In the 1800s, the widespread call for free public education was a direct result of Civil War reconstruction efforts for freed slaves. This, thus, cemented the fact that poverty and public education have always been intertwined in the American ethos.
Fast forward more than 200 years, and closing the achievement gap for both poor and people of color is still the oldest and single most challenging issue in the history of public education in this country.
The Florida Legislature’s education reform often centers upon public-school choice and charter schools. Charter schools are public schools governed by private nonprofits, but sometimes they are managed by large for-profit entities. African Americans, especially, are often lost in the public discourse on school choice, although solutions addressing the achievement gap of the poor has been the primary policy reason for school choice.
Case in point: City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first charter school in America, opened in 1992 with a mission to serve “those from homes racked by poverty or substance abuse, those who have made their homes behind fences and bars or those who have no home at all.” They all would get “another chance to learn.”
Florida has more than 600 charter schools, with few in communities of poverty. The large for-profit management companies rarely open schools in such areas, and for good reason: There’s no money in it. Charter schools that do not meet minimum grades within their formative years are forced to close by state law.
Thus, neighborhoods with the most needs are not attractive for the large operators. They often have to spend additional funds to provide supplemental services to ensure schools reach minimum requirements. It is much easier to open a school where success is guaranteed by virtue of location and returns on investment are more easily realized.
The independent charter schools that are not backed by large, for-profit companies are courageous. They take enormous risks, face partisan public ridicule and possible closure to provide choices for communities in need. Stellar Leadership Academy, for example, is a independent nonprofit serving youth in Liberty City who have dropped out of school or are at risk of dropping out. It is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the lone charter school in Liberty City where the for-profits dare not go.
Many local school boards are not supportive of independent charter schools, either. It’s a shame they are cheating students in poor, underserved communities. Broward School Board embarrassed its superintendent, Robert Runcie, when it voted to reject $3.3 million the district was awarded by the Florida Department of Education to support children attending low-performing charter schools in communities of poverty. “Thanks, but no thanks,” said one board member.
Runcie planned to serve 5,000 students among whom 84 percent are African American, 38 percent live in poverty and 41 percent over the age of 25 do not have high-school diplomas. (Miami-Dade and Duval counties applied for and accepted the funds.)
The politics of public relations have made the notion of charter schools and school choice a divisive proposition for residents of the urban core who are largely Democratic and have come to view any alternative to the district schools as a Republican issue founded to encourage for-profit privatization — which it is not.
The Florida Legislature should enact policies that encourage inner-city independent charter schools rather than continuously empower management companies that operate as behemoth interstate and intrastate school districts. Innovative models, such as City Academy are beacons for the idea that public education is the best known anti-poverty program. These models cannot serve this purpose if they don’t exist and thrive in communities with the highest rates of poverty.
Charter School reform is the next frontier for equity, opportunity and access to quality education for all.
Christopher Norwood is the founder of the Governance Institute for School Accountability providing governance, compliance and law services to charter schools in Florida. He is also the chair of the City of Miami Education Advisory Board.