- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Separate but unequal. That was the legal theory the NAACP successfully used to bat down public school segregation.

The same strategy is being used against public charter schools, which were created to compete with traditional public schools.

And now that another battle is on, we have to push back against unions and their supporters who are resurrecting the old separate-but-equal argument, and here’s why:

1) Charter schools are by and large separate from the bureaucracy run by traditional systems but receive public dollars. But as a separate system, charters schools are forced to do more with less when it comes to low-income children, who somehow still flourish academically, like their counterparts in Roman Catholic schools.

2) Charter students often excel because union puppet masters don’t control the strings of their school administrators and overseers, or their purse strings.

3) When state and local budgets shrink, and underenrolled traditional schools are closed, charters fill in several gaps as specialty or magnet schools for high schoolers and as neighborhood schools for younger children.

The District and New Orleans are perfect examples of the facts laid out in No. 3.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated both the public and parochial systems in New Orleans, and if it weren’t for public charters, most school-age children in the Big Easy wouldn’t have educational homes.

In the nation’s capital, federal lawmakers created charter schools after decades of unchecked spending. Cash poor, the city failed not only to maintain its schoolhouses but also failed to deliver an academic future for its schoolchildren.

Even D.C. lawmakers noted at an education roundtable Wednesday that if it weren’t for charters there would be no middle schools in Ward 5, which includes several renowned educational institutions, including Catholic, Gallaudet and Howard universities.

At the hearing, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr. talked about the need to rebuild the bridge between middle and secondary schools and about “equal” resources.

Both lawmakers benefited from the NAACP’s fight against school desegregation. Yet they missed the point.

Back then, when the 1954 Supreme Court was deciding Brown v. Board of Education, there was no question that funding for white schools outpaced funding for black schools.

The issue today, though, isn’t so much funding disparity as it is over-funding for unionized school systems, which have to adhere to collective bargaining agreements, automatic teacher raises and benefits, and the like.

The school-choice movement, whose greatest feat to date is the nationwide demand for public charter schools, also is gaining ground on another front - the so-called parent trigger.

This aspect of choice calls for states and localities to give greater weight to parents when it comes to closing, reconstituting or reconfiguring schools.

California and New York are among several states considering legislating a parent trigger, which obviously would undermine unions.

Indeed, the growing competition from charter schools and the parent trigger sparked an old fuse in Hazel Dukes, the high-profile president of the New York state chapter of the NAACP, who told a charter mom that her school-choice advocacy carries out work for “slave masters.”

“In a public school, I want everything to be equitable,” Ms. Dukes said. “We shouldn’t have a dividing line. In my humble opinion, that is segregation.”

But segregation is when you have no choice. That is not the case in New York, where the NAACP and the United Federation of Teachers are pitching a legal fit because New York needs to pare down its school system and parents are turning to charters as their No. 1 public alternative.

Before the Brown decision in 1954, blacks didn’t have a choice.

Heck, many of them never saw the inside walls of a traditional schoolhouse.

Then slowly, slowly but surely, the courts, Congress and the White House acknowledged America’s “birth defect,” as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly deemed it.

Finally, parents in New York, D.C. and elsewhere are on the road to school reform.

We can’t turn back the clock, but we owe it to our children and our children’s children to make sure they have a choice.

c Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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