School Voucher Industry Strikes Back: We’re Segregated!? No, You’re Segregated!



In what must count as another new low in American discourse, the school voucher industry is striking back against claims that their products lead to greater segregation of students.


Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had the audacity to voice the truth:


“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” she said a week ago during a speech at the AFT’s yearly convention.


To which school privatization mouthpieces quickly countered with the truth:


“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants. The vast majority of our urban public school districts are segregated because of white flight and neighborhood neglect.”


This was from a statement by Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the school privatization advocacy group that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to lead.


So there you have it.


A nation of more than 325 million people, with a more than 241-year history reduced to – I Know You Are But What Am I?


The sad fact is that they’re both right.


School vouchers do lead to increased segregation (and so do charter schools, by the way, the method preferred by corporate Democrats). But many traditional public schools are, in fact, deeply segregated both racially and economically.


Does that mean that both systems – privatized and public – are equally at fault? Does it mean that both somehow get a pass for reprehensible behavior?


No and no.


First, we must explain why segregation is bad.


Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department under Obama, wagged his finger at Weingarten on the privatization propaganda Website, the 74.


He called out Weingarten’s hypocrisy, which takes some cojones for a man who only last year pondered aloud and in public whether segregation was really such a bad thing.


He had this to say last September:


“Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.”


Funny, isn’t it?


He calls out Weingarten because of public school segregation but defends charter schools because their segregation is somehow just swell.


Keep in mind. Cunningham is the executive director of the Education Post, a well-funded charter school public relations firm that packages its advertisements, propaganda and apologias as journalism. And he’s not about to poop where he eats.


So, yes, Mr. Cunningham, segregation is worth fighting.


When you have schools made up mostly of minority and/or economically disadvantaged students, it makes it easier to provide fewer resources and less funding to those children while sending the lion’s share to the white and wealthy.


That’s why in Brown v. Board the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “Separate but Equal” – because when races are kept separate, their schools are rarely equal.


This game of excusing one system based on the deficiencies of the other is pure sophistry.


You can’t defend voucher and charter schools from being segregated by reference to public school segregation. Nor can you ignore public school segregation by reference to the same at privatized schools.


They’re both bad, and they both need fixing.


To be fair, Weingarten seems to tacitly admit this about public schools.


She acknowledges the disinvestment in public education, how public schools have been systemically undermined by politicians and lobbyists, many of them advocating for privatized schools, so that they could use this disinvestment as an excuse for their own for-profit education schemes.


“…no amount of facts or evidence will sway voucher proponents from their agenda to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their deficiencies and let the market handle the rest, all in the name of choice,” she said in a statement.


The fact of the matter is this: public schools have become more segregated not because teachers or administrators want it, but because of local, state and federal law; a series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions allowing it within district boundaries; the continuation of racist redlining in the loan and insurance industry; and the xenophobia of wealthy and middle class whites who prefer their kids be educated separately from those they consider undesirable.


These policies could be changed. The system could be fixed. All it would take is the will to do it.


Charter and vouchers schools, on the other hand, will never solve the problem of segregation, because they have turned that problem into a “solution.”


Schools serving poor and minority students aren’t getting the proper resources. So they propose further segregating them.


That’s a terrible idea. It’s like escaping from a leaky cruise ship by jumping into a leaky lifeboat. You’ll sink in both, but the lifeboat will sink quicker.


Yes, our public schools are segregated by race and class and therefore poor and minority students receive inequitable funding and resources. Charters and vouchers cannot possibly remedy that. They will always make it worse. Only a robust and integrated public school system can be truly equitable. A system that deifies choice cannot combat racism if it is freely chosen.


What Weingarten is getting at is this: if we want to help the nation’s children – all of the nation’s children – we must support and reform public schools.


We must also acknowledge that many of the problems of systemic disinvestment are caused by those who want to privatize in the first place.


We have let the wolf write our education policy. It should be no shock that his solution isn’t to build more houses of bricks but to process our little piggies into bacon.


Full disclosure: I am no fan of Weingarten.


I recently called for both her and National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to voluntarily step down because of undemocratic practices and mismanagement in both teachers unions.


However, I’ll stand up for her when she’s right, and in this instance, she is.


If anything, maybe she should have included charter schools in her criticism. I laid into her in June for writing an op-ed with Jonah Edelman, an anti-union activist, specifically praising charter schools over vouchers.


But I get it. Now that some charter school teachers have unionized and joined the AFT, she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.


Frankly, it makes her ineffective in speaking out on this matter. I have nothing against charter school teachers. I know, personally, several very good educators who work at charter schools. In this job market, sometimes you have to take what you can get. However, the sad fact of the matter is that by their very structure, charter schools are inferior to public schools. They are less democratic, less transparent, less accountable and more easily subject to fraud and abuse of children. That’s not to say all charters are guilty of this, but just by being a charter school and being subject to the deregulated rules governing them, they are more susceptible to these errors than their traditional public school brethren.


But, of course, the same can be said of voucher schools. It’s just that you can’t criticize one privatization scheme without also criticizing the other.


Perhaps the biggest mistake Weingarten made was in glossing over the worst abuses of public schools. If she was going to call out the segregation at voucher schools, she also should have explicitly called it out at public schools.


But that’s something even our first black President Barack Obama refused to do. You’d think he’d make that a priority for his administration, but instead he favored the same school privatization schemes that just made it worse.


Currently, you’ll find no political party that actively champions integration. Democrats will give it more lip service than Republicans, but both parties either ignore it in practice or actively work against it.


The only use they have for it is as a club with which to hit the other side when issues like this come up.


You’re segregated!


No, YOU’RE segregated!


And so we are all lead over the cliff by partisans and fools.

37 thoughts on “School Voucher Industry Strikes Back: We’re Segregated!? No, You’re Segregated!

  1. Steven,

    What struck me was the extreme racial segregation in nearby schools.

    On the east side of Prospect Park you have PS 321 with 13% of students who are African American & Latino and 8% of students eligible for free lunch, PS 39 with 19% of students who are African American & Latino and 14% of students eligible for free lunch, and PS 107 with 17% of students who are African American & Latino and 7% of students eligible for free lunch. On the west side of Prospect Park you have PS 241 with 96% of students who are African American & Latino and 87% of students eligible for free lunch, PS 375 with 92% of students who are African American & Latino and 90% of students eligible for free lunch, and PS 249 with 90% of students who are African American & Latino and 100% of students eligible for free lunch.

    The racial segregation in New York Public does not occur because a student goes from PS 70, a school where 98% of students are African American & Latino to a charter school that is 100% African American & Latino, the segregation comes from the difference between PS 321 and PS 241.


    • I beg to differ. You have charter schools with mostly black kids, public schools with mostly white kids, etc. The fact that we have so any charters has enabled increased segregation. Without them, perhaps the public schools would be more integrated. That’s the essential problem that you’re overlooking. Public schools can be integrated. Charter schools cannot. They are an essentially segregated plan – move kids of mostly one race or economic strata to this school rather than that school. That’s what we’re seeing nationwide – not just in NY. The problem is complex and multifaceted but charter and voucher schools only make it worse.


      • Steven,

        In NYC you have traditional public school with almost all black kids and traditional public schools with mostly white kids. Charter schools have little to do with it. I think you have been mislead about the demographics of public schools in NYC.

        Click on any of the dark blue circles and you will find public schools with virtually all African American & Latino students. Click on any of the light circles and you will find public schools with very few African American & Latino students.


      • Teaching economist, you missed the point. In fact, you seem to have missed the point of the entire article.Moreover, you continually go back to New York as if it were analogous to the whole country. It is not. But around and around we go.


      • Steven,

        I presented the data from NYC because it was easy to find and NYC Public educates more students than three quarters of the states. If you have data sources from other districts that would be helpful.

        Your statement that “You have charter schools with mostly black kids, public schools with mostly white kids, etc. The fact that we have so any charters has enabled increased segregation. Without them, perhaps the public schools would be more integrated.” reveals that your position is based on a factually incorrect understanding of school segregation in NYC Public.

        It may be the case that some school districts do have charter schools that are disproportionately African American and a public school system with mostly white kids, but I think it is unlikely. African American parents, when confronted with a choice between sending their children to an integrated school or a segregated school, are not likely to choose the segregated school (though of course some might just as some women and men choose a sex segregated school).

        More likely would be charter schools that are disproportionately white and public schools that are disproportionately African American, but it might be helpful to actually point to those places so we could look at the data.

        What I think we can say at this point is that charters schools in the nations largest school district do not lead to increased segregation of students, but may lead to increased segregation is other school districts.


      • Moreover, you constantly ignore the plethora of peer reviewed academic studies that conclude time and again that charter schools increase segregation nationally. Here’s one from the Civil Rights Project:

        Here’s one from the Brookings Institute:

        There are facts beyond your gut feelings.

        As I argue in the article, choice schemes will always lead to increased segregation because that is being freely chosen by the white majority. Blacks and Latinos are being sold on it by unscrupulous business people hoping to profit off of them:

        Choice schemes cannot possibly combat segregation. Why not engage with that?


      • Steven,

        Once again, the students now going to predominantly African American & Latino charter schools in NYC left predominantly African American & Latino public schools. There was no increase in segregation in NYC caused by charter schools.

        No parent would buy their way into PS 321’s catchment area (newspaper reports put the PS321 catchment area premium at $100,000) and not send their children to PS 321. Indeed, the reason that schools like PS 321 become overcrowded is because there are unusually many families with school age children living in the catchment area. Living in PS 321’s catchment area is worth more to families with children than it is to families without children.

        I have read the UCLA report from 2010 several times. It generally reflects the world I live in, a world of grey, not the black and white world that is so common on the internet. If you want to fight segregation, you should applaud integrated schools, be they charter or traditional public schools, and condemn segregated schools, be they charter or traditional public schools. After all, the forward to the UCLA study you link to points out that there are fine charter schools and some are richly diverse and it also calls for these charter schools to be kept and supported.

        Do you agree with the author of your UCLA study that strong and diverse charter schools should be kept and supported?


      • My friend, the only thing you seem to count as evidence against charters is if there was a report titled, “CHARTERS SUCK! NEVER OPEN ONE OR YOU WILL DIE!” If the data is not 100% damning (if it’s only 80% damning), you refuse to draw the logical conclusion. If there were a jar full of poison jelly beans but one of them wouldn’t kill you, you would argue all day about how the candies in this jar shouldn’t be refused outright. It’s almost like you’re employed by the charter school industry or have some sort of economic reason you can’t draw the rational conclusion. Is there any other situation where you think democratic rule is bad for an organization? Is there any other time you think public money should be spent without transparency or accountability? Do you approve of segregation or not? It seems no matter what your answer to these questions, somehow you’ll find a way to approve of charter schools. It’s like talking to a wall.


      • Steven,

        I don’t think there is anything you can say about charter schools in general because there is such diversity in charter school practice and charter law across states.

        If you think all schools should be managed by elected officials or their appointees, argue for that and don’t argue to close charters that are managed by elected officials or their appointees. If you think all schools should be integrated, argue for that and do not argue to close integrated charter schools. If you think that everyone teaching in K-12 should be a licensed teacher, argue for that requirement in state law, do not argue to close charter schools that only hire licensed teachers. If you want increased transparency in school spending, argue for that and do not argue to close transparent charter schools.

        There are a number of situations where i think democratic control is a bad idea. I think democratic rule over who I marry is a bad idea, over who I am intimate with is a bad idea, over my religious beliefs is a bad idea, over the kinds of food I eat is a bad idea, over how I can dress is a bad idea, etc. I am sure you think democratic rule over those things are also a bad idea. I think democratic control over the organizations that make up the economy is a bad idea because it privileges the current generation over future generations.

        I am a big believer in the word “some”. It is likely that I will always find a way to approve of some charter schools. I doubt I would approve of all charter schools, just as I do not approve of the policies at all public schools or all public school districts. Don’t throw the jar of jellybeans out because of one poison jellybean, look for the jellybean that says “poison” on it and through that jellybean out.


      • Teaching economist, certainly something privately financed should be privately controlled. I was talking about things that are publicly financed. I think lack of democratic control is a fundamental problem of charter schools and a fundamental asset of public schools. The same with transparency. We should be able to agree on that, but you refuse to generalize. It’s odd. In a perfect world, we could find that one non-poisonous jellybean, but it’s counterproductive to look for it when there are jars of 100% safe jellybeans to eat. You’ll be spending your day picking through endless little candies with sticky fingers while the rest of us enjoy a snack and move on. I suppose we will never agree.


      • Steven,

        When you say that the lack of democratic control is a fundamental problem with charter schools, does that mean that you support charter schools that are controlled by locally elected school boards? There are states where all charter schools are controlled by the locally elected school boards and states where most of the charter schools are controlled by the locally elected school boards.

        As for jelly beans, there are no jars without a poison been or two. If you want to through out jars with the poison of segregation, the traditional school jar must be thrown out because segregation is there. If you want to through out jars with the poison of corruption and lack of transparency, the traditional school jar must be thrown out because corruption is in those jars as well.


      • Teaching economist, while some charter schools are democratically controlled, they lack transparency and/or increase segregation. The problem is not what some charters do, it is the concept, itself. It is a bad idea. These are schools without the same accountability and transparency as traditional public schools. That is the very definition of a charter school. They don’t have to play by the same rules. Bad idea. Whereas, when traditional public schools have these features, they are anomalies and can be fixed. When states takeover a public school and remove the school board, that can be rectified. When public schools are segregated, they can be integrated. But this is impossible with charter schools because of what they are. Even in the rare instance when you have a charter school that is not guilty of any of these problems in practice, the law specifically allows them to be perverted in this way. It does not allow such with traditional public schools. That’s why charters are inferior to traditional public schools. It’s one of the points I was trying to make here.


      • Steven,

        Because these charters are run by the local school boards they are exactly as transparent as any other schools run by those school boards. Because these charters are run by the local school boards, any increase in segregation that is created has the approval of the local school board just as the segregation created by any other schools run by the school boards.

        The only way these schools can be perverted is if the local school board allows it, but that is just as true for traditional public schools.


      • You don’t understand how it works. The local school board does not run charter schools AND the traditional public school. In the few cases you’re referring to, the charters have their own duly-elected boards. And they don’t have to present their documents to the public. Charters are privately run. That’s the definition of a charter – a school that is publicly funded but privately run. The boards – in the rare case that there is one – make a few decisions but give the day-to-day running of the charter to a private company. What that company does and what the board does about it can be and often is completely secret from the public.

        And when it comes to segregation at traditional public schools, it is not the school board, administrators or teachers who make it so. They don’t draw the district lines. They don’t control who lives where. They don’t control federal, state and local laws that permit segregation. Nor do they control who is admitted to the district – but charter schools do. They can decide exactly which students and what kind of students they want to enroll. If charter school operators want a majority white or black school, they can make it happen. Traditional public schools cannot.


      • Steven,

        You are factually mistaken. These charter schools are run by the local school boards, period. The staff of these charter schools are employees of the school district.

        The definition of what is a charter school is whatever the state law says is a charter school, and the laws are very different among the states. That is one of the difficulties in making any claim about all charter schools. It is also the reason that I don’t think you actually understand the nature of all the schools that you condemn when you condemn “charter schools”.

        Why not simply say that you support charter schools that have the same level of democratic control as traditional public schools, the same transparency as traditional public schools, and the same impact on segregation as traditional public schools?


  2. Steven,

    How about the Walton Rural LIfe Center Charter School in Harvey County, Kansas? You can reach the web page through the Newton Public School District website:

    A bit of background. The school was originally Walton Elementary School in Walton, Kansas, a town of 239 people in central Kansas. When enrollment declines threatened to close the school, the superintended of USD 373 suggested that Walton Elementary convert to a charter school, which they did with the full approval of the existing staff. You can view a video about the school here:

    Here is a link that will show the racial breakdown of the school:

    Note that the Harvey county is 91% white and 8% Hispanic or Latino. There are a little under 33,000 people living in Harvey county and there are five school districts in the county: USD369, USD 373, USD 439, USD 440, and USD 460. It is unlikely that every school district in the county will have exactly 91% white and 8% Hispanic or Latino.

    In the interest of transparency, USD 373 is currently considering closing the school building in Walton and perhaps moving the charter school to Newton, the county seat. You can read about that here:

    If you approve of this one, we could go through the charter schools in Kansas and move on to the school district run charter schools in Wisconsin.


    • It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on at this school. It does appear to be a charter school run by a school board that also runs the traditional public school district. However, as you noted, the school is in danger of closing because it is not cost effective to run two parallel school districts. Moreover, the school serves a large portion of students who don’t live in district boundaries and thus don’t pay taxes to the district. The state of Kansas has been roundly criticized for not having a charter school law, that it’s law does not set up charter schools but instead creates pull out schools that don’t deserve the name charter schools. If your point was that my critique of charter schools involves generalizations because of the diversity of state laws governing exactly what a charter school is, well then point taken. However, I still feel justified in laying down general criticisms that apply to the overwhelming majority of charter schools. In rare instances, like this rural Kansas school, all of my criticisms don’t apply. But some of them do. The charter school system is rife with the potential for fraud and abuse. If anything it shows the value of increased freedom for public school curriculum while still maintaining open records and accountability.


    • Steven,

      My apologies for a tardy reply.

      There are not multiple school districts. The Walton Rural Life Center Charter School is one of the schools in USD 373. The staff of Walton Rural Life Center Charter School are all employed by USD 373. This is true of all charter schools in the state of Kansas. The issue that the school board is grappling with is that the school building where Walton Rural Life Center Charter School requires costly renovations that may not be worthwhile for a school building located in a town of 250 residents.

      If you are happy saying that charter schools in Kansas should be allowed to operate as they have been operating because they meet your criteria for local school board control, transparency, and integration, we can perhaps move on to Wisconsin. In Wisconsin the vast majority of charter schools are either instruments of the locally elected school board or have been approved by a sufficiently large number of district teachers. The latter might fail your democratic control test as the school board is not in direct control of the schools and only district teachers are allowed to vote in the approval process, but that will still leave many (certainly well over 100) charter schools in Wisconsin that I think you will approve of.

      My point is not only that you overgeneralize, but that by overgeneralizing the reasons you give to oppose charter schools do not seem genuine. To go back to the jelly bean example, if you say that “I like red jelly beans and this bag has green and yellow beans as well, so we should through the bag out”, one has to suspect that you don’t really object to green and yellow beans, you object to all jelly beans no matter the color, for an unstated reason having nothing due to the color.


      • I do hope we can continue the discussion with Wisconsin charters. It would shed some light on how much building and teacher autonomy is compatible with your notion of democratic control.


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