• Joanne Jacobs

Woke charters stress 'anti-racism,' but parents want excellence


Classical Charter students in the South Bronx

Urban parents' vision of a good school hasn't changed, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Next. They want "safety, solid academics, character education, and a fair shot at college and upward mobility," and hope charter schools will provide that.


But many charters in New York City and elsewhere have shifted their focus from academic excellence to "equity," he writes. Woke young teachers often see "strict classroom management, academic rigor, and high expectations" as "abusive and harmful, even grounded in white supremacy."


A senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Pondiscio is the author of How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.


He looks at the transformation of BES, a Boston-based leadership-development program, which helps its fellows start new charter schools.


Founder Linda Brown, who plastered the word "urgency" on windows and walls, stepped down in 2018.


Aasimah Navlakhi took over. She committed to making BES “an actively anti-racist organization.”

Brilla charter students

Sue Walsh, the chief academic officer, quit. “The seminal moment for me was when we were given readings as a staff that ‘urgency’ was racist,” she told Pondiscio.


“It’s become clear they’ve shifted from the primacy of academic excellence to the primacy of anti-racism,” said Ed Kirby, who was involved in the design and launch of BES.


“In quality schools, academic excellence and anti-racism reinforce one another,” Navlakhi said.


Some New York charter-school leaders are worried, writes Pondiscio.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, who runs the Brilla charter school network in the South Bronx, describes what she sees as competing priorities of charter-school parents versus staff “who have gone to elite colleges” and see schools as vehicles to promote societal change. “I think it’s going to have a real impact on academic outcomes for underserved kids, and the opposite of the intended effect. Kids are not getting what they need academically,” she says. “Even in my own child’s charter school, half of their professional development is on racial equity. How are they learning how to be excellent teachers? It’s really worrisome.”

“Parents prefer order and safety over chaos," says Lester Long, a 2004 BES fellow and the founder of the Classical Charter Schools, a network of four high-scoring schools in the South Bronx. “Deep learning can’t happen in fearful environments, either of other students in a too-chaotic school or of the teacher in a too-strict one. Ultimately, great teachers and schools find that balance.”


The "no excuses" model was aimed at adults, not students. They were supposed to find ways to overcome students' problems. It was “a shorthand form of deep respect for Black and brown students," says Long. "The key point was ‘I know you can do this. I believe in you.’ There were disappointing exceptions, but the original meaning and intent was one of empowerment.”

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