchers as Marzano,
        Tomlinson, Sousa, Gardner, and others identified on our site. If you wish to argue, we
        have listed the primary sources you can contact (particularly as relates to your
        views on the role of teaching in student achievement). You are way off base on
        this one as are any ‘solutions’ you may offer that ignore the critical role of class-
        room instruction and cultural change in genuine school reform. Both are generally
        given little attention in most reform efforts. Accordingly, the vast majority of
        failing schools continue to fail despite outside intervention. After all, as research
        repeatedly confirms: “If TEACHING & CULTURE ain’t right, ain’t nothin’ right!”
        RJ Parker

        May 26, 2015 at 4:20 am
        • Jeff Bryant says:

          RJ, you should look at the Coleman Report from the 60s, which found that roughly 60% of the factors influencing student achievement are outside the purview of the school. And for an extensive reading selection of the research on the factors that influence student achievement, check out this list from the ever useful Larry Ferlazzo: A blog post by Matt Di Carolo from that list sums up the research pretty well: “But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms.” The range of 2-15 percent I specified comes from David Berliner whose findings are available in a research study here: Finally, I would challenge your contention that there is even such a thing as a “failing school.” Such designations are usually assigned using the crudest of measurements such as student scores on standardized tests. Schools that are deemed “failing” are usually affected by a multiplicity of factors, and anyone who claims to have a silver bullet “solution” for such schools is not to be trusted.

          May 26, 2015 at 11:29 am
  • jimmy midnight says:

    Great to see your posts back again, Jeff, after what I hope was a great vacation. Thanks for your great work on privatization and testing issues. Our precious children need additional resources, as opposed to having those resources siphoned off by a bunch of sharp operators and their frontspeople’s harebrained ed. experiments.

    May 22, 2015 at 10:36 pm
  • Vaughn N. Anderson says:


    May 23, 2015 at 8:12 pm

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