CharterFolk Contributor Laurie Brown: Anti-charter Rhetoric is Rooted in Racism — Let’s Not Be Afraid to Call it Out

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Laurie Brown, Senior Vice President of Nashville Advocacy for the Tennessee Charter School Center and Advocacy Lead for the Nashville Charter Collaborative.

Laurie Brown, Senior Vice President of Nashville Advocacy for the Tennessee Charter School Center and Advocacy Lead for the Nashville Charter Collaborative.

I provide a brief bio for Laurie below.

Laurie has spent the last decade making good trouble to ensure that students and their families across the rural South have access to support, opportunities, and resources. While working as a Teach for America corps member, Laurie authored a federal grant to bring AP courses to her campus for the first time in the school’s history. As a KIPP Through College Director, she negotiated new college partnership contracts that provided $1.8M for her graduates and wrote a grant to bring college advising to local public schools to ensure equitable access to college. As a chief of staff, she led the charge to register over 480 families to vote in Nashville, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi. She is committed to advocate with those who are marginalized and uses compassion and partnership in working across lines of difference in order to achieve the best results for all.

Laurie holds a B.S. in Sociology and African American Studies from Florida State University and a M.S. in School Counseling from the University of Central Arkansas.

As a Black woman who lives in the South, I have always known that when people of color — particularly, Black women like me — speak their truth, there is a risk associated with it. If something I say makes someone uncomfortable or threatens their understanding of the world, I am often disliked, or worse, dismissed, and blamed.

I support an organization in Nashville, Tennessee, that advocates for public charter schools: another easy target for criticism.

I know from personal experience that individuals who have been marginalized spend an inordinate amount of time trying to tailor our messages to appeal to the masses. But I am coming to believe that if the complicated and messy truth doesn’t appeal to and incite the masses, neither the messenger nor the message is the problem.

Let me give you an example.

There are times when I hear individuals who don’t look like me or who haven’t encountered the institutional barriers that I have, complain about the “cost” of charter schools on our public education system. Nevermind that these schools are high-performing and have long wait lists, they must be to blame for all that ails our school district: everything from teacher shortages to student attrition, and poor academic outcomes.

Now, the chances that these people or their children will even have to entertain the thought of enrolling in a failing public school are slim. Yet, their absolute disdain for Nashville’s high-quality public charter schools that are helping undo decades of educational inequity for Black and brown students, is palpable and vitriolic. I am often in awe at their audacity, speaking with conviction against schools they have never taken the time to learn about, much less step inside.

I have had too many of these conversations. So, despite any hesitation I may have about ruffling feathers, there is too much at stake to remain quiet. Here is my unfiltered truth: It’s time for those of us who believe in charter schools to stand up and start calling the anti-charter movement what it really is: Racist.

A History Lesson

Let’s back up. Like most urban school districts, Nashville has a long history of failing to provide our most at-risk students, including our Black and brown students, with a high-quality public education. We know that the reason for this dates back to Jim Crow-era racist government policies, including red-lining by banks, essentially forcing all Black people to live in under-resourced neighborhoods. Those same neighborhoods then became public school districts, most of which did not have a high-quality school nearby, or the affluence to make things better.

Little has changed in Nashville since then, and the result has been generations of students of color passing through our public school system without receiving the knowledge and tools they need to be successful.

It was with this backdrop that, driven by a belief that all students deserve to attend a high-performing school, former Tennessee governor and prominent Democrat Phil Bredesen signed legislation allowing charter schools to open in Tennessee for students attending failing schools. Charter schools were created — in Tennessee, with strong bipartisan support — to give educational choices to families who, for decades, had none.

Underserved Students Learn Best at Charter Schools

The great news about this social justice experiment is that it’s working. Charter schools are leading the academic growth and achievement for historically underserved students in Nashville. In fact, students of color at Nashville charter schools are far outperforming their similar peers at traditional district schools.

If only that were the focus of the public charter school conversation in Nashville.

Instead, most critics talk endlessly about charter school students taking money away from the school district. As supporters, we could talk until we’re blue in the face (and many of us likely have!) about why charter schools face far more financial hurdles than traditional public schools. But more importantly, why aren’t those people saying the same thing about the thousands of mostly white, affluent families in Nashville who choose to send their children to private schools? Or, perhaps even more relevant, what about this true, but rarely discussed fact: a greater number of Nashville students opt-out of their zoned schools for district-managed “optional schools” than for charter schools.

Public funding allocated to students who attend private schools, as well as district-managed magnet or open enrollment schools is also redirected away from their zoned neighborhood school. And yet, the option that enrolls primarily economically disadvantaged and students of color — public charter schools — is the only school choice that is called out as problematic. The result is that our most vulnerable students are being targeted in a systematic attack on charter schools.

And listen, I’ll be the first to say it: Charter schools are not perfect, as nothing in this life is. However, most of the teachers and leaders of these schools have devoted and will continue devoting the entirety of their existence to getting better results for Black and brown students in a way that some traditional public schools historically have not.

For too long, we have allowed the anti-charter movement to blame charter schools for ineffective public policies that perpetuate low academic results for vulnerable students. In reality, opposing charter schools is rhetoric rooted in racism and political opportunism, and it ultimately prevents some of our most vulnerable students from enrolling in the schools with the best track record for meeting their needs.

I’ve had enough. I hope you’ll join me in not letting this behavior go unchecked any longer. True supporters of public education – those who believe in the opportunity it was designed to give our country’s children – need to embrace a new rallying cry: All families deserve to have a choice when it comes to where their children go to school. 

Maybe your journey isn’t to write a very public op-ed calling out the opposition as racist. But let us not be afraid of the cost of boldly speaking the truth. What anti-charter folks are doing by tearing down our schools is further disenfranchising Black and brown students.

And that is a cost we simply cannot bear.