Delaware charter fight brings memories of another education era

 John Watson and President Obama earlier this year at a White House meeting of students who fought for desegregation. (photo courtesy John Watson)

John Watson and President Obama earlier this year at a White House meeting of students who fought for desegregation. (photo courtesy John Watson)

John Watson has firsthand knowledge about the fight for desegregation. He has some thoughts on the ACLU complaint over charter schools in Delaware.

Here is John Watson’s commentary

In the 1950’s we fought a hard fight for public school desegregation. The KKK was busy trying to frighten us into giving up with nighttime gun and rifle attacks in some states. There were church bombings killing children, and cross burnings in many places. But it didn’t work.

I witnessed some of that fight while at my high school, R.R. Moton, in Farmville, Va. We have a picture of a cross burned at our school. We were a part of the desegregation battle along with four other groups, including a group from Delaware. We know it today as the successful the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court ruling on May 17th, 1954. Chief Justice Earl Warren led the court in its unanimous vote desegregating public education.

As they put it, “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place.”  They went on to say, “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” It overruled the court’s 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling that “segregation in America is constitutional as long as it’s separate but equal.” The five cases in the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling looked at laws in South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.

Every ten years, beginning in 1964, we (members of the five states in the Brown vs Board cases) are invited to the White House to discuss/remember that historic journey. The President Obama sent me a picture of me shaking his hand, as he did with the others, at our meeting this year.

But now, it looks like we might have to go to the battle field again in Delaware. If you’ve read the stories told by reporters at WHYY’s NewsWorks.org and the News Journal, our charter school system is accused of contributing to the re-segregation of our public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Community Legal Aid Society have just filed a complaint about this with the U.S. Department of Education. It names the Delaware Department of Education, which authorizes charter schools and the Red Clay School District, which is in charge of a few in Wilmington, as being responsible for this issue.

The two groups say the charters take many of the affluent higher income white students from traditional schools, leaving a disproportionate number of minority students from low income families in district schools.

They argue that Delaware’s Charter Law is responsible for this disparity, which allows charter schools to create prohibitive requirements during the application process, entrance exams, parent essays, mandatory parental involvement, and required fees and uniforms.

And of course, this blocks the enrollment of low-income families. What’s up with that?

It seems to me traditional and charter schools should be the same. Charters should be available to your children if you want that. I can see a requirement of uniforms, but all of that other stuff should be against the law.

So, how about some laws forcing charter schools to have the same student requirements as traditional schools? You go to school to get a good education leading to a good job or career. Nothing else.

As Kathleen MacRae, Executive Director of the ACLU puts it to a WHYY NewsWorks reporter, “Charter Schools are supposed to be about choice for families. But this broad authority over the admission process means that it is the charter school that is making the choice.” She went on to say, “We can no longer allow the competition for a desk in a high performing charter school to come between neighbors and friends, or exclude students of color and students with special needs.”

I couldn’t agree more.

MacRae says a formal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education could respond to the charges, but it might take a long time before the federal government decides what to do. Things just move more slowly there.

As to be expected, the charter schools are rejecting the charges against them. Kendall Massett, Executive Director of the Delaware Charter School Network, points to a number of charters that enroll a majority of African American and Hispanic students. Low-income students are also included. She says the schools are doing well. In many cases their scores are improving. State records show that of Delaware’s 21 charter schools, just over half have a minority enrollment of over 50 percent.

Both groups are proposing a moratorium on authorizing and opening new charter schools until a new desegregation plan is in place. They are calling for a randomized lottery system of charter school admissions and providing extra funds for schools with a high minority student body, including students who are low-income or have special needs.

This argument isn’t new. It’s reported that earlier this year the U.S.  Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened three similar investigations. I look forward to my next trip to the White House, and hope that we never have to seek the help of the Supreme Court again in dealing with the issue of racial balance in public education. If need be, I’m ready to fight the same good fight again. But with the likes of the ACLU, Councilman Jea Street and others in this fight, I’m sure the Delaware charter schools will realize their mistakes and keep the federal government out of it. 

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