Racially homogeneous charters = freely chosen segregation?

In an op-ed in New York’s Daily News this week, Stuart Buck defends all-minority charter schools against accusations that they’re reviving racial segregation, arguing that “there is a type of freely chosen segregation that may further the goal of educational achievement.”

Former First Lady Laura Bush at a charter school in New Orleans (photo courtesy of Shealah Craighead)

Buck makes some interesting points, but readers need additional context to weigh the merits of his argument.

Elsewhere, including in The Washington Post, Buck has written about the phenomenon of “acting white.” Buck, a Harvard-trained lawyer who is now working on a doctorate in education, says black students can be discouraged from achieving when they’re placed in desegregated environments.

Here again, he makes the point that the hostility that blacks encountered during desegregation was counterproductive, hurting their “morale” and therefore their achievement.

Buck’s argument rings true for many blacks; I’ve spent the past year researching a case in the South in which black parents fought desegregation  in order to preserve a traditionally black school and its strong culture of providing role models for black students and nurturing their achievement. For some excellent insights into the positive aspects of black schools under segregation, I recommend the work of Vanessa Siddle Walker of Emory University. She has examined how black schools cared about black students and their performance, something that evaporated when many black schools were closed and thousands of black teachers and principals lost their jobs in the aftermath of desegregation.

However, there is also a body of research out there suggesting that black self-esteem isn’t actually linked to achievement — so, although it might be common sense to think that higher morale would help black students do better in school, that’s not necessarily the case. This is not to say that it’s okay for schools to undermine how black students feel about themselves, just that it shouldn’t necessarily be the focus of efforts to close the achievement gap.

At the same time, other research has found that desegregation had a positive effect on closing the achievement gap for blacks, although for some caveats, see a new study by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

I also wonder if black parents (and charter school leaders, for that matter) would characterize their decision to enroll their child in a charter school that is racially homogeneous as “freely chosen segregation.” I’ve spent the past few weeks talking with parents and students at charters in New York City for a separate story. The parents live in racially homogeneous neighborhoods like Harlem and Crown Heights where the only other choices are racially homogeneous – and low-performing – public schools. When these parents seek out better schools for their children, the options don’t include high-performing, majority-white schools like P.S. 321 in Park Slope. The only choices that tend to be open to them are racially homogeneous charters.