Charter schools should educate, not discriminate

Immigrant children deserve excellent schooling too

January 13, 2014 11:00AM ET
Students at a charter school in Washington, D.C., in 2012.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Public schools have historically been key institutions in our nation of immigrants. They provide a space for young people, regardless of their economic or ethnic background, to acclimate themselves to U.S. norms, share their cultures with their peers and learn to speak, read and write in English. As part of a formal Americanization push beginning at the turn of the last century, the schools provided English classes after school and on Saturdays, while settlement houses, private charity groups and city-based chambers of commerce helped adults learn the language. By the 1910s, at least some European immigrant children in Northeastern and Midwestern states had access to bilingual English-language education programs that allowed them to form the basic civic ties necessary for social advancement. The community-based programs expanded until, after the end of World War I, they began to be defunded locally in favor of more nationalized programs. The public schools, though, remained as one of the most critical nodes for English acquisition in communities.

Today traditional public schools are suffering cuts and closures at the hands of federal and state lawmakers — sometimes even at the hands of mayors. Schools committed to bilingual and English language learner (ELL) education, which serve kids who are learning English in addition to their native language, are as vulnerable as the rest. And the charter schools sprouting in U.S. cities, where many first-generation immigrants live, aren’t always able or willing to provide the same service.

Charters are the linchpin of the so-called education reform movement, which rests on the assumption that private schools outperform public schools simply by virtue of being privately run. So-called reformers promote the mass implementation of charter schools as a market-oriented fix for the troubles of public schools in impoverished districts. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are now about 6,000 public charter schools nationwide, serving more than 2.3 million children. The number of charters has increased by almost 400 percent in the past 14 years.

Education should not be a market-based commodity, but charter operators are organized to act as though it were. The “product” that charters are supposed to deliver is better test scores, and they impose corporate-style accountability measures like standardized exams, paying teachers less and firing them at will and eliminating many noninstructional staff positions to achieve their goals.

It should come as no surprise that private charter operators and their employees are driven by economic imperatives to avoid accepting children whose scores are tough to raise, like kids who are English language learners. If a charter has a lower percentage of ELL students to teach than a traditional public school, its average reported test scores may be easier to raise.

A 2010 review of Philadelphia School District charter schools found that oversight was virtually nonexistent.

In early 2013, Reuters released an in-depth report showing that charter schools across the United States have adopted complex screening practices that include requiring detailed applications available only in English, tight scheduling that allows for application only during an annual two- or three-hour window and Social Security card or birth-certificate checks (which are illegal requirements). In one example, only 5 percent of students in San Francisco’s Gateway High charter school were ELLs while a neighboring public school — less than a mile away — had an ELL population of 14 percent. (Unlike charters, public schools must by law take responsibility for teaching every student who lives in their districts.)

Admissions at charter schools are poorly regulated: A 2010 review of Philadelphia School District charter schools found that oversight was virtually nonexistent. And while his work doesn't specifically focus on immigrant kids, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker has written a paper that shows that charter schools in Newark, N.J., systemically select students who are more likely to succeed. This is known as "cream skimming". Some charter operators are especially guilty — he names North Star Academy in particular — but overall, Baker argues that skimming is often present when a randomized lottery admission system includes only those kids whose parents are able to enter them in the lottery in the first place. The result, in the case of Newark’s schools, is that the charters wind up serving 15 percent of the overall student population but only 1 percent of the ELLs.

Lessons from history

The current challenges of educating immigrant children are not so different from those the United States encountered a century ago. In 1911, immigration officials found that 77 percent of Italian immigrant schoolchildren were at least one grade behind. But the public schools made the push to help them thrive in their new country. According to historian Jacob Vigdor’s book “From Immigrants to Americans: The Rise and Fall of Fitting,” by 1920, 80 percent of those who arrived from 1906 to 1910 and 85 percent of arrivals from 1896 to 1900 spoke English.

U.S. public schools were one place those European migrants who didn’t speak English learned the language. Will we be able to say the same for today’s young people, no matter where they were born or what language they speak at home? And why isn’t this a more pressing priority for voters and the representatives they elect?

Some commentators who oppose better programs for immigrant children would say that school districts cannot afford them because immigrants do not pay their fair share. This is a misperception. In states where schools are funded by property taxes, immigrants who buy homes pay in directly, and those who rent an apartment contribute indirectly, since property taxes are one of the expenses landlords routinely factor in when setting rents. Repeated studies have shown that the economic contributions of new immigrants are helping bolster other public programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Charters use public money; they are therefore part of the public education system and must be held accountable to the mandate of that system.

What’s more, the U.S. already has a large immigrant population, and history teaches us that strong public schools are a key avenue for all members of our communities to be able to attain higher levels of education and go on to work in well-compensated and satisfying jobs. Alongside reforming immigration laws, we need to shore up the institutions — including schools — that provide all children with an opportunity to succeed and to contribute to the prosperity of our country.

The fight to improve public education and keep quality schools accessible to all is thus a fight for immigrants’ rights. Charter schools were meant to be laboratories for educational innovation — a place to develop experiments that could be incorporated into the public school system — and not a replacement for inclusive, high-quality public education. Now that charter schools exist on a mass scale, supporters of public educationshould be pushing for guarantees that they accept all students, regardless of language or family background, as well as challenging new policies granting charters permission to expand without oversight, like one rule being proposed in Pennsylvania.

More research must be focused on how charters could be better structured to serve ELLs, and charters schools’ admissions procedures should be examined with more scrutiny to ensure that they are completely fair. Charters use public money; they are therefore part of the public education system and must be held accountable to the mandate of that system.

Anyone who supports the rights of immigrants should speak up and demand that school districts do more to preserve the right of all kids to a full education in our public schools. Otherwise, children with boundless potential — kids who could someday found companies, invent new technologies or discover medical cures — may end up dropping out instead. And the loss will be all of ours. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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