Black parents are pro-choice (in education)

mplsBK400aI realize that I have started seeing the “pew gap” factor all over the place. Nevertheless, that is what I thought of this morning when I read the Wall Street Journal‘s “Black Flight: The exodus to charter schools” piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten.

This piece never, I admit, comes right out and talks about the role of religion in the fading black support for rank-and-file public schools in Minneapolis (pictured). Overall, about half the students who live in the city attend public schools and the numbers are dropping among black families as they use “freedom of choice” options in order to seek other alternatives.

Still, I suspect that reporters who dug into this would hit religious and moral issues that could be lurking just beneath the surface. Take this passage, for example:

According to the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, Minneapolis charter school enrollment is 91% minority and 84% low-income, while district enrollment is 72% minority and 67% low-income. Joe Nathan, the center’s director, says that parents want strong academic programs, but also seek smaller schools and a stable teaching staff highly responsive to student needs. Charter schools offer many options. Some cater to particular ethnic communities like the Hmong or Somali; others offer “back to basics” instruction or specialize in arts or career preparation. At Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 school that is 99% black and two-thirds low income, students wear uniforms, focus on character, and achieve substantially higher test scores than district schools with similar demographics.

At this point, several major news stories start to intertwine. One of the most controversial issues in urban life, for several decades, has been the link between intact black families — homes with a father and a mother — and the mental, physical and emotional health of the children. Can you say Daniel Patrick Moynihan? I knew you could.

So I would predict that a high percentage of the black families choosing the charter-school option are intact families. Then, I predict that a high percentage of those intact families are also involved to one degree or another in local churches. In fact, I’ll go further than that: I predict that a high percentage of the charter-school students from single-parent homes are also coming from homes in which, for the parent, “church” is a positive word and “God” is not a curse.

Yes, this is tragic. It is a tragic development for public schools and a sign that, in the “culture wars” and “culture of death” era, it is getting harder to separate morality and education. Now, this “pew gap” in education can be seen all over the country, especially in urban areas. Ask leaders of Catholic, Lutheran and Christian Reformed schools if they see evidence of a link between religious beliefs and intact marriages and minority enrollment numbers in alternative schools.

Of course, you would expect people in religious schools to see these factors and to talk openly about them. Kersten’s article made me wonder how these trends are now beginning to affect life in secular alternatives. (Then there is homeschooling, of course, which tends to draw families of deep religious commitment.) You have to listen for the code words. When black parents talk about the need for “safety” and “smaller schools,” are they talking only about violence? Are they seeking schools that support the “values” in their homes?

At some point, the “pew gap” will affect other parts of African American life, if it is not doing so already. Yes, this is going to cause big tensions and, sooner or later, headlines. Remember this story?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    A reader just sent in a MAJOR correction. The link to the Harvest school has been corrected. Again, gentle readers, we welcome the chance to correct mistakes!

  • Kristine

    “Yes, this is tragic. It is a tragic development for public schools and a sign that, in the “culture wars” and “culture of death” era, it is getting harder to separate morality and education.”

    I wonder if it isn’t also a tragedy for the Christian faith in a very different way. As Christians drop out of the public schools, they loose the right to change the ‘culture’ of those schools. As a matter of fact, we also loose the right to witness through our faithful lives in the struggles of working in a less than perfect world of many beliefs. We loose the opportunity to counsel our own children in how to sustain their faith in the marketplace of ideas and lifestyles. We loose our chance to meaningfully support the the teachers, administrators and elected officials who are Christians, and real believers in the ‘culture of life.’
    I’m always saddened by the thought that God has placed Christian families in a country which provides a free education to every child where we have daily access to families who need Christ and help from Christian friends; The poor, hungry and homeless are right here in public school buildings across the nation, yet some Christians parents are sending their children ‘anywhere but’ public schools. “Morality” is most evident in how we live our daily lives in obedience to God. Abdication of our golden opportunity to share our faith with real live non-Christians and be where they are smacks of modern day “Christian pharisee syndrome”.
    disclaimer: I am a public school teacher and a ‘crunchier than most’ conservative.

  • Harris

    “I predict that a high percentage of the charter-school students from single-parent homes are also coming from homes in which, for the parent, “church” is a positive word and “God” is not a curse.”

    I don’t know about you, but I get nervous around unsupported assertions such as ‘I predict…’ It would seem that the demographics of family composition in charter schools (one parent, both parents) would be available or at least researchable.

    Second, this last sentence is both a cliche and factually wrong, in that in terms of relationship to the church, minority (black) families are far more religious regardless of family composition than their more affluent, white counterparts. Whether one is in public school academies (that’s the formal term here in Michigan) or general public schools, one will find the same religious commitments.

    The phenomena of greater minority representation in charter schools has been well-documented in a number of studies, beginning with those coming from Harvard University (a personal plug: I know this first hand from my daughter’s research in Wayne County schools at the University of Michigan).

    Lastly, I’m not sure you are reading the question of “safety” correctly. Is that a ghost word? Perhaps, for most parents “safety” is a word about the reliability of educational outcomes. Will my child learn? Will the promise of education be fulfilled? Urban public schools often send out very mixed signals on this score, with large class size, often inadequate discipline, and the inability of staff to connect. Moreover in large districts, one also deals with bureaucracy that further accentuates the feeling of being out of control. It is this sense that one cannot control the environment for your child that drives the charter school and other movements of educational choice.

    Talk with parents and they will tell you: we want schools that are tied to our community. Here in W Michigan, one of the ironies of charters has been how they have taken so many families from the Christian schools that the local association has had to close schools. That suggests that at the end of the day, Charter Schools are about matching the felt needs of a community for order, involvement, and the promise of education for their children.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    “Yes, this is tragic. It is a tragic development for public schools and a sign that, in the ‘culture wars’ and ‘culture of death’ era, it is getting harder to separate morality and education.”

    Kristin: “I wonder if it isn’t also a tragedy for the Christian faith in a very different way. …”

    I’ve heard this argument many times, and while I generally agree with the “we ought to engage the culture” argument generally, the comment ignores a basic truth: parents send children to school to get an education. It IS possible to share one’s faith effectively as a family without placing a vulnerable child into an environment known to be compromised educationally, socially and safety-wise.

    I’d say, if anything, that particular war zone requires more Christian adults (teachers, administrators, seriously-involved taxpayers, etc.), not more Christian children. There are plenty of opportunities to teach children how to respond to secular culture without enrolling them in public schools that don’t pass muster on any number of levels.

    (Disclosure: I’m (a) a non-parent and (b) a parochial school graduate.)


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