Capitol Alert

California charter advocates say public school system ‘failing black kids’

Margaret Fortune says charter schools have gained ground on preparing black students

Hundreds of students and parents rallied outside the Capitol on February 1, 2017 -- the first day of Black History Month -- urging lawmakers to support charter schools and African-American student achievement.
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Hundreds of students and parents rallied outside the Capitol on February 1, 2017 -- the first day of Black History Month -- urging lawmakers to support charter schools and African-American student achievement.

Belting out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and dancing to “Juju On That Beat” with a Huey the Panther mascot, hundreds of young students and their parents rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday with a message for the first day of Black History Month: Support charter schools in California to raise up African Americans.

“We all know the system is failing black kids. We all know that,” said Margaret Fortune, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education adviser and now president and CEO of Fortune School, a Sacramento-based charter operator with a mission to “close the African American achievement gap.”

Fortune urged lawmakers to view black students as a high-needs population that should receive more funding, and to provide them with more educational choices by expanding who can authorize charter schools. She pointed out that of 13 predominantly African-American and low-income schools in California that are considered “high-achieving” on state assessments, 12 are charters.

“Charter schools get a fresh start,” Fortune said, and “can hire all new people who are mission-aligned” to help black students succeed.

The event, organized by the California Charter Schools Association, also drew several lawmakers, highlighting the shifting political divide on charters in Sacramento. The orthodoxy of dominant California Democrats has long been aligned with teachers unions, who have vehemently fought against publicly-funded, independently-run charter schools because they are overwhelmingly not unionized and siphon students and state dollars away from traditional public schools.

“Nobody was saying much when I got here four years ago,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who told the crowd that she is “a thorn in the side of those at the Capitol who don’t want to move forward for our children.”

But the charter school association and other advocates for overhauling the education system are increasingly active in state politics, helping elect more receptive lawmakers.

Black legislators, and others who represent the predominantly low-income and minority communities where charter operators have proliferated in recent decades, have been among the most vocal. In October, the California Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter urging the NAACP to reconsider a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools, a position that Weber and Fortune both condemned at Wednesday’s rally.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, said some of his colleagues are “tone-deaf” to the fact that so many black families are looking alternative to a school system that has let them down.

“I can’t knock anyone who is trying to do the best by their children,” he said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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