Sorry Puff Daddy, Charter Schools Won't Fix Inequality

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by Dr. Pandwe Gibson

Yesterday, New York City celebrated the opening of Capital Prepatory Harlem Charter School, funded by entrepreneurs Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Dr. Steve Harvey.

“Great schools and great education make a big difference,” Combs told the Daily News at the new school’s ribbon cutting ceremony, “Unfortunately, too many people don’t get the opportunity to succeed, no matter how hard they try. This is leveling the playing field here at Capital Prep.”

But, for the vast majority of Black children in America, the social and economic ills of inequality cannot be cured with schools and textbooks alone.

As a 30-year-old Black woman who spent years as a teacher and started the first charter management organization in the South, which was responsible for opening 17 successful charter schools in low-income, minority communities, I witnessed the many ways the charter school movement has failed minority children and communities all across America. I was also forced to acknowledge the limitations of promoting education-focused agendas alone in economically stifled or underdeveloped communities.

The charter school-era in America was ushered in by advocates who thought education would be the cure-all for the disease of inequality. That narrative has begun to fall apart as the system battles failure in many states, and has even had a negative impact on local economies, sometimes eroding the social fabric of an entire community by displacing both children and teachers.

Among the numerous examples of charter school systems (including, but not limited to, those in Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota) failing their communities, the New Orleans, Louisiana experiment offers a unique case study because the city faces a number of social, economic and environmental strains which may become particularly commonplace as global warming continues to impact weather patterns and strengthen storms that can affect coastal areas.

After Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history which claimed over a thousand lives, the city implemented an all-charter school system (the first of its kind in American history) that was at first heralded as a success. City officials boasted a substantial decline in students attending failing schools-- from 62% to 7% post Katrina. However, deeper investigations revealed that the school system was displacing many of the city’s most vulnerable and underperforming children.

And children were not the only ones displaced by the charter school system. Black and minority teachers (and by extension parents and family members) were as well. According to the Schools and Staffing Survey, from 2004-05 to 2013-14, the percent of black teachers in New Orleans dropped from 71% to 49%. About half of this change occurred in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane when many teachers were dismissed and not rehired, followed by a steady reduction in proportion of Black teachers and an increase in the proportion of white teachers. There was also a significant decrease of hired teachers who were from or had roots in Louisiana, from 60% in 2005 to 34% in 2014.

In an effort to promote a viable charter school system, Louisiana negatively impacted the social and economic viability of the entire city. Students were kicked out of schools and parents found themselves without access to economic opportunities as teachers—who comprised much of the city’s middle class.  Education-only focused agendas may be ineffective at addressing inequality, and may exacerbate preexisting problems.

If this nation cares to level out the playing field and combat inequality on a large scale, it is important that we implement a sustainability model that affords both parents and children access to more economic opportunities. Even if education-focused programs are successfully implemented, what sense is there in teaching children the periodic table in a service-oriented economy? That is what we are seeing in cities like New Orleans where federal employment data reveal a local economy increasingly skewed to low-wage jobs, especially restaurant work, one of the few sectors now employing more people than before Katrina. No wonder the economic divide between White and Black families has grown larger than ever in the city.

Currently, there is a 1 million worker shortage in tech sector that can provide tremendous opportunities for struggling minority communities. These communities need coding training, solar panel training, more opportunities for adults to go from blue collar to green collar workers. When parents are armed with economic resources, they will be able to advocate for the culture and the knowledge that they want transmitted to their children. Economic justice is about creating an economic playing field where parents can decide what the education of their children should look like. It is not merely presenting a single, simple “schooling” solution to the complex problems of vast economic and social inequality.

It is commendable that many Americans with resources like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Steve Harvey continue to try to combat inequality by affording more Black children with (what they perceive to be) better education. However, the schooling-only focused method has already failed any Black communities nationwide. It is time we begin to envision better alternative. A focus on transitioning Black and minority communities from reliance on the blue-collar economy to participation in the green-collar economy may be one of them.

Dr. Pandwe Gibson is making going green cool, practical and profitable. After founding and scaling a network of highliy successful schools, she dove into the business world where she started over 20 successful companies. Through EcoTech Visions, she is guiding entrepreneurs to grow green manufacturing and combat inequality.

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