I am a black man and strong advocate of charter schools, as a founder and full-time teacher at one in New York.
After the 2017 election, I listened to the many laments of a coming regression from apparent post-racial bliss under former President Barack Obama to the concrete racism of President Donald J. Trump.
But here’s the truth: racism in this country has never really abated.
Rather, it has evolved, often into the deceptively comely visage of racial paternalism.
Nowhere is the inequity of paternalism and structural racism more insidious than in the charter-school sector.
Consider that in the nation’s largest cities, where well over 80 percent of charter-school students are black or Latino, fewer than 33 percent of teachers are black or Latino, and fewer than 10 percent of charter schools are founded and led by blacks or Latinos. In New York City, the last figure is under six percent.
Look no further than KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and Success Academies. The largest charter-school operators in New York, they were founded and have been led and staffed primarily by whites, even as the majority of the students and communities they serve are black and brown. Charter schools — which are privately managed public schools, and mostly nonprofit — were intended to generate innovation and increased community control. Yet the proliferation of charter schools led and staffed overwhelmingly by whites is a serious impediment to their potential.
While I am not asserting that white-founded organizations cannot do good work in communities of color — many don’t, but all of the above do — these numbers nonetheless reflect white supremacy made visible.
The dominance of white leadership sends a message that only whites can save black and brown people from abysmal traditional public education (which, too, is typically led and operated by whites). Again, we need look no further than the recently reported comments by billionaire Daniel Loeb, Chairman of Success Academy Charter Schools, accusing New York City Deputy Mayor Richard Buery of being “smug and satisfied” with the current state of public education for “at-risk” black and brown children. Loeb is white and Buery is black. It is the very essence of white privilege that would lead Loeb to think wealth best positions him to critique Buery’s more than two decades of social-justice work on behalf of black and brown families. (Late last year, Buery announced that he would leave his post, but said he will remain in office until a replacement is found).
White founders, funders and authorizers have rarely asked these communities what is best for their children. A cursory study of black-led education movements —Freedom Schools and the East, among others — would have revealed that empowerment engenders excellence, not zero tolerance and shame employed in the “no-excuses” model favored by white-led organizations.
After conducting a review of the publicly available documents and information on top donor funds and foundations to charter schools, including research on the founders, leadership and board membership of every grantee and investment in the education sector, here is what I found: In 2016, the Walton Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Robin Hood Foundation and Margaret and Daniel Loeb Third Point Foundation donated a combined nearly $1 billion to charter schools and education organizations. Of that total, one percent reached black- and Latino-led organizations. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Gates Foundation are among the numerous funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity bypass the very black and Latino communities where these schools are located, as the vast majority of employment and commerce flow to corporations and people who rarely hire, live or spend there.
Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man still rings true: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Why this should matter? Look to either the 2017 Johns Hopkins’ study “Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations” or last November’s powerful “See Our Truth” report by the Education Trust. Both highlight the significant impact that black and Latino teachers and leaders have on outcomes for black and Latino children.
Solutions won’t arise from concern over whether white students are sitting next to black students in the lunchroom. Nor will “special” diversity initiatives. We cannot expect those responsible for this problem to be authors of its solution. As the poet Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Frustration and rage won’t change this either. Instead, the sector can learn from our school’s approach, responsible for rendering exceptional teacher diversity: over 95 percent black and Latino. Like a law firm, we empower highly compensated, full-time practitioners (teachers) as the school’s primary decision-makers, and use cultural relevancy, agency and neuroscience to shift the school’s enterprise from merely providing information to intentional human development. Our version of the teaching profession attracts and retains talent, particularly people of color: annual teacher turnover has never exceeded 15 percent, while peer charters in New York City average an astounding 41 percent turnover rate, likely far greater among their teachers of color.
If you are a true ally, what thinking are you willing to change? What are you willing to yield so that black and brown people can achieve equity on our own terms?
Will you help us create the first multibillion-dollar fund to support the development of black- and Latino-led charter schools? Will you demand that 50 percent of all new charters go to black and brown founders, and that existing charters better reflect the communities they serve?
Many whites with fierce commitment to social justice lead the organizations I’ve named, and others. This critique is not an attempt to vilify and dismiss your good works. Yet good conscience alone does not absolve you of your role in the perpetuation of structural racism in the charter sector.
Instead, if you can find the vulnerability and courage to answer the above questions affirmatively, together we will have the strength to uproot this entrenched racism once and for all. Then, perhaps, this last year might not have been for naught.
Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II, Esq. is the co-founder and managing partner of Ember Charter School for Mindful Education in Brooklyn, New York, where he serves as a teacher and co-school leader. He is the founder of the #BlackLedSchoolsMatter initiative and a 2017 fellow of The OpEd Project’s Ford Public Voices Fellowship.