What gets lost in the polarized charter school debate?

The charter school debate has become increasingly polarized since charter schools emerged in the 1990s. The procharter school camp argues that charter schools bring much needed competition and innovation into the American educational system and argues that those who oppose charter schools are pawns of teacher unions. The anticharter camp argues that charter schools are undermining district schools and argues that those advocating for charter schools are aligned with a corporate agenda to sell American schools to the highest bidder. What gets lost when a debate becomes so polarized? Actual people and their experiences.

Several years ago I was conducting research at an urban charter school. One day as I entered the main office to check in, a father came into the office and asked the secretary how he could get his child into the school. In an almost pleading voice he told the secretary that his daughter–recently arrived from the Dominican Republic–had been jumped by some other girls at the neighborhood public school and that he was concerned for her safety. Unfortunately, the school had a waiting list and there was no way she would be getting in anytime soon.

Because of the polarized nature of the charter school debate, both proponents and opponents of charter schools might use this anecdote as proof of why they are right and the other side is wrong. The pro-charter school camp might argue that this type of parental demand justifies the expansion of charter schools so that all parents can have as many options available to them as possible. The anti-charter camp might argue that this type of parental exclusion demonstrates that charter schools cream students and should be eliminated so that district schools that serve all students can receive the resources they need and deserve. The father’s desire for a safe school for his daughter gets lost in a policy discussion that has little immediate impact on his life.

But it isn’t just about this one father. The extreme polarization of the charter school debate has led to an overly-simplistic description of all poor people of color who send (or want to send) their children to charter schools.  The pro-charter school camp argue that poor parents of color who send their children to charter schools are expressing the choice that all Americans should have in choosing the right school for their children. They argue that allowing universal choice would solve the problems of urban education. In contrast, the anti-charter school side oftentimes refer to poor parents of color who send their children to charter schools are part of the problem. At best, they are ignorant victims who are manipulated by corporate influences. At worse, they are active collaborators in the undermining of American public schools.

Once again, we see poor people of color being used as political pawns on both sides of a policy debate that fails to engage with their day-to-day reality. The idea that providing everybody choice will somehow magically resolve all of the challenges of urban schools is naïve at best. The example of the father mentioned above shows why. His experience shows that choices are not always so easy to find if one doesn’t know how to navigate the system–something that is often the case for the most marginalized populations.

But it is equally problematic to dismiss charter school parents as dupes or collaborators. After all, if poor people of color trying to get their kids into charter schools are dupes or collaborators then shouldn’t we say the same thing about white middle class parents who flock to racially and economically segregated neighborhoods to send their children to the “best schools.” Both are making personal decisions to benefit their individual children that have institutional consequences. Why are the decisions of one group of parents vilified while the other ignored?

Let me be clear: poverty and racism matter and any educational reform initiatives that fails to address these root causes of the challenges of urban education are doomed to fail. The issue is that poor parents of color in urban contexts have to try to get a decent education for their children within a current educational reform context that does not address these issues. Vilifying them for doing exactly the same thing that their white middle and upper class counterparts do for their own children is to blame the victim of an unjust system while ignoring the actions of those who are privileged by it.

Let’s think back to the father trying to protect his daughter by getting her into a safe school. Telling him that the best way to make sure his daughter has a safe school is for him to fight to end his poverty would demonstrate both privilege and condescension. Telling him that sending his daughter to her neighborhood school is serving the greater good would do nothing to address his fear about his daughter’s safety. His immediate need is for somebody to help him navigate a broken educational system to ensure his daughter is safe and receiving the high quality education that she deserves.

But the movement for educational justice cannot end there. For too long the educational reform debate has been divided into “pro-charter” and “anti-charter.”  Yet, if charter schools were to magically disappear tomorrow poverty and racism would remain. By accepting this framing of the debate natural alliances have been broken. If poor parents of color and their allies are forced to fight for scraps as charter or district parents then we avoid a substantive conversation about the root problems in urban education. Let’s keep our eyes on that prize while supporting poor parents of color in navigating the current broken system.


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