It’s not easy being a political progressive and a charter school supporter. In these polarized times, it’s easy to forget how many of us support great public schools and have seen charters create them, especially in places where quality was lacking.
For the audacity to hold such principled yet pragmatic positions, progressive charter advocates get criticized coming and going. While some conservatives take stances that violate church-state separation and then say we’re not pro-choice enough, our fellow progressives complain that we are sellouts to unfettered free-market, public-school-demolishing ideology.
In reality, there are plenty of progressive parents and educators still supporting unique, innovative public charter schools.
Take, for example, my own child’s school. Namaste Charter School has pledged not to replicate and hosts frequent tours for outsiders, including traditional public school leaders and staff, who want to learn more about how to apply its unique focus on health and wellness. Our school is nonprofit and its dedicated board is not out to make money off the school.
Neither is Legacy Charter School, founded by my good friend Lisa Kenner to serve children in Chicago’s struggling North Lawndale neighborhood. Parents there have shared their stories of how school choice helped them meet their children’s needs and avoid the problems they experienced in traditional public schools.
There are many more progressive, social-justice-minded educators out there in charters doing the hard work to ensure kids get equitable education regardless of their ZIP code. More importantly, there are families of all political stripes who rely on charters to educate their children well.
I take special note of charters that serve returning dropouts. Clearly, the traditional system didn’t work for them and these schools are offering a desperately-needed second chance. In Chicago, many of these schools are staffed by unionized teachers. No one can suggest these charters drain money from the system, because they bring lost students back to public schools.
New charter schools with progressive missions continue to launch. For example, Oakland’s Roses in Concrete Community School has a performing-arts mission centered on African, Latino and Native American traditions—creating a school to rival independent schools while staying grounded in the cultures of its student body.
Charters and choice can be a part of good schools for all children, but progressive choice advocates must get real, and real loud, about how to do it right. Quality charters need quality oversight, not systems with so many asleep-at-the-wheel authorizers that sleazy operators can avoid being held accountable for their performance. As Tulane professor Douglas Harris recently told Education Next, we need systems that look more like New Orleans or D.C. than Detroit.
I would go further and say that even in those better-performing systems, we still have work to do. While many poor parents can and do exercise choice, we still have young people trapped in struggling schools. We have more to do when it comes to helping families for whom choice hasn’t worked, whether because they lack the information they need to choose well, they lack transportation to get to their preferred school or the schools they can access lack the know-how to support their special-needs child.
These are real problems that right-wing choice advocates tend to overlook.
Right now it appears the fight for quality choice is likely to get harder, not easier, come 2017 and beyond. But the fight is important. As Michael Petrilli points out, Democrats control the cities where charters are doing the most to make a difference for working families and children of color. If unregulated free-marketers run amok, those Democrats will react by shutting down support for all charters in the name of saving public education. And if anti-choice progressives drown out our message, we’ll lose the chance to create universal enrollment systems, access closed public school buildings, or create truly innovative new schools that meet the needs of the hardest-to-serve populations.
Progressive charter advocates have an important role to play in navigating through these rocky shoals to preserve and enhance great schools for all our kids. Trust me, we’re not dead yet.