By Federico R. Waitoller
Let’s talk about charter schools, disability and race. Three topics that tend to be discussed separately, but they stick together like bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Ok, here is a warning; I am going to start with a jargony sentence, but I promise that by the end of the blog it won’t be so jargony. Here is my sentence. First, read it, take a minute to digest it, and then continue reading it. Are you ready?
Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space.
To illustrate this jargony sentence, let me share with you a quote from a participant from a recent research project that I conducted in Chicago with Black and Latinx parents of students with disabilities who experienced conflicts with charter schools. Her name was Janet, a Black parent of a student identified with Autism living in a Black segregated neighborhood that had being impacted by extreme poverty since the 1970s, and also by school instability due to school closings, including turnaround schools (see Figures 1 and 2).
Janet, had a history of poor experiences with neighborhood schools. Before enrolling in the charter school, her son attended to two turnaround schools in where the constant turnover of personnel affected the delivery of special education services received by her son. After these experiences, Janet felt without school options. “I just was being failed by all of these schools out there. The charter was our last resort,” she said.
Once in the charter school, her son received uncountable disciplinary sanctions, including numerous suspensions. When reflecting about her experiences in the charter school Janet shared with me,
Race has a lot to do with it because I feel like they just automatically assume, “Well, since you’re black, you’re poor, you come from a broken home, you’re a single parent, and your child has problems because of that. Not because of his disabilities, his routines, his environment at school. Well, because he’s adopted, he’s black, you’re black, this is a black area, and those are your problems. That’s why your kid is actin’ up, so let us just fix him. We’ll get him right. We’ll have him like a robot in no time if you just calm down and let us, and it’ll be better that way. We’re gonna push him.” They go off of—they taught my son chants and songs that he’s going to college every day. I don’t have a problem with that. I do want him to go to college, but I feel like it was kind of a brain washing mechanism that they’re using with these kids, like black people are down here and poor, and white people go to college and they’re up here. I have a bachelor’s degree. You’re a poverty stricken black family and let us show you what you can do to improve everything in your life, your child’s.” Comin’ into these areas, these neighborhoods, and puttin’ up these—factories is a good analogy, and your kids are the product. It’s all about numbers. “Well, Miss Baker, calm down because our stats say it’s working.” “Your child is an exception, and we’ll whip him into shape.”
Wow! Do you need to read it again? Please do so.
Lets unpack this quote together, shall we?
Janet perceived charter schools as saviors coming to Black areas to “fix” Black student so that they can get to College. By the way, Janet’s son was in early elementary grades. The deficit discourse about black communities is clear-cut. Indeed, the large majority of charter schools in urban areas market themselves as beacons of academic and disciplinary rigor and a path to college for low-income students. Offering flashy educational opportunities for families that had far to few, if any. A brochure from an elementary charter school in Chicago stated its how as, “how to best support our students as they grow and prepare to compete with their peers in college preparatory high schools and four-year colleges, ambitiously pursue career opportunities.” Charter schools target specifically certain areas of the city of Chicago affected by gentrification or by poverty and school closures (see maps in Figures 1 and 2). They become a “spatial fix” for the kinds of neighborhood in which Janet’s leave. They are associated to process of urban space and economic development. On the one hand by trying to revive certain area of the city that are prime for real state investment and in the other hand by producing subjects (mostly black students) that are disciplined and trained to contribute to the market economy.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with preparing students for college. That is not my point, nor was it Janet’s point. The problem is the paternalistic and deficit discourse about black communities. This deficit discourse had material consequences. The charter school employed a combination of mechanisms that were exclusionary and resulted in pushing Janet and her son away from the school: the school that she considered her last school option.
These mechanism included a combination of (a) denying certain services that Janet son had in his IEP, (b) applying a strict disciplinary and academic code that did not account for Janet’s son disability, (c) having inexperienced and untrained teachers, and (d) explicitly suggesting her to move her son to another schools in where he could receive better services. If students could not perform in such inflexible, non-supportive, and normalizing environment, they were weeded out or suggested to leave. This was the case of Janet’s son.
In Janet’s family’s case, race and disability intersected in two ways. On the one hand, by dis/abling race through negative and racist attitudes toward black children, the charter schools positioned themselves as saviors that came to “Whip children into shape” so that they can become productive subjects and attend to college, and ultimately contribute to a market economy. On the other hand, by racializing disability, the academic and disciplinary practices of charter schools positioned black children as dis/able and incapable to succeed in an environment that was never designed with them in mind.
If charter schools are to become a solution to educational inequities, they should not be excluding any student. Otherwise, charter schools are like and old wine in a new bottle. Old forms of exclusion based on racism and ableism are now renewed and mutated under the banner of school choice. Exclusive spaces come to replace exclusive spaces.
So, can charter schools become inclusive rather than exclusive? I mean not a just a few exemplary cases, but all of them or at least the vast majority. Otherwise, they are not options for parents who live in spaces where those schools do not exist. And, even if those schools are an option for parents like Janet, do we want students of color to attend such paternalistic, meritocratic, and punishing spaces? Do these spaces have communities of color best interests or what purpose do they serve? Whose cultural, political, and economic values informed charter schools’ practices?
I think even when regulated and in their best form, charter schools will struggle to deliver their promises of equitable inclusive education. First, market responses to educational inequities present services for particular students, or we also may say particular identities. They are selective by design. In order to market themselves, charter schools have distinct missions that differentiate them from other schools. They have a particular market niche (e.g., disciplining student of color in areas perceived as unsafe and marginalized). Their teaching practices represent such missions, as in the case of Janet. Their goals are not to be inclusive but exclusive to certain kinds of students.
Second, the problem of market of responses to inequities such as charter schools is that they address students with disabilities and other underserved populations in paradoxical terms. They are commodities that are desirable but also disposable. That is, on the one hand, these students signal new opportunities for market expansion and commodification (e.g., charter schools economically benefit from enrolling students). Students with dis/abilities, particular those of color, are understood as eternally lacking and in constant need of new commodities (a charter school education) to be individuals that contribute to the market economy. Charter schools offer the services to whip these students into shape and the promises of being included in the market economy. On the other hand, students with disabilities are perceived as threats to the “ideal individual” that contributes to the market economies (i.e., productive, independent, disciplined, and self-entrepreneur) and therefore, they are a threat to the core identity of the charter school and need to be disciplined, fixed, and normalized. Otherwise, they need to be pushed away.
To end, I want to go back to our starting phrase; Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space. That is, charter schools are located in urban spaces occupied by black (also Latino families) families that have suffer years of poverty due to neglect and disinvestment or in spaces that are seen as prime for real state development (i.e., gentrification). After various poor educational experiences, Black and Latinx parents that I interviewed living in such spaces were lured by the promises of charter schools: a safe space in unsafe neighborhoods and the so coveted access to college. Once in the charter school, however, they experience new forms of exclusion at the intersections of race and disability. In the end, the charter school promises vanished, and parents found themselves again looking for another school in an educational market that treats them as disposable. Charter schools, race, and ability have a sticky relationship.
About the Author
Dr. Waitoller is an assistant professor in the department of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on urban inclusive education. In particular, he examines how neoliberal informed polices, such as top-down accountability, portfolio district models, and school choice converge with inclusive education efforts, and how these initiatives affect Black and Latinx students with dis/abilities. His research also examines teacher learning efforts and pedagogies for inclusive education.