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I remember the day that the poor kids showed up at our school. It was in 1964.

Classes had already started, and I was in second grade, surrounded by my familiar friends from my mostly white, mostly well-to-do, suburban neighborhood in North Dallas.

Their bus showed up after the last bell had rung. That in itself was a little odd because most of us walked, biked, or were driven to school by parents.

Looking down from our classroom widows, we watched the kids file off the bus and trudge up the sidewalk -- a mixed group of younger and older, mostly black, some brown, a few white.

Two girls seated next to me pointed and giggled about something. Then Mrs. Bowman called us back to attention.

Minutes later, three of the new students were escorted into our class by the school secretary. One girl, Brenda was her name, wasn't wearing any shoes. And there was mud smeared on her leg. "Class," Mrs. Bowman announced. "Please welcome your new classmates."

It wasn't like we hadn't been told this was going to happen. At an assembly the previous week, Mr. Abbott, the principal, had introduced us to the term "Affirmative Action." And we were told that students from another school -- a place I knew mostly as being "in the sticks" -- were going to be "integrated" with our school.

But the awkwardness of the day was unavoidable. Because that's how it usually is when poverty is introduced into the world of the better-off. Isn't it? A sort of public shaming. Especially for schoolchildren.

Back in 1964, there was little choice in the matter, although when a year passed and I enrolled in third grade, I found that many of my friends had transferred to the private Catholic school across town.

But just as the white people of North Dallas were being ordered to share bus seats, public bathrooms, and restaurant space with their fellow citizens of different skin color and lesser means, white families were being told to share their schools with black and brown children.

As far as I recall, this forced sharing of the common was never justified on the basis of pragmatism. Blacks weren't being allowed to sit at the front of the bus because it helped them get to work faster, or dine in the same restaurants because it was known to improve their nutrition -- or attend the same schools because there was evidence it would improve their test scores. The rationale was that separate schools based on race would always be unequal. And ending inequality was the right thing to do.

But in the America we're seeing today, it appears we no longer believe that.

Welcome to a Re-Segregating World

In a recent article that appeared at Bloomberg, John Hechinger introduced us to our brave, new, re-segregating world:

Six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites, segregation is growing.

Hechinger credits the proliferation of charter schools as a primary engine driving the new segregation, and he cites two examples that are particularly vivid. In an all-black school students wear traditional Muslim garb and study Arabic and Somali. In a school that's predominantly white, the children gather under a map of “Deutschland,” study with interns from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and learn to dance the waltz.

These school examples are from the Minneapolis and St. Paul region of Minnesota where charter schools are “highly segregated,” according to the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race & Poverty. Almost half of these charters are 80 percent or more non-white, and 32 percent, mostly white.

But the article also quotes from a nationwide analysis by The Civil Rights Study at the University of California, Los Angeles that show that in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and 39 metropolitan areas higher percentages of charter-school students attend what the report called “racially isolated” schools, where 90 percent or more students are from disadvantaged minority groups.

The report, found here, examined over seven years of data and concluded that the racial isolation of students enrolled in charter schools varies by region

Charter school trends vary substantially across different regions of the country. Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states where they comprise the largest share of students. At the same time, a dozen states (including those with high concentrations of Latino students like Arizona and Texas) report that a majority of Latino charter students attend intensely segregated minority schools. Patterns in the West and in a few areas in the South, the two most racially diverse regions of the country, also suggest that charters serve as havens for white flight from public schools. Finally, in the industrial Midwest, more students enroll in charter schools compared to other regions, and midwestern charter programs display high concentrations of black students.

Indeed, when you look at the way that charter schools are now stratifying American students by race, “it feels like the Deep South in the days of Jim Crow segregation,” said one of the Minnesota researchers in the Bloomberg article. “When you see an all-white school and an all-black school in the same neighborhood in this day and age, it’s shocking.”

But is it fair to blame charter schools alone for this trend?

How Charters + Choice = Re-Segregation

In the same way that it is unfair and inaccurate to make generalizations about "all public schools," the same is untrue for judging charters and their effect on racial segregation.

When operatives at the conservative thinktank Education Next looked at the UCLA analysis of charter schools, they found that patterns of re-segregation were "not a charter phenomenon" because "the geographic placement of charter schools practically ensures that they will enroll higher percentages of minorities" and "because serving disadvantaged populations is the stated mission of many charter schools, they seek out locations near disadvantaged populations intentionally."

So the conclusion by conservative, "free-market" advocates who generally back charter schools is that charters can't be blamed if they happen to end up drawing particular populations of students. Instead, this is a reflection of "active parental choices" rather than "the forced segregation of our nation’s past."

But this conclusion overlooks three invariable truths about the nature of "choice" in America and its relationship to race. First, the fact that there are geographic patterns of racial segregation in America is a condition inherited by our nation's racist past and, in fact, a condition we've yet to successfully address through housing policy or other means.

Since Brown v. Board of Education, public schools have been compelled to address this disparity. That public schools have been inconsistent in this mission is a conclusion that is not in dispute.

Charter schools on the other hand, -- especially those operated by national Charter Management Organizations like KIPP and National Heritage Academies -- tend to reinforce geographic racial patterns in their marketing appeals. On their websites and in their printed materials, these charter chains invariably promote their abilities to educate "underserved" communities and "close achievement gaps," even though there is no evidence that charters in general are any better at this than traditional public schools. In fact, many of them are worse.

Second, the way parents exercise "choice" is often reflective of not just what they want their kids to study and how they want them to be taught but also of what other kind of children they want their kids to be around. Anecdotal evidence of this abounds, as edu-blogger Jersey Jazzman recently recounted in a blogpost sampling from news article from Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Texas. In each instance, what parents and their children say is that school choice has as much or more to do with opinions about their "fellow students" as it does with curriculum and instruction.

We can't continue to pretend that this type of prejudice doesn't exist and that, much like my fellow Texans who opted for private schools rather than expose their children to racial integration, "choice" has a general tendency to enable the better-off to distance themselves from the problems of educating the poor.

Third, the playing field that "choice" operates on is often anything but even. Charters generally by their very nature are exempt from many of the requirements of traditional public schools, including providing transportation and food, having adequate facilities and specialists for children with developmental problems, and providing for students who don't speak English as their first language.

As edu-blogger Jim Horn recently observed at School Matter, "If a charter school in the leafy suburbs of Georgia or North Carolina offers no federal breakfast or lunch program and no transportation for kids, can poor parents choose this school for their children who will, otherwise, not have breakfast, lunch, or a ride to and from school?"

Will Re-Segregation Become Endemic?

Of course, racial segregation isn't the only problem that tends to crop up in this proliferation of charter schools. And even charter advocates themselves are increasingly calling for greater regulation of their creations.

However, in places where regulations are being strengthened, the end product is often a "dizzying system," as edu-blogger Walt Gardner recently observed at Education Week, that results in a lot of "fine print" for a parent to sift through. And this invariably means that only those parents with the means -- educationally, culturally, financially -- will navigate their way through the detail.

Gardner concludes, "The devil is always in the details. If truth-in-advertising laws were applied to school choice, I think more parents would be reluctant to expend the time, energy and money in the hope of getting a quality education for their children. Instead, parents might be willing to push for improving existing traditional schools in their neighborhoods."

But the greater danger that even the best regulation is unlikely to overcome is that the combination of choice and charters -- with choice being enabled primarily through means and charters operating as a competitive school system -- has introduced a particularly toxic chemical into the nation's thinking about education.

Now, there's evidence that even leaders of traditional public schools are converting to the notion that they must "sell their schools" to specific target markets in the population. As this recent article in The Washington Post explains, "As school choice becomes a mantra of 21st century education reform, especially for the growing charter school movement, traditional public schools also are embracing free-market competition."

The Only Real Real Choice Is Equity

Keep in mind that no other advanced nation in the world is hurtling down this path. Finland, for instance, which has gotten a lot of recognition lately for being an "education superpower," has followed a route that is diametrically opposed to what policy leaders in the US are blazing.

Finnish journalist Anu Partanen, writing in The Atlantic, explains that in her country there are no charters -- in fact no private schools at all -- to enable "choice," and furthermore there are no standardized test, teacher merit pay systems, or any of the trappings of the American so-called reform movement.

Partanen concludes, "As a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform -- Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity."

Thinking back on the kids who were bussed from a poor neighborhood to my well-to-do school in the fall of 1964, I have no way of knowing if in fact "equality" was the end result of their integration into our world. But I do know this: That at the end of the school day, all of us little white kids in North Dallas had gotten a lesson about our fellow human beings that we were not likely to forget. And when the kids from the wrong side of the tracks boarded the bus to go back to their 'hood, Mrs. Bowman had made sure that Brenda was wearing a brand new pair of shoes. And that was probably a really good start.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I wonder in some places if it ever really happened (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TexMex, esquimaux

    I moved down to South Carolina from Canada and worked as a professor in a small technical college for a little over a year.

    Black people ate at their own tables...the public schools were terrible places where only blacks and a handful of poor whites attended.

    Our school was 80 percent black...with 99 percent of the faculty being white (except for a black Chemistry teacher with his doctorate from Nigeria who didn't like to associate with what he called "American blacks."  All the support staff (secretaries, janitors, counselors, etc.) were black.

    There was a nasty movie theatre with second run films where black people went.  The nice theatre didn't discriminate, but it was far more expensive and in a more affluent part of town...so, effectively it did.

    When I arrived there, "well meaning" white people told me where to live...what places to eat at and where to shop.

    One knew when you walked into an establishment that was not for white folks...you got the "stare" but if you made it clear you were an outsider (which the fact you walking in there pretty much meant), you were ok.

    So, I went back to Canada.

    During the Obama campaign, i went back to my hometown in Canton, Ohio.  I walked the streets of places I never went to...in the 70s and 80s.  This was the black part of town...never been there.  Never saw the people who lived there until that day...25 years after I grew up and left.  I knew my father worked with black co-workers.  He never brought any home as friends.  I went to an all-white school...the only time you saw black kids was when our team played the black school.

    It all makes me wonder if it was all two steps forward and a step and a half back.

    •  Can we do anything besides change minds? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      coffeetalk

      We can tweak things to prevent "gaming" of the integration system, but we can't force people to live in a particular place, force them to go to public school, eat a certain table, etc.

      Today, strive to be the person you want to be.

      by GoGoGoEverton on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 05:53:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  From what I saw... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        TexMex, esquimaux, spaceshot

        There were two distinct cultures...it wasn't a white culture and black culture, it was a culture of poverty and one of affluence.

        Poor whites and poor blacks got along well.  But, it was clear who got the short end of the stick and it was a process that had been going on for centuries and I saw very little that could change it.  

        •  I live near a large public high school (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          David Kroning II, TexMex, David Kaib

          that has a very diverse populace and probably 70% of the kids across all racial stratas (including hispanics, immigrants from africa and the middle-east, as well as african-americans) come from households within 20k income of eachother. The diversity of the friend groups I see interacting is amazing....a little less extreme income stratification is really the key, I agree.

          Today, strive to be the person you want to be.

          by GoGoGoEverton on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 06:36:14 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Yes (0+ / 0-)

        It's simply not true that the source of the problem is individual opinions and choice. Segregation is a product of public policy. Too often we leave these structures in place and then try to address the impact after the fact. That this approach often fails doesn't mean all action would fail.

        Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. @DavidKaib

        by David Kaib on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 05:47:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for this diary. (5+ / 0-)

    sigh.
    The voucher/charter school movement has never been anything else, just coated in sugar for people to not notice how disgusting it is.
    I have been twisted up about for years.

    The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America is a book by educator and author Jonathan Kozol.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    "How quickly these kids have affected the public dialogue. So proud of them." Clarknt67

    by TexMex on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 05:48:25 AM PST

  •  No, It's About 30 Years Along. Even the Charter (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TexMex

    school tool for it is at least 10 years old.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 05:51:40 AM PST

  •  Don't you mean Is "School Choice" the new (0+ / 0-)

    Segregation?

    Today, strive to be the person you want to be.

    by GoGoGoEverton on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 05:52:36 AM PST

  •  I'm not sure what you are suggesting (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VClib

    as a remedy.  

    Of course, in this country, you cannot take away private schools.  Here in New Orleans, the Catholic school system is pervasive -- most middle-class parents, black and white (and of various religions), send their children to Catholic schools, because the tuition is pretty reasonable for a private school system.  The only public school exceptions are the magnet schools, which (especially Ben Franklin HS and Lusher) are VERY good schools and are very integrated, with all races well represented.  If you don't give the middle class options of good schools in their (often) suburban neighborhoods, they will abandon the public schools.  I don't think that most middle class white parents resent integration (the Catholic school system here in New Orleans, as a matter of fact, was integrated earlier than the public school system), it's just that they want the schools their children attend to be in the neighborhood, and (and I think this is the MOST important thing for most parents) they want the families to be generally middle-class families with parents that are going to be involved and are going to value education and instill that value in their children.  They want it to be the norm among their children's friends that school is important, grades are important, and going to college is expected.  (When I looked at this years ago, I remember that studies showed that the single factor most predictive of student success in school was the socio-economic background of the parents -- not necessarily money, but if the parents were educated and valued education in the home.)  

    For example (again using the New Orleans area) the St. Tammany Parish School system, in a suburb of New Orleans, is considered a good school system, and many parents move there precisely BECAUSE of that.  It's not a racial thing as much as a class thing -- the parents want a system where the kids almost always come from homes where the parents value education and expect the kids to go on to college.  The Orleans Parish School system, on the other hand, aside from the magnet schools, has a much higher percentage of parents who didn't graduate from high school or did not go beyond high school, and who don't place a lot of emphasis on education and going on to college.  Yes, that's because the middle class (black and white) has abandoned that system, but that's where we are.  Many white parents in the City of New Orleans itself would LOVE for their children to get into Ben Franklin, a very integrated, racially mixed school, precisely for that reason -- because it is a magnet school, it attracts students of all races for whom education is the top priority for their families.  

    I think that solving the problems with the public school system is urban areas going to require a much more fundamental societal change than simply eliminating charter schools, if that is the focus of your diary.

    •  What I suggest would help: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      esquimaux, David Kaib

      Real equality. Like what Finland has instituted. And stop enabling inequality. NOLA is the poster boy of inequality by design. The situation with NOLA schools didn't happen by accident. It was intentional. BTW, I never called for eliminating charter schools. I question why they should be given advantages.

  •  Charter schools (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Utahrd

    attract parents of students of color in huge numbers because the standard public school system is serving students of color poorly. In addition, the higher degree of curricular freedom at charter schools enables them to put more emphasis on the histories and cultures of communities of color.

    If you dismantled the charter schools, most of these students of color would return to the same de-facto-segregated public schools that were serving them poorly in the first place, but would lose an opportunity for a richer and more engaging education.

    Any new integration effort would have to listen to the concerns of these minority parents and students.

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 07:03:01 AM PST

    •  So that's our only choice? (4+ / 0-)

      Charter schools that separate races or "de-facto-segregated public schools"? Don't you think the Finnish approach -- emphasizing equality -- has merits? And of course any "integration effort" has to take into account "the concerns of these minority parents and students."

      Please don't assume that I'm against all charter schools. They can serve an important role when they emerge from real grassroots parent and teacher partnerships. But what's apparent from our current direction is looking much more like a return to Jim Crow rather than a new and promising path toward greater equality.

      •  No, it's absolutely not our only choice (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Utahrd

        What I, personally, would advocate is a national curriculum (with actual specific educational standards for each grade) and national (equal) funding of schools. I actually am against charter schools in the abstract. The French and Finnish models are excellent.

        But you have to look at why people are moving to charter schools. For minority parents, it's not because they're segregated; the schools their kids are attending, in most cases, are already segregated. It's because they hope their kids will actually get a decent education. The standard public schools are failing them.

        And they're not failing because they're segregated. They're failing white kids too, albeit not as badly, and they're failing children of color and poor children even in well-integrated schools. They're failing because the American-"progressive" discovery-learning model of fragmented and incoherent education is fundamentally broken, and only kids with well-educated parents with a lot of time on their hands are able to learn anything.

        Segregated schools are, of course, and will always be unfair. But it doesn't necessarily follow that any model that is (possibly slightly) more integrated is necessarily more fair than any more segregated model could be. The truth is that the current theoretically-integrated model is broken and is at least as unfair as de-facto-segregated-but-well-run charter schools, and possibly more so.

        So we need to fix the current public school model. But the fixes that are required go a whole lot deeper than just "equal funding," because the way students are taught in American schools (and I use the word "taught" loosely, as the current model isn't supposed to involve a whole lot of teaching, which is the problem) is the root of a huge portion of our educational inequality.

        "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

        by kyril on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 09:18:24 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  American schools are not (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          jeff bryant

          systematically failing, although that claim has proven useful to those who seek to dismantle public education. Charters are not systematically better than public schools. Charters that are better tend to be better funded by corporate donors and to take the best students with the most engaged parents. And the claim that charters are a panacea prevents improvements to curriculum (which progressive reformers typically support). Most progressive reformers call for pedagogical approaches for poor students that are similar to those used for priviledged students (that would be equality) - it is the charter movement that says poor kids need different approaches.

          Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. @DavidKaib

          by David Kaib on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 07:22:48 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  asdf (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            joe wobblie
            Most progressive reformers call for pedagogical approaches for poor students that are similar to those used for priviledged students (that would be equality)

            This is the mistake. Simply applying the same approach to everyone is not the definition of "equality," or even equal opportunity.

            Consider if we provided no education at all - consider if the schools were just giant daycare centers where kids sat in a room and did whatever they wanted all day without guidance. Privileged students would clearly come out better-informed and better-educated because of their advantages at home.

            What we have now isn't that, but the ideal progressive model is frighteningly close to that, and that's what the public schools are moving toward. That 'progressive' model of discovery-learning and an absence of teacher-led instruction is endorsed by virtually all schools of education and, sadly but predictably, the teachers' unions, despite vast quantities of evidence against it from other fields of research and other countries.

            That pedagogical approach, widely used for privileged students and poor students alike, doesn't work for poor students. It doesn't work for privileged students either, but the results aren't as bad because privileged students are more likely to have parents who can fill in the gaps.

            A structured, coherent curriculum with pedagogy characterized by direct whole-class instruction and constant teacher interaction works better for all students, but the difference is particularly enormous for less privileged students.

            That's the model used by France, Finland, Germany, and most of the rest of the world's top primary school systems (despite the selective perception of American educators writing about their new darling Finland). Countries that use that model do better by their best students while also producing better average achievement, but their most notable characteristic is that they score better on measures of educational equality.

            But you can't get that in ordinary American public schools. Instead you get a incoherent, fragmented, vague curriculum and a pedagogy that simply does not work, that leaves children sitting alone trying to independently construct two millenia of human intellectual achievement from colored pencils and string. Rich kids with educated parents with a lot of time on their hands will eventually appear to learn something, because they'll go home confused and their parents will explain (despite guidance from the school asking them not to). But kids who rely on the school for their education? Not so much.

            And then you layer on top of that mess a testing system that forces teachers to provide some direct instruction to prepare for the test. But instead of actually teaching the subject (that's what they think they're doing normally, so why would they do it again?) they decide that what the kids need to learn is test-taking techniques, tricks, and miscellaneous assorted specialized tools for looking like they know the subject.

            The privileged kids might actually benefit from some of this because the tricks might make sense if they understand the underlying ideas. The poor kids are just stuck trying to memorize a bunch of rules that don't seem to be connected to anything. Test scores might improve, but the poor kids still don't really learn anything, and now there's no time left in the day for art, science, or music.

            You can't blame parents for being frustrated by this state of affairs and seeking a better option. Are charter schools a panacea? No. Many of them use the same failed instructional model because they're employing people certified by the same departments of education. Others use different but equally bad models. But at least there's a chance of them doing better, and that's going to be attractive to parents as long as they see that there's no chance of the public schools doing better.

            I do see the charter school movement at the top as rather sinister - it seems to be a way for corporations to extract money from communities while undermining unions and workers' rights. It's also far too friendly to the "educational technology" industry; some promoters would happily replace teachers with computers if they could. Teachers being central to effective education, this is of course terrible.

            But at the bottom, the charter movement is driven by people who want (at least the hope of) a decent education for their kids. And you're not going to be successful in driving those people away from it until you provide something that's clearly a better alternative. The public schools, under the current educational paradigm, are not that thing.

            "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

            by kyril on Sat Jan 07, 2012 at 08:14:49 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The idea that there is a single (0+ / 0-)

              pedagogical approach in this country is laughable.  No one blames parents. Most people like their public schools. Americans who aren'tpoor stack up quite well internationally. Teachers unions are not nearly as powerful as you imagine nor have the impact you imagine - if they were the best schools would be in MS. You can't argue about public policy while getting so many of the basic facts wrong about the facts and the debate.

              Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. @DavidKaib

              by David Kaib on Sat Jan 07, 2012 at 09:48:11 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Our Dual Immersion progams should close? (0+ / 0-)

    So in other words, our Dual Immersion public charter schools should close?

    Up by the ski resorts, there's a special public school for kids who are trying to become pro or Olympic skiers or snowboarders.  It's pretty close to 100% white.

    It should be closed, right?

    •  I can't comment on your specific situation (0+ / 0-)

      But as I said up thread, there is certainly a place for grassroots partnerships of parents and educators to create ideal learning environments for specific populations of students in their communities. My contention is that target marketing public schools to specific audiences -- and then accepting public funds -- is enabling inequality.

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