In early February, the Western Regional Conference of the National Action Network (NAN) was held at Genesis Church on Meadowview Road in Sacramento and attended by scores of educators and community leaders from throughout the western United States.

Of primary importance at this gathering was the African American academic achievement gap, which was the topic of plenary sessions, panel discussions and award ceremonies.

According to the California Department of Education, African American students are the lowest-performing racial group in California. Only one in three African American students are proficient in English Language Arts. In comparison, two out of three White students in California are proficient in ELA. In math, the numbers are worse, as only 21 percent of Black students are proficient compared to 54 percent of their White counterparts.

Loudly driving the point home during the NAN Conference was the pounding and digging going on next door to the church as construction was underway on the new Tecoy Porter College Prep. The charter school, which is scheduled to open in June, will be the ninth charter school operated by Sacramento-based Fortune School of Education. 

Fortune School is a network of tuition-free, public charter schools in California focused on closing the African American achievement gap while preparing students for college and citizenship in a democratic society.

Persistent poverty, racism and classism are at the root of the African American achievement gap. And there seems little interest at the top levels of government to focus specifically on Black students and their learning in traditional schools.

Hence, the need for public charter schools, say advocates. 

“Public charter schools allow educators the freedom to design a school to serve a specific mission while adhering to a higher level of public accountability and transparency than a traditional public school,” says Dr. Margaret Fortune, the president and chief executive of Fortune School.

Fortune School offers a rigorous academic program for grades K-12 in a culture of high expectations where scholars are immersed in everything positive about the Black experience.

Students in the Fortune Schools continue to surpass Sacramento County and San Bernardino City Unified School Districts in math and English Language Arts, according to the annual assessment scores released last October by the California Department of Education.

According to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) system, there are 16 high-performing predominantly African American schools in California — 13 of which are public charter schools. Six of those are operated by either Fortune School or Sacramento’s St. Hope Public Schools. Fifteen of the best schools for Black children in California are founded or led by African Americans.

Similar positive results at other charter schools throughout the country have garnered support for more than two decades by Democrats who saw such schools as a vital way to rescue Black and brown students from failing traditional schools in their communities. 

The growth of charter schools was a key priority in President Barack Obama’s administration’s overall school reform program.

With Obama’s charter school legacy and a decades-long Democratic platform of charter support, one would think that high-achieving charter schools would be a part of the discussion by the leading candidates in the Democratic presidential primary race.

Quite the contrary.

The positions of the leading candidates range from minimal support to a startling call for cutting-off of charter school funding.

This running away from charter schools by Democratic candidates was addressed by Sen. Cory Booker in an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times last November.

Voicing his support for charter schools, Sen. Booker urged Democratic candidates to have a better discussion about the viability of charter schools in closing the achievement gap.

“The treatment by many Democratic politicians of high-performing public charter schools as boogeymen,” he wrote in the Times, “has undermined the fact that many of these schools are serving low-income, urban children across the country in ways that are inclusive, equitable, publicly accountable and locally driven.

“Many public charter schools have proved to be an effective, targeted tool to give children with few other options a chance to succeed.”

Sen. Booker said that for-profit charter school schemes and the anti-public education agenda of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was hurting teachers, students and their families, but was not a good reason for Democrats to abandon their support for charter schools. For-profit charter schools are banned in California.

“As Democrats, we can’t continue to fall into the trap of dismissing good ideas because they don’t fit into neat ideological boxes or don’t personally affect some of the louder, more privileged voices in the party,” he said. “Supporting well-regulated public charters, in the meantime, is a meaningful complementary solution. The promise of better schools some day down the road doesn’t do much for children who have to go to schools that fail them today.’

The Democratic front-runners for the nomination, all of whom are White — in a nominating contest that will be heavily influenced by Black voters — don’t share Sen. Booker’s belief in charter schools.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont vowed to curb charter school growth if elected. So did Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who recently suspended her campaign. 

Front-runner former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — who has been endorsed by former candidates such as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and California Sen. Kamala Harris — has raised questions about the role of charters and makes no mention of the schools in his education platform.

Vice President Biden is seeking the endorsements of national teachers’ unions — who oppose charter schools — and the support of Black Democrats who tend to be more supportive of charter schools than their White counterparts

Only Bloomberg came out as a staunch supporter of charter schools by saying his administration would “absolutely promote charter schools.”

Richard Buery, the chief of policy at KIPP, the nation’s largest charter network, told the Times that the Democratic shift was “a reflection more broadly of the lack of respect for Black voters in the party.”

Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee schools’ superintendent and founder of the Freedom Coalition for Charter schools, is making sure the voices of Black charter school supporters are heard at Democratic primary debates across the country, where followers are demonstrating inside and outside of the debate forums.

“The reason why there continues to be an achievement gap is because fundamentally the political system in this country does not give a damn about poor Black and brown children. It is simply not a priority in this country to eliminate the achievement gap,” Fuller told The OBSERVER.

Fuller founded the Freedom Coalition after Sen. Warren called for a moratorium on federal funding for charter school expansion and a ban on for-profit charter schools.

When the Democratic Presidential debate was held in Atlanta last November, more than 300 people chanted outside the studio, “Our Children, Our choice,” to the drumbeats of a marching band from a KIPP school. The next day, Black and Latino charter school parents shouted the same refrain at Sen. Warren as she tried to start a speech about race in Atlanta.

The debates in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were met with similar demonstrations from hundreds of people.

“We are taking action — rallies or demonstrations at the site of the debates in the cities where the debates take place to let them know that there are people out here who care about this issue,” Fuller said. 

“We will not be attacked and be silent. They must understand that they will need us somewhere down the line. I want them to remember Hillary Clinton had the support of the teachers’ unions and lost. We will not be intimidated, and we will not go away.’

Sen. Sanders has been sharply critical of charter schools that include more than 7,000 schools and serve more 3.2 million students across the nation and doesn’t really address charter school performance in his agenda. 

Sanders says his education plan would address the causes of educational inequality, in part, by significantly increasing funding for high-poverty schools.

Fuller says that is not enough.

“The systems are structured to meet the needs and interests of the adults, not the needs and interests of the students,” he said.  “There are all the things that happen to poor children before they ever get to the school. So many lack basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, caring nurturing environments. Many of our children are also dealing with very traumatic situations. There is no silver bullet to solve this problem. But, unless the achievement gap is treated as the urgent national problem that it is, very little progress will be made on solving it.”

But Sanders appears likely to cut or kill the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, created to jump-start new charters and funded at $440 million this fiscal year.

Dr. Fortune said the $2 million she has received from the program helped fund three of her nine schools.

“Tax-payer-supported public charter schools founded by Black and Latino educators are about self-determination for communities of color that the traditional public schools have failed,” she said. 

In a column published this week in Black newspapers throughout California, Dr. Fortune highlighted the Obama administration as an example of a president who was able to garner the support of teacher unions as well as recognize the historic failure of the public school system for African American students. She noted that the Obama-Biden administration expanded public charter schools with the support of federal funding and policy, adding that Biden should follow suit.

“Sure Obama had the endorsement of teachers unions, but he also held them accountable. Joe Biden should do the same,” wrote Dr. Fortune. 

“… Our children simply have not been well served by traditional public schools and we can’t wait for the system to right itself.  Joe Biden should use this moment to broker a peace between teachers unions and charter schools by acknowledging both as a permanent part of the education landscape,” she added. 

By Fahizah Alim | Special To THE OBSERVER