I 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?