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Commentary: How California’s legislation targeting public charter schools shows that blue states can oppress black people too

Margaret Fortune | May 6, 2019

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Blue states oppress black people too. Nowhere is this more obvious than in policing and public education in California.

California’s Legislature is grappling with these issues this session. Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), a progressive voice and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, is authoring AB 392, which seeks to change the use of deadly force by California law enforcement officers — thus hoping to stop the police shootings of unarmed black people.

Weber has also introduced AB 575, an education bill sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association that would acknowledge black students as a high-needs group in the state because of their chronically low academic achievement and drive more funding to the public schools that serve them.

Taken together, Weber’s bills offer a provocative challenge to a blue state where black youth struggle with the reality that they are targeted by the police, but not for school funding.

At the same time, another group of Democrats in Sacramento are showing how politicians can be liberal and tone-deaf at the same time on issues of race in public schools as they work on behalf of teachers unions to dismantle public charter schools in the name of balancing school budgets.

Assemblymembers Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita) have authored AB 1505, 1506 and 1507, measures that will kill public charter schools and limit public school options for black children, who are one of the lowest-performing subgroups of students in California.

Let’s put this in perspective. Charter schools have been a part of California’s public school system since 1992. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Van Nuys) authored the charter school law at a time when Californians were considering a school voucher initiative on the state ballot. California’s charter school law came to be in the context of providing parents with choice within the public school system.

According to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, black parents are more likely than other ethnic groups to choose a charter school. If these bills pass, black parents will no longer be able to choose where their children will go to school within the public school system. This means that they will be forced to send their children to the district-run public schools, which have an alarmingly poor track record of educating black children.

It is well established that California’s public school system is failing black children, with suspension rates three times that of white students and the state’s lowest academic performance for children without learning disabilities. Last year, only 32 percent of black students met state standards in ELA, compared with 50 percent of all students.

Legislators McCarty, Bonta, O’Donnell, Kalra and Smith represent the majority of California’s Assembly Education Committee and are backed by labor. The fix was in when they passed their anti-charter school bill package at a public hearing on April 10 over the objection of hundreds of parents from black, brown and immigrant families who clogged the halls of the state Capitol. I attended the hearing. Testifying for hours in opposition to the bills, parents outnumbered red-shirted, teachers union members in support of the bills at a ratio of 20 to 1.

Black parents at the hearing, who watched the Democratic committee majority carry the union’s water, got a clear message that it’s not about their children at all. It’s about the money.

Yes, school districts like Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento have crippling financial problems. However, as the editors of The Sacramento Observer wrote, to try to place the blame of poorly managed school districts on public charter schools is misleading and wrong.

At the crux of the issue for school districts in financial distress is the confluence of declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and low student attendance with skyrocketing teacher pension and health care costs that exceed the districts’ ability to pay.

The crisis in public funding for education in the state is real. California ranks 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending.

But, if you are interested in problem-solving, scapegoating charter schools for the fiscal insolvency of school districts lacks the nuance that the reality of the situation requires. It also puts the future of the 660,000 students who attend charter schools in California in jeopardy. That’s 10 percent of the state’s student enrollment.

All schools need adequate and equitable funding to ensure each student has a chance at success.

Education is a core value for Californians. Making public funding match public values is an expensive proposition. But if California’s public schools can’t stop fighting among themselves, they will miss the opportunity to stand together for increased investments for all public school students.

The truth is, the California Teachers Association used teacher strikes in L.A. and Oakland to shoehorn the same anti-charter school agenda they’ve always had into a set of bills that, if passed, would have a devastating impact on California’s black community for generations to come.

As the richest and most powerful lobby in public education, the CTA has had plenty of time to fix a broken school system for black children. But they haven’t. Instead, they want black students back in district-run schools for the money.

That’s not progressive. It’s disrespectful and oppressive to black families who have exercised their right to choose public charter schools.

Black oppression is wrong, even at the hands of a blue state.

Margaret Fortune is president and CEO of the Fortune School and the graduate Rex & Margaret Fortune School of Education, board chair of the California Charter Schools Association, a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Charter Task Force and trustee emerita of California State University.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.  

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