It’s time for black Americans to think strategically about charter schools

Regardless of how the legal challenges to House Bill 514 play out, charter schools will remain a growing fixture on our educational landscape.

Glenn H. Burkins

Arthur Griffin, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair and current chair of the Political Black Caucus, talks at a press conference in opposition to House Bill 514, which would allow four towns in the northern Mecklenburg to form their own charter schools. He is joined by local clergy, education advocates and three other African Americans who once chaired the local school board. (Photo: Kayanah Alexander for Qcitymetro.)

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” ~ V. S. Naipaul, from his book “A Bend in the River”

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As Charlotte wrestles with racial inequalities that were baked into our nation’s founding, no issue looms larger than the future of public education.

We cannot begin to talk about economic mobility without first talking about education. We cannot begin to have a meaningful discussion about crime without first addressing the achievement gap in our schools. We cannot begin to fix any of the myriad issues that threaten to further divide our city along racial and class lines without first figuring out how to properly educate the poor, who are disproportionately black and brown.

So it was with mixed feelings last week that I watched four former school board chairs — Arthur Griffin Jr., George Battle Sr., Wilhelmenia Rembert and Ericka Ellis-Stewart – join a bevy of local clergy to denounce House Bill 514.

Before you brand me a complete fool, let me first explain.

I believe with every fiber of my being that a certain segment of America is looking to undermine our public education. I also have no doubt that race and class weigh heavily in their desire.

But my biggest concern is that those who strategize to engineer a permanent underclass in America might ultimately succeed.

Which brings me back to H.B. 514 and the future of charter school in our state.

Under that controversial provision, which passed the House and Senate, the towns of Cornelius, Mint Hill, Matthews and Huntersville were given the right to operate their own charter schools. (Legislators are treating HB 514 as a local law that does not require the governor’s signature.)

Critics of H.B. 514 correctly note that the proposal will further segregate our schools by race and class, and they have vowed to challenge its legality in court. Supporters say the legislation is simply a means of getting more resources into suburban schools, which are already overcrowded.

Regardless of how this fight plays out, no one should doubt that the attack on public education will continue across America – and that charter schools will be a primary weapon in that fight.

So what should be the focus of African Americans as we face this latest challenge?

First, we must admit that when it comes to educating poor, black children, our public schools have failed us supremely. So what is it, exactly, that we are fighting to preserve?

Second, we must formulate a forward-thinking strategy that might bring about real change.

While the courts might afford some relief here or there, legal challenges must not make up the totality of our long-term thinking. If we believe, as I do, that charter schools will be a growing fixture on our educational landscape, then we must devise a comprehensive plan to use them to the betterment of our impoverished neighborhoods.

The world is what it is, and right now that world is changing at a breathtaking pace. Industries that were once the bedrock of our economy have been brought low by technology and time. Does anyone truly believe that in a hundred years from now – nay, 25 years from now — that we will still be educating children as we do today?

As black Americans, we must find a comfortable place in this evolving world. A loss in court today is but a momentary roadblock for those who value racial segregation. (See Brown vs Board of Education.)

Yes, let’s fight in court when we must. But we can’t stop there. Our political leaders and clergy must also paint a vision of what can be. They must think creatively and strategically. And, step by step, we must recommit to doing the hard work that lies ahead of us.

Those who remain relevant in tomorrow’s America won’t do so by court decree but rather by figuring out how to navigate the ever-changing system to attain economic, political and educational advancement, lest they become nothing.

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