Been there, done that

Thursday - 3/3/2011, 1:04pm EST

Growing up a Southerner, I learned that when my elders talked about The War, it was not World War I or World War II. It was the Civil War.

It recalled Mississippian William Faulkner's famous observation that "the past is never dead, it's not even past."

Which brings me to the charter school debate taking place across the country and especially the South. The arguments for charter schools remind me of the attempts by white Southern segregationists to get taxpayers to pay for their private, segregated academies that flourished during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s.

The current charter school movement began in Minnesota and Massachusetts, hardly bastions of Jim Crow. But the movement gained support among people dissatisfied with public schools.

Southern Republican conservatives became champions of charter schools along with vouchers. They said such programs were free market alternatives to poorly performing public schools. Charter schools, they argued, will offer competition in the education marketplace that will result in better schools all around.

The movement has been viewed with suspicion in the South because it is seen as a new backdoor to the old idea of segregated academies financed by public monies. The record in the South isn't encouraging, either.

A 2006 study by Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd of Duke University and a 2007 report by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research showed charter students in the state lagging behind public school students on end-of-grade tests. More recent data show this trend reversing.

But the doubts about segregation remain, and two national studies last year concluded that charter schools promote segregation, whether it is blacks in the minority or whites. The current trend for charter school legislation only adds to the suspicion.

Republicans in North Carolina want to lift all caps on the number of schools that can be chartered. They want to remove oversight from the state's Department of Public Instruction and even the state Board of Education.

But most troubling, they want to remove the requirement that the schools must reflect the racial composition of their respective communities.

Public school advocates worry that charter schools will drain the best and brightest, regardless of race, from public school enrollment. Students who attend charter schools generally benefit from smaller class sizes. Their parents are more supportive of education with money and time. Without these students and parents, the public schools will be left with the least motivated students.

And there's the old race issue. One of the best charter schools in the country, Raleigh Charter School, enrolls 10 percent black students in a county system where black students comprise 25 percent of the enrollment.

To paraphrase Harvard's Gary Orfield, the race to the top in charter schools should not become a race to the past.