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Teaching black children to read is an act of social justice

A friend and colleague of mine named Dr. Jennifer Brown recently shared a powerful observation: “In America, teaching black children to read is an act of social justice.”

Every day, more than three million children – predominantly black and Latinx – attend charter schools because their parents have chosen that option. These families should have the support of the elected officials who represent them, and of the political party they consistently support. 

Charter schools are public schools that are not operated by traditional school districts. Charter schools have long been politically controversial, but there have been real examples of bipartisan support. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both embraced charters as a part of their education agendas. Recently, some Democratic leaders have criticized charter schools and threatened to limit the federal Charter School Program, an important source of funding for many new charter schools. You might think the reluctance of some Democrats to support charters reflects the preferences of the Democratic electorate. You would be wrong. Recent polling shows that there is broad public support to “expand access to more choices and options within the public-school system, including magnet schools, career academies, and public charter schools.” This support is strongest among black Democratic voters, 89 percent of whom expressed support in a recent poll, compared to 81 percent of all Democratic primary voters. Other polls have shown strong support from black Democrats. There is something discordant about the gap between support for charter schools by black voters and opposition by some Democratic leaders. Black voters – especially black women – have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party. If a Democrat wins the White House in November, it will be because of strong black turnout. America has never done right by its black citizens, and education is no exception. South Carolina passed the first law banning the education of slaves in 1740, driven by fears that black literacy fomented rebellion, and these laws would spread throughout the South.  Of course, emancipation did not usher in a new era of educational justice. Throughout Jim Crow, schooling for black children was both separate and unequal. And Brown v. Board of Education was met with massive resistance on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Racial and economic segregation, inequitable school funding and the persistence of racism have conspired to create a world where black children have never been afforded the educational opportunity that many other Americans take for granted. But American history is also a record of Americans fighting side by side to overcome this tragic history. In America, those who fight to ensure that all children – including black children – have access to excellent schools are part of that historic struggle for social justice. Charter schools are not a panacea. There are many traditional public schools doing an excellent job for children of color, and many charter public schools that are not. But it is also true that in many communities across America, black parents are choosing high performing charters, and their children are benefitting. 

A landmark Stanford University study demonstrates that students at nonprofit urban charter schools on average achieve 40 additional learning days in math and 28 days in reading. At KIPP, the charter network where I work, our students graduate from college at more than three times the rate of their peers, and our teaching and principal staffs are significantly more diverse than those of the average public school.

Policymakers do not have to choose between supporting traditional public schools and supporting high-performing charters. Improving public education in America will require both. Radically increasing the federal financial investment in Title I, increasing salaries for teachers, enforcing civil rights protections for children of color, students with special needs, immigrants and LGBTQ youth, and a renewed federal commitment to school integration are all critical. These and other reforms have – correctly – been at the center of many Democratic agendas.

But high performing charters should be part of that agenda as well. Every day, families with the means – who in America remain disproportionately white – make choices for their children. They move to different neighborhoods, invest in test preparation and pay for private schools. I have done the first two for my own children and would not hesitate to do the third. No one seems to question those choices — until black or poor families begin to make them. The educators I know who teach in high-quality public charter schools are standing with black families who just want what we all want — what is best for our children. Democratic leaders should continue to do the same. For half a century, many of those at the forefront of the struggle for social justice in America have been leaders in the Democratic Party. And in America, teaching black children to read is an act of social justice.

Richard R. Buery, Jr., is chief of policy and public affairs at the KIPP Foundation. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a non-profit network of 242 college-preparatory, public charter schools educating early childhood, elementary, middle and high school students.

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