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Charter school students meet President Obama, a charter school fan.  (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

“Charter schools play an important role in our country’s education system. Supporting some of our Nation’s underserved communities, they can ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America’s young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed.” — President Barack Obama

PUBLISHED 04/04/19 
Reading Time – 7 minutes

OPINION | By Nehemiah D. Frank, Educator and Founder & Editor-in-Chief  

Mrs. DeVos’ disconnect to the average working-class teacher and American are leaving a nasty taste in the mouths of educators and left swinging political junkies across the nation; it’s the result of electing a president who has zero experience in an educational administrative position nor knowledge of how the government works.

Now, people are desperate and bent on attacking anything seemingly connected to DeVos, Trump, and Trump’s administration — even if it injures black people — case in point, America’s anti-charter school movement.

Many Democrats and white moderates have made up their minds about charter schools. They believe that charters are bad for society because Secretary DeVos supports charter schools.

One of the anti-charter school movement arguments is the belief that charter schools take money away from ‘traditional’ public schools. This simply isn’t true. The reality is that state governments aren’t adequately funding public education.

So, society doesn’t need anti-charter school activist. We need education advocates. 

My argument is that individuals who take issue with charter schools should focus their energies on lobbying their local and state governments for adequate educational funding.

In actuality, the charter school movement or ‘black flight’ phenomena, away from public schools — as I often refer to it, didn’t begin with DeVos and Trump.

And it won’t end with them. This migration won’t cease until the black community sees academic achievement and opportunity gaps closing between black and white children in public schools.

It’s, therefore, essential that we understand that the original charter school movement started decades ago when black educators, black communities throughout the country, and their advocates began to realize that most white educators and their school boards weren’t particularly interested in teaching black children nor funding majority black schools. 

And it’s a damn shame that we are still having this conversation 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

Nevertheless, I’m committed to shouting from the rooftops — this need for true racial equity and justice in America’s educational system.

And even if we eventually witness a slower trickle down of students from traditional public schools to charter schools, some black families will continually switch their children to ‘community-founded’ charter schools for cultural affirmation purposes and shared values.

President Obama visits the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in New Orleans.

Henceforth, cultural competence and family values are, therefore, an essential component that many black parents desire to see in their kid’s teachers, especially their white teachers.

Like black Americans understand that there’s a difference between black people raised in America and black people reared in Africa, White Americans need to realize that black American culture isn’t the same as white American culture. 

Black parents want teachers that have some understanding of black culture and black cultural values.

I know this to be true because, after occupying both roles as a teacher and administrator: I have had black parents disclose to me, their concerns of white teachers not holding their black pupils accountable.

They have validated worries, regarding white teachers cuddling their child with a white savior’s complex, just because they live in ‘the hood.’

When their child is misbehaving and being disrespectful because he or she “just didn’t feel like learning today,’ or perhaps wasn’t ready to admit that they were talking and not paying attention to a lesson, the last thing a black parent wants to see is a white teacher cuddling their child. 

These parents want accountability; they want transparency; they want a phone call. 

They don’t want their child to feel or be confused into thinking that every time they make a mistake, the white society will comfort and forgive them every time they make a mistake.

Black parents are keenly aware of the fact that society’s justice system will be extremely unforgiving to their children, once they become grown.

Tamir Rice died within seconds of the cops pulling up to the park and shooting him because they thought his toy gun was an actual weapon.

Black kids seldom grow up to receive second chances.

So, black parents have validated fears.

They have fears around white teachers not believing that black kids, too, could have the necessary grit when it comes to aiming for academic success.

And most importantly, black parents have fears of white teachers not being culturally competent when it comes to their black child’s cultural normative behaviors. 

They have fears of their black kids being targeted by their white teachers simply for behaving as themselves — like children, who just happen to be black.

The truth is, many of these teachers were, and countless still are, undoubtedly incapable of ridding themselves of their intergenerational, internalized-racist belief that black people are intellectually inferior.

Sadly, they may even reinforce their beliefs by Googling the latest test scores that indicate black kids are academically at the bottom — which is true, but not because black children are innately intellectually inferior.

On a positive note, schools with a majority black student population have also seen their share of incredible white educators who may have first arrived at their inner-city schools with a white savior’s complex but certainly didn’t keep that unwanted complex.

Yet, too many white teachers and public schools appear to not push black students to their full potential due to one factor or another. We know this to be true at the macro level as a result of the low test performance.

Perhaps they see the push as harmful or as a waste of time and that that valuable time could be more wisely used teaching them below grade level material which only helps to perpetuate racial stigma and prolongs systemic issues like low-illiteracy rates for black people. 

Perhaps they may even subconsciously skip over their black students to call on a familiar face, which they can identify with, a white student, whose mind they’re trained to believe soaks up knowledge like a sponge in comparison to their black students who are lagging academically — not realizing that systemic issues are the result of the lagging.

First Lady Michelle Obama took her garden tour to our home of Newark, where she visited our youngest AeroFarmers – the students of Philips Academy Charter School.

Having years of teachers who don’t push their black students to his or her full potential results in intellectual blight within the black population, causing a material domino effect of blighting within the black community.

I know this behavior takes place in classrooms because I have personally witnessed and experienced it.

We know, however, that that kind of thinking is fallibly ridiculous.

But where did the genesis of this flawed reasoning and negative pedagogical behavior originate?

Popular culture entertainingly shaped the next generation of teachers through the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond.

Media companies romanticized the pedagogical industry, illustrating students in classrooms as perfect rows of little white angels who arrived at their classes on the first day of school with an apple in hand, all of their school supplies, and neatly pressed clothes — that their fathers purchased at their local suburban Sears store. 

That, too, is ridiculous — because a socially aware and race-conscious person will understand that that perception is far from reality for any classroom regardless of race and level income.

And that it’s at inner-city schools, black and brown schools, that most families can’t afford new clothes from the mall nor school supplies on the first day of lessons.

A hand full of inner-city students would be so lucky to have had dinner the night before or breakfast just prior to arriving at school.

Let’s face it. No one likes examining their, own, flaws in the mirror; that’s just not uplifting. And no one wants to be a Debbie Downer or the bearer of bad news.

I write to say: White Americans have to talk about race when dealing with policies in education and in general because they affect black people, as well as other marginalized communities.

It’s what public schools, teacher unions, educational advocates, and political parties across the country should be doing.

They need to have those hard and uncomfortable conversations about how not talking about race, and not being race conscious, is the root cause of America’s problems today.

Not talking about racial equity yesterday has, also, contributed to the deteriorating school buildings in the black community, school closings, and the abysmal academic outcomes for black students.

We can blame the parents, but to do so would be to say that the majority of black parents are exhibiting irresponsible parenting because they don’t teach their children at home — forgetting that black people, in general, have been through legalized institutional slavery, Jim Crow, and the unspoken trauma and culture shock of instant school integration and did it with a culture that had previously shown hostility towards the black people and in some ways still are.

Furthermore, this rise in student population in charter schools is the result of not having those hard conversations at public school board meetings and discussions with the very communities that the policies inevitably affect, black people. 

White Americans need to get out of their comfort zones and fix the mess that their forefathers created.

No one blames white people living today for the cause of today’s systemic problems, but they do need to help fix it because it’s their civic responsibility to do so. 

Lastly, what white people with power, in positions of influence, and just everyday white people, in general, need to understand is that whenever the white public internally disagrees, that they’re like two massive elephants in a tiny ass room violently fighting one another, not even realizing that the small seemingly invisible minorities are still present in the room.

Henceforth, when white people civically engage in their unfriendly scrimmages amongst themselves, we black people frantically look for spaces to — pardon my french — get the hell out of ‘their’ way in an attempt to ensure that we’re not crushed by whatever harmful policies white people pass that may unintentionally and adversely affect black people.

And on account of that:

Black people need good public schools, too.
Black people need charter schools when public schools fail black children.
Black people need school vouchers for private schools when public schools fail and when charters are full or are failing black kids, too.
Black people don’t need limitations because we are owed reparations.
Black people like most white Americans want the freedom to choose where they can send their children to school, and a lower ascribed status or zip code shouldn’t be the determining factor for getting that opportunity to walk the pathway that will inevitably lead a black child to success.

Nehemiah Frank

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements around the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC as well as in Blavity and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. He gave a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018. 

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times and a descendant of two families that survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Although his publication’s store and newsroom...