The events that have recently overtaken Ferguson, Missouri, have exposed much more than just the vestiges of racial distrust and strained law enforcement-citizen relationships.
They remind us how the poverty of opportunity in too many American communities – particularly those that are poor and minority – is a powerful contributor to the persistent racial divide that plagues our cities and suburbs and feeds the cycle of dependence and despair.
For most young people in America, opportunity begins with and depends in large part upon access to a quality education. And for most of them, that means attending a public school.
But if you’re a kid in a community like Ferguson, attending a public school is often your only option and a road to nowhere.
That’s because in spite of the trillions of dollars our lawmakers have injected into the public school system over the last several decades – spending per pupil rose an inflation-adjusted 375 percent between 1970 and 2010 – and funneled into well-intended programs like Title I and Head Start, the dramatic and worrisome achievement gap between blacks and whites remains perilously deep and wide.
African-American males are the most at risk. “The gap between their performance and that of their peers is perceptible from the first day of kindergarten, and only widens thereafter,” wrote David L. Kirp, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The results of national education assessments in 2008 confirm this bleak picture. In reading, African-American boys in eighth grade scored just above white girls in the fourth grade. And in math, barely half exhibited “basic” or higher grade-level skills, compared to 82 percent of white boys of the same age.
And the gap doesn’t narrow by graduation; just 42 percent of black males graduated on time in 2006. Seventy-one percent of their white male peers achieved the same.
Given these results, it’s no surprise that the unemployment rate for black Americans is consistently twice what it is for whites. Nor is it a wonder that black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.
While the societal ills that perpetuate such disparate outcomes have manifold causes, many of them can be mitigated and the cycle of poverty disrupted when parents have choices about where their kids go to school.
“These days it is mostly charter schools that are closing the achievement gap,” argues Wall Street Journal writer Jason Riley in his book, “Please Stop Helping Us.”
And the most rigorous studies on the impact of charters more than prove his premise.
A comprehensive review of New York City’s charter school program found that “On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten to eight would close about 86 percent of the achievement gap in math and 66 percent of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem’ achievement gap in English.”
Stanford University studies of charter school programs in Los Angeles, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. – all of which have large populations of poor and minority students – found that students who attend charter schools on average learn the equivalent of as many as 72 days more in reading and as many 122 more in math than their peers in traditional public schools. And the better performance among charter school students that results is particularly encouraging among blacks, who are exponentially more likely to graduate, attend a four-year college and secure a good job.
Some opponents of charter schools claim that as publicly funded institutions, charters hurt traditional public schools by siphoning away money and resources. Others claim that the success of charters is inconsistent and limited.
But study upon study suggests that successful charters, by way of school choice, are doing for minority communities what public schools have failed to achieve with more money and bureaucracy.
Ultimately, ending the poverty of opportunity – which too often breaks down along racial lines and manifests itself in violence — will require solutions that close the achievement gap and empower historically under-served communities to break the cycle of despair that keeps them isolated.
Whether that’s in Ferguson or your hometown, the solution begins with choice – like charter schools.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.