Charter schools blaze trail to real racial equality
The Arizona Daily Star
November 20, 2003
By Suzanne Fields
The most troubling example of racial inequality in America today is the
inner-city school. Civil-rights iniquities begin here.
You don't hear the two loudest ecclesiastical divines, the Revs. Jesse Jackson
and Al Sharpton, complaining about self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing teachers
whose unions support the cozy status quo.
You don't hear the educationist bureaucrats in the big cities, who pull down
salaries wildly disproportionate to their talents and responsibilities, crying
for the pain of what the schools are doing to black children.
White liberals usually don't want to clean up the wreckage, because if they did
they wouldn't have convenient objects to pity to prove how compassionate they
But we're beginning to hear from educators who have looked closely at the data
and see a consistent pattern in the awful gap that separates achieving whites
and Asians and failing blacks and Hispanics. Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan
Thernstrom, for example.
Their argument is not original. How they arrive at it is. Unequal skills and
knowledge put blacks and Hispanics behind an eight ball that neither affirmative
action and multiculturalism nor increasing school budgets will change.
The Thernstroms conclude that equal opportunity can be achieved only when the
minority students in the inner cities reach a higher academic achievement.
"The black high school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960," they
write in "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," a book that fuses
analysis and outrage.
"And blacks attend college at a rate that is higher than it was for whites just
two decades ago. But the good news ends there. The gap in academic achievement
that we see today is actually worse than it was 15 years ago."
The problem, the Thernstroms say, is not the lack of a racial mix in public
schools. Nor is it the amount of money spent per child or the size of teacher
What's crucial to enabling children to learn is an educational environment that
motivates kids to want to work and study hard.
Such an environment requires teachers who are imaginative and innovative, whose
careers are not governed by rigid union rules and whose hiring and firing is
community based, where teachers, administrative staffs and parents work
The best-kept secret in education is that almost all the achieving inner-city
schools are charter schools, operating within the public school system.
They're financed by the public and held to public accountability but are freed
from the bureaucratic wrangling that strangled the public system.
Unfortunately, charter schools require a great deal of time and private energy
and suffer from many of the shortcomings of voucher programs. They draw money
away from the vested interests.
But they confer extraordinary benefits. Largely independent of bureaucratic
control, they can hire nonunion teachers, choose their own textbooks and exert
discretionary power over their budgets.
When a charter school goes bad, and some have, they're easy to close. Closing a
bad public school is difficult.
Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, which opened in 2001,
exemplifies what a dedicated group of adults can accomplish for a diverse group
of children enrolled in classes ranging from prekindergarten to the eighth
The school is small, and most of its racially diverse student body comes from
low-income families. Parents choose the school.
The staff operates on a theory that emphasizes project-based instruction to help
children meet rigorous academic standards. They meet them, too.
I observed 7- and 8-year-olds describe a project for planning a playground. They
told me how the models of climbing bars and see-saws were built to scale,
learning how 1 inch on a diagram of the tiny climbing bars was the equivalent of
1 foot in the real-life playground.
They did the math without notes, explaining complex ideas about how the length
of the chain of the swing required more space than was available.
The children were eager to talk about the concepts to any adult who would
listen. Children at this school show gains each year. No surprise there.
But of course this is a young adventure. What was striking was the enthusiasm
and animation of all the children - black and white - talking about their work,
expressing the joy of learning with the enthusiasm of kids thinking they're only
talking about fun and games.
This school achieves what elite private schools, which charge tuition of $15,000
a year, achieve.
Charter schools are a compromise between the fat and exhausted public schools
and the more controversial vouchers that enable parents to transfer their
children from bad to good public schools.
Schools that don't shape up fail. Charter schools, like vouchers, are innovative
and offer fresh opportunities for turning around the racial gap in learning.
They're worth trying and watching. They brook no excuses.
* Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave.,
Washington, DC 20002; e-mail: