Two major structural shifts have occurred in education reform in the past two decades: the decline of civil rights reforms and the rise of charter schools. Courts and policy makers have relegated traditional civil rights reforms that address segregation, poverty, disability, and language barriers to near irrelevance, while charter schools and policies supporting their creation and expansion have rapidly increased and now dominate federal policy. Advocates of traditional civil rights reforms interpret the success of charter schools as a threat to their cause, and, consequently, have fought the expansion of charter schools. This Article argues that the civil rights community has misinterpreted both its own decline and the rise of charter schools. Rather than look for external explanations, civil rights advocates should turn their scrutiny inward. And, rather than attack charter schools, they should learn from them. A close examination of past civil rights movements in education reveals that their decline was inevitable. Each of the various educational movements depended on establishing a causal connection between the reform sought and positive student outcomes. But precisely establishing causal connections in education is nearly impossible. Education involves too many variables to isolate conclusively the effects of educational policies on student outcomes. Ignoring this reality leaves civil rights reforms vulnerable to contraction. This weakness-not competition from charter schools-continues to undermine civil rights reform. Charter schools suffer from the same causal weakness, but it is not impeding their expansion because the charter movement, unlike civil rights, is not based primarily on evidence. Instead, charter school advocates emphasize ideological values that appeal to broad constituencies. These value-based constituencies form a movement that forces the expansion of charter schools and is undeterred by evidentiary critique. To regain relevance, civil rights advocates must scale back their reliance on evidentiary claims and reframe their arguments in terms of compelling values that can again inspire a movement. *
Derek W. Black, Civil Rights, Charter Schools, and Lessons to be Learned, 64 FL. L. Rev. 1723 (2012).