August 30, 2017

Stop Lying! Telling the Truth About School Choice

By Ryan Williams-Virden

It’s back to school. An exciting yet nerve-racking time, especially for families starting out at new schools. There are few decisions as important as where to send your child to school, but, sadly, the school choice debate does little to ease the nerves around that decision or help families navigate the minefield of failing schools. Too often the conversation is framed as a dichotomy where you are either pro-traditional district schools and necessarily then anti-charter, or you are pro-charter and necessarily anti-district. This framework lacks nuance and does little to solve the issues facing Minnesota, which is home to some of the largest achievement gaps in the country and was ranked just last week as second-worst in the nation for overall racial inequality. As a parent and longtime educator who has taught in a variety of school settings, I would propose three fundamental truths to add much-needed depth to the conversation and, more importantly, push the state towards educating all children.

Truth 1: Charter critics should retire their common critiques, which are a convenient, hypocritical distraction from district schools’ complicity in systems of oppression.

One of the go-to critiques of charters is that they are a front for wealthy white conservatives to take down public education. While there may be truth to the critique it overlooks crucial and inconvenient truths. First, charters were started as part of a progressive movement to empower families and communities that were not getting what they needed from district schools. Second, charters are public schools. Third, and most importantly, by positioning charters as the vehicle for oppression and insidious intent, this critique conveniently divorces traditional public schools from oppression, which is a gross distortion of reality.

In this country quality public schooling has always been dependent on race and class. Schools were designed to prepare students for jobs in their social class. Workers went to school with workers and were prepared to be workers. For communities of color, schools have long been a place of violence and preparation for prison, hence the school-to-prison pipeline. Study after study illustrate this reality, and we have seen it firsthand here in Minnesota.

I’ve seen it especially in Minneapolis, where, just a couple years ago, Minneapolis Public Schools approved a racist reading curriculum from Reading Horizons, and just a few weeks ago, a million-dollar contract to keep Minneapolis police in schools. An embarrassingly small percentage of teachers are of color. Progress on an ethnic studies requirement is nonexistent. This is to say nothing of the atrocious proficiency numbers for poor students and students of color, the most glaring evidence of the district’s collusion with white supremacy.

There is no way to analyze the current state of traditional public schools in Minnesota and say they are not totally complicit in the very systems, serving the very people, that school choice critics warn us will take over education if we don’t purge charters. It’s disingenuous, dangerous, and lazy to continue this shallow argument against charters. What students and families actually need is for district school leaders and their diehards to do some real soul-searching and improvement, rather than point their fingers at charters.

Truth 2: Charter supporters should also retire their tired talking points, and get behind stronger accountability and oversight for charter schools.

There is no doubt there are people out here looking to use any tool they can for their own personal gains. Charters schools present an opportunity in the hands of these people to underserve communities through non-rigorous instruction, scant spending on necessary materials, and inflated administrative salaries.

I’ve seen schools like this, I know they exist. I’ve seen students pass classes simply for showing up to class. I’ve seen students graduate high school while being functionally illiterate or woefully underprepared for higher ed (this is a problem in district schools, too). I’ve seen all this while lots of people collected large salaries and patted themselves on the back for a job well-done.

I know from personal experience that charters need more oversight. There is plenty of research to illustrate this point, as well. Pro-charter advocates often contend that charters outperform their traditional counterparts; the reality though, is more nuanced. In aggregate, charters and traditional school perform about the same: some traditional schools get results, some don’t, and the same can be said about charters.

We need stronger accountability for charter schools (and district schools, for that matter), to ensure that they’re actually living up to their promise: Using the freedom and flexibility their charter gives them to do whatever it takes to help students achieve. Supporters of and families in charter schools should be leading this cause.

Truth 3: We’re doing it wrong.

Both “sides” need to re-center the conversation around what, or rather who, really matters: families and children who simply need Minnesota’s education system to be and do better. We must not let incomplete and simplistic talking points frame the conversation. Our young people deserve better.

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