Charter schools are not the problem. White supremacy is.

In 1970, Richie Perez, a member of the Young Lords, a militant Puerto Rican nationalist political party, wrote an article calling for Puerto Ricans to take control of their schools in order to develop local bilingual curriculums that embrace their Afro-Latinx heritage. The same year, Milton Friedman, a prominent University of Chicago economist, also made a case for parents of color to take control of their schools as consumers choosing schools from a marketplace of options.

It is tempting to want to position these two visions of community control as fundamentally opposed to one another. Yet, there are certain commonalities between these two perspectives, especially in their desire to take power away from the government and put them into the hands of the communities of color being served by public education.

Indeed, forty-five years later, I witnessed these two visions of community control in a precarious alliance at a fundraising event for a bilingual charter school run by a Latinx community based organization. On the one hand, the event paralleled Friedman’s neoliberal ideal of school choice. Many of the people at the fundraiser were members of the business community who desired a more active role in developing high-quality educational programs in the city. As a way of convincing these prospective funders to invest in the school, the school leadership celebrated their ability to provide a high-quality choice for their community and had parents speak about why they chose this school for their children.

On the other hand, the event also had traces of the radical vision of Richie Perez. For example, imagery in the school included the faces of prominent Puerto Rican nationalists such as Lolita Lebrón, who led an armed assault on the US House of Representatives in 1954 in the name of Puerto Rican independence. In addition, school leaders emphasized the importance of bilingual education in supporting Latinx children in developing a strong sense of their cultural identity that they will be able to use to advocate for the Latinx community as adults.

Is this school a continuation of the radical political struggles of Richie Perez or its neoliberal co-option by followers of Milton Friedman? I would argue that this rigid either/or framing of the question does not do justice to the complex decision-making of those of us seeking to advocate for bilingual education within the current polarized educational debate framed around pro vs. anti-charter school factions. This polarized framing relies on heroes and villains in ways that obscure the broader working of white supremacy.

For example, on the anti-charter school side common rallying cries are to “save public schools” or to “keep public schools, public.”  For activists utilizing this mantra, advocates for public education are heroes who are fighting the villains in the charter school sector who are seeking to impose a corporate agenda on the nation’s schools. Yet, what does it mean to save public education when public education has always been white supremacist and unresponsive to the grievances of minoritized communities?  In the specific case of bilingual education activists, large urban districts have often proven themselves either unresponsive or outright hostile to developing bilingual education programs. In this context, can we blame bilingual education activists who have taken advantage of charter school legislation to develop their own programs rather than work to save an institution that has never served them well?

That said, the pro-charter school side often relies on discourses that frame charter school advocates as heroes who are fighting against the villains in the unresponsive bureaucracies of public school districts. Yet, positioning charter schools as a panacea for educational inequities also overlooks the material consequences that the proliferation of charter schools have on the education of children of color who remain in traditional public schools. Because of the many fixed costs associated with keeping a school open, such as keeping the lights on and the building heated, traditional public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of the students of color in US schools find themselves having fewer and fewer resources to educate these students. In this context, opening a bilingual charter school benefits some students of color at the expense of those left behind.

It is precisely this dilemma that bilingual education activists find ourselves in. Do we continue to work to create high-quality bilingual education programs in public schools that have oftentimes been unreliable in their support for these programs? Or do we pave our own way through promoting charter schools where we have more autonomy in creating bilingual programs even as this decision may also negatively impact the education of students of color who remain in traditional public schools? This is a difficult decision that does not fall neatly into the heroes and villains framing that permeates most of the mainstream framing of the charter school debate.

Perhaps a more productive way of framing of contemporary bilingual education activism would begin with the question of what it means to fight for bilingual education from a position of racialized subordination. To answer this question requires a move away from sorting bilingual education activism into “grassroots” or “corporate” and instead study the different strategies that Latinx community activists utilize in developing socially just language policies and the constraint under which these strategies develop and are used. This alternative framing focuses the analysis on critiquing the institutional constraints rather than the individual decision-making process of minoritized community activists who are working to transform white supremacist institutions.

Focusing on the strategies of individual agents may also allow us to begin to focus more explicitly on the root cause of the problem, which is not charter schools—after all if this history tells us anything it is that Latinxs and other communities of color have never been served well by public schools—but the systematic disinvestment in racialized communities that has pitted members of these communities against one another to fight for the scraps of an unjust system. Until we as a society are willing to invest in these communities it does a huge disservice to minoritized community activists for working to improve the education of their children within the hand that they have been dealt—something that affluent White parents do for their children without any criticism.

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