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The New Social-Darwinism Charter Schools for Those with "Highest Potential"

Robert Schwartz's post today on Huffington, "Why Charters and College Access Programs Should Cream," is but the latest incarnation of Social-Darwinism applied to current public education policy. Such theories were popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere.

The basic notion was--and still is--that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the rest --- not.  The theory was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies were grounded in an elitist worldview and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection. In its most extreme form, Social-Darwinism was used to justify eugenics programs aimed at weeding "undesirable" genes from the population. While we usually associate such theories with Nazi Germany, we have always had our home-grown versions within U.S. academia and politics.

President Obama, while on the campaign trail in 2007, was a vocal critic of Social-Darwinism as practiced by the Bush administration in their economic and tax policies. But you don't hear much on that topic from him these days, especially when it comes to school reform policies. After all, what is Race To The Top except a refined form of survival of the fittest?

Schwartz calls on corporate America to further bankroll charter schools like KIPP, ICEF, Yes Prep, and Aspire as elite schools for those students with "high potential," while relegating public schools to "focus on what they've already been doing for the past decade"-- moving those with lesser potential "from below basic to proficiency."

"You see," writes Schwartz, "our urban and rural schools have been doing better at educating lower achieving African American and Latino students in their attempt to close the achievement gap."

Schwartz, a Teach For America (TFA) alum -- no shock there-- directs the so-called Level Playing Field Institute. He actually performs a service by articulating the anti-democratic social theory behind many current corporate reform policies. However, his plea to U.S. corporations to increase their support for school re-segregation and creaming via charter schools is redundant. The corporate world, including power philanthropists like Gates, Broad, Walton and Bradley, is way ahead of him in this regard. It was the Bradley Foundation, in fact, that underwrote the publication of The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray which was based on the Social-Darwinist theory that black and Latino students lacked the academic potential held by white and Asian students and therefore should be tracked away from college preparatory programs.

Schwartz knows from where he speaks. Until recently, he was Chief Academic Officer for Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools (ICEF)  in South Los Angeles. He claims to have led "the strategic expansion of the academic program from three schools with 500 students to 15 schools with almost 4,000 students."

I couldn't help but notice this story about ICEF, which is the embodiment of Schwartz's social-Darwinian theory. It seems that after years of financial mismanagement, ICEF went bankrupt, leading to yesterday's lock-out of hundreds of  students at their Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Middle School. According to ABC News, "The Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) that runs the charter school and leases space from the Boys and Girls Club was having problems paying its bills."

So it seems that even for the chosen few with "high potential," Social-Darwinian theories don't necessarily deliver the goods and their promised "level playing field" is not so level after all. Buyer beware!

Aside: Schwartz, being a TFA grad and all, should really learn how to spell the word Institute in the title of his own organization. I hope it's corrected by the time my readers read this.

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Mike Klonsky

Mike Klonsky is an educator, writer, school reform activist, and director of the Small Schools Workshop ( ...