Congress is considering new charter legislation, awarding more money to the charter sector, which will operate with minimal accountability or transparency.
The bill has already passed the House of Representatives with a bipartisan majority and now moves to the Senate.
Make no mistake: on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, Congress is set to expand a dual school system. One sector, privately managed, may choose its students, exclude those who might pull down its test scores, and kick out those it doesn't want. The other sector -- the public schools -- must take in all students, even those kicked out by the charters.
One sector -- the charter sector -- may enroll no students with profound disabilities, while the public schools are required by federal law to accept them all. The charter sector may accept only half as many English language learners, while the public schools are required to accept them all. Some charter schools push out children who are behavior problems, the public schools must take them all.
This is a dual school system, one bound by laws, the other deregulated. One free to select the "winners, " the other bound to accept all.
Will federally-funded charters be allowed to operate for profit, as many charters do? Will they pay their executives exorbitant salaries, of more than $400,000, as some charters do? Will they be exempt from nepotism laws, as many charters are? Will charter leaders be allowed to hire their relatives or give them contracts? Will they be exempt from conflict of interest and self-dealing laws, as they are in some states? Will members of the board be permitted to win profitable contracts from the board?
The growth of the charter sector has been driven by a strange coalition. Charters are supported by wealthy hedge fund managers who give generously to individual charters and to charter chains; they fund political candidates who support charters. Charters are supported enthusiastically by the Obama administration, which endorses the privatization of public schools. Charters are a favorite of conservative groups like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and right-wing governors. Charters receive millions from some of the nation's wealthiest foundations, including the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.
This odd coalition doesn't seem to care that it is reversing the Brown decision of 1954. The fact that charters are highly segregated does not trouble them. The fact that charters undermine public education, an institution that is basic to our democracy, does not trouble them.
The federal courts bore the historic burden of dismantling the long-established institution of legally-enforced racial segregation. Sadly, as new justices were appointed, the federal courts abandoned that role. The U.S. Department of Education too abandoned its once strong dedication to eliminating segregation and ignored its return. Both parties lost interest in integration. Imagine if the Obama administration had dedicated its $5 billion in Race to the Top funds as rewards for districts that increased racial integration. Instead, it initiated a pursuit of higher test scores, and dismissed segregation as yesterday's issue.
Once there was a dream that American children could live and learn together. That was Dr. Martin Luther King's dream. The charter movement says that dream is over, if it ever existed, and that the democratic dream of equal educational opportunity for all in common schools controlled by local communities is history, a relic of the past, replaced by the 21st century reality of a dual school system, separate and unequal.
Should we acquiesce in a social arrangement that we know is wrong? Should we celebrate the official approval of segregated schools? Should we hail Congress for bending to the new realities of segregation and academic apartheid? Should we cheer Congressional support for privately-managed schools that get public funds but are not subject to the same requirements of accountability and transparency as public schools?
The 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision is a time to recall how far short we have fallen from our ideals. And a time to plan for the day when we can reclaim them and build the America we want for our children and grandchildren.