In Oklahoma and at the national level, public charter schools have come under attack from critics who claim the schools are bad for racial minorities and operate on an ethos of heartless profiteering. Oklahoma parents and charter school officials say their experiences prove otherwise.
“The commonality that I’ve noticed in people who are anti-charter is that virtually none of them have spent any type of any time visiting Oklahoma charters personally,” said Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, Oklahoma’s largest brick-and-mortar charter school. “When they come and see the work that we’re doing, the kids that we’re working with, the results that we’re having, we don’t have to say anything. The experience speaks for itself.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, recently made an attack on public charter schools part of his campaign agenda. Sanders’ education platform complains that “the proliferation of charter schools has disproportionately affected communities of color,” noting that 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority, compared to 4 percent of traditional public schools, and argues charter schools are therefore “intensifying racial segregation.” Sanders has called for a ban on all for-profit charter schools and endorsed a moratorium on the funding of all public charter school expansion.
Sanders’ message has been amplified in Oklahoma by groups who tout Sanders’ plan and often echo his rhetoric. Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, a group that opposes many school choice policies, highlighted a CNN story on Sanders’ education plan on its Twitter account.
A declaration on Pastors for Oklahoma Kids’ web site claims, “The proliferation of school choice programs is an attempt to redistribute public education resources from the most underfunded districts into the hands of private education profiteers.”
Pastors for Oklahoma Kids’ social media accounts routinely tout criticisms and attacks on school choice programs, including charter schools. On its Facebook page, Pastors for Oklahoma Kids recently urged citizens to lobby the U.S. Senate in support of a proposal advanced by House Democrats that would cut federal funding for charter schools. On May 12, the group posted an article on social media regarding Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointments to the State Board of Education. In that post, the pastor group highlighted a quote from a Democratic senator who complained Stitt’s nominees “have a background and an agenda in charter schools ...” On May 10, the group posted a Washington Post article about a report from a Democratic politician in Pennsylvania who claimed charters were “actually hurting kids” and are “cash cows.” On June 2, the pastors’ group tweeted, “Do charter schools make it possible to avoid the uncomfortable and hard work of integration?” and linked to a New York Times opinion piece. In a May 27 tweet, the group claimed, “Charter schools are draining funding from neighborhood public schools in many districts nationwide, leading to cuts in core services like counseling, libraries, and special education.”
Notably, Sanders and many individuals prominently associated with Pastors for Oklahoma Kids are white. The people served by charter schools are largely poor minorities, and they hold a very different view of charter schools.
“I don’t understand how they can even argue that at all, that it’s hurting minorities,” said Ashley Martinez, an Oklahoma City mother whose son has attended two charter schools. “If anything, it’s helping us out a lot. I’ve known so many Hispanic kids, and not only Hispanics but African-American kids, that have used the charter school systems to get to college where they wouldn’t be able to before because of the economic status or maybe they have a single-parent home, things like that. I’ve seen charter schools do amazing things for minorities.”
Democrats for Education Reform national president Shavar Jeffries released a statement on Sanders’ plan, saying, “Families of color are best situated to know which public school will best meet the needs of their children, yet too often policymakers make that decision for them. Senator Sanders’ call for a national moratorium on charter schools fits this tradition of racial paternalism, threatening long-term harm to our nation’s historically underserved students.”
“It’s not my job in a political campaign to have a response about whatever they say in a campaign,” said Tracy McDaniel, executive director at KIPP OKC, which operates two charter schools. “But I do know what we do every single day. And I do know we focus on children every single day and we do whatever it takes for our kids to learn, and that leads to success.”
At one KIPP school, 75 percent of students are African-American. At the other, 75 percent are Hispanic/Latino. McDaniel noted results at those schools were among the best in Oklahoma City. Nearly 70 percent of 8th graders at KIPP perform in the top quartile on NWEA MAP, a national measure of academic progress, which signifies they are on track for college in reading and math as they enter high school.
Such results are more the rule than the exception with charter schools. Harding Charter Preparatory High School is not only consistently ranked as Oklahoma’s best high school by U.S. News & World Report, but also as one of the best high schools in the nation. The state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability reports the majority of students at the school are racial minorities and nearly half of its students qualified for free/reduced lunch.
Gary Jones is among the parents who proudly defend charter schools. His daughter had attended a traditional public school given a “B” grade on its state report card, but struggled and fell further and further behind over time, despite receiving tutoring and other assistance.
By the time the family made the decision to send Jones’ daughter to fifth grade at KIPP Reach College Preparatory charter school in Oklahoma City, she was two grades behind in reading and three grades behind in math. But by the time she reached seventh grade at KIPP she was performing at grade level on state tests.
“For us, academically, it’s been unbelievable,” Jones said. “And if we had not had the choice or the option to put her in a school like KIPP, I don’t know where she would be academically.”
Jones says there’s a stark difference between the outcomes generated by the state’s best charter schools and the traditional public schools that would otherwise house many of those same students. He previously served as executive director of the Capitol Chamber of Commerce in Oklahoma City, since renamed the Black Chamber of Commerce, and as part of that work became familiar with the outcomes of many schools in northeast Oklahoma City.
“I was totally amazed at what I saw as far as the schools not meeting the needs of their students,” Jones said. “I mean, when you look at the scores of the schools, especially in the northeast quadrant, and you see whole schools with grades that not one kid was proficient, that should scare us.”
A 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in urban public charter schools gained, on average, the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading compared to their traditional public school peers. Across all urban regions, black students from low-income families who were enrolled in public charter schools gained the equivalent of 59 days of additional learning in math and 44 days in reading compared to their peers in traditional public schools. Among Hispanic English-language learners, students gained 72 additional days of learning in math and 79 in reading.
Racial minorities served by charter schools seem to care more about the improved academic outcomes than criticisms children are being “segregated” in charter schools. In May, a poll released by Democrats for Education Reform found that 58 percent of black Democratic primary voters viewed charter schools favorably. Among Hispanic Democratic primary voters, 52 percent viewed charter schools favorably.
A summary of the poll’s key findings noted, “The views of White Democratic voters seem to be a significant political impediment to parents of color gaining access to high-quality public charter schools that best serve their children.” Among white Democratic primary voters, just 26 viewed charters favorably, while 62 percent held an unfavorable view.
Jones said those who criticize charter schools may have “good intentions, but somehow they have this belief that anytime that you allow choice, and students leave a struggling school to go somewhere else, that it’s hurting the population that’s left, and they feel it’s unfair.”
“My argument to them is you should be doing the opposite: You should be trying to find a way to put every one of those children in a high-performing school,” Jones said. “Keeping them in a low-performing school and saying you need to put more resources in it, when that school has proven that they cannot be successful, to me is just that old saying: It’s hitting your head against the wall. Nothing’s going to change if you keep hitting it.”
As for claims that charter schools are massive profit centers, local officials say the situation in Oklahoma is almost the opposite for brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Oklahoma, charters get state funds but not property tax funding, meaning they operate on lower per-pupil funding than traditional public schools.
“In Oklahoma, our per-pupil funding for all schools is so low that it has kept virtually anyone who would have a for-profit motive out of the state,” Brewster said.
“The concern that I have about the future of charters, the fear, is that the cost of operating a school is going up all the time and because of Oklahoma’s funding levels it’s a struggle for charters,” Jones said. “Because, depending on which school district you’re in, charters only get 60, 70 cents on the dollar of what a traditional public school child would receive. And what makes it more frustrating is that we have no way in order to get bonding or ad valorem tax money for facilities, and so charters are in a tough place right now. And while they still are academically having success, there is concern that the financial struggles are going to get worse.”
Rather than generating profit, supporters say Oklahoma charter schools generate opportunity for many poor children to have choices comparable to those available to higher-income families who can move to better school districts if needed.
“You want to live in Edmond to go to school, you can do that. You can go to Deer Creek,” McDaniel said. “People have that ability right now. Kids in this neighborhood, they don’t.”
“Families with money have always had choice,” Brewster said. “And families without money, of all colors, don’t have a choice. So this is a way of balancing it.”