As the 2020 Democratic candidates prepare for their next debate in the Hawkeye State, I hope they intend to answer a question burning in the minds of many black and Latino charter school families—“why are you ignoring us?” Democratic voters—many of whom look like me—are wondering why the party that claims to stand with and for us is ignoring our concerns on the incredibly important issue of education, specifically the topic of charter schools.
Until recently, charter schools enjoyed bipartisan support and have been celebrated by leaders in both parties for their innovative, student-centered approach to education and the life-changing opportunities they provide to students who might otherwise be locked into low-performing schools due solely to their zip code. According to an October 2019 Democrats for Education Reform poll, 89 percent of Black Democratic primary voters support “expanding access to more choices and options within the public-school system, including magnet schools, career academies, and public charter schools.” The poll also found that 61% of Democratic primary voters agree with former President Obama who said that his education policies sought to “promote innovation and choice in public schools and raise standards for every student.”
So why, then, are the 2020 Democrat hopefuls suddenly spinning a false, negative narrative around charter schools? Providing families with quality public educational options so that all students have a chance for success should be a no-brainer for Democrats. Yet the top candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are singing a non-fact-based anti-charter tune from the same teachers’ union song sheet in an attempt to secure teacher union dollars.
“Public dollars must stay in public schools” is a refrain repeated frequently by these candidates as they vie for endorsements from the teachers’ unions. The truth is that every single charter school is a public school and public dollars should follow the student into whatever public option best fits each student’s needs, be it charter, district, magnet, innovation or other. One size does not fit all and charter schools are, for some students a better option. We need more, not fewer, public school options to ensure that high achievement is an attainable goal for all students.
Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer,” but what we have heard from the top Democratic candidates is charter school-bashing that would actually turn our educational system into the “great divider.” By eliminating choices for families trapped in failing schools, these candidates would place large numbers of students on a path to failure, while their wealthier counterparts are led down a road to success. They are ignoring the many black and brown families who are desperate in their desire for better options for their children and those who have witnessed firsthand the benefits of a charter school.
And, lets be real, free college, debt free college and all the other schemes put forward by Democrats to make college more financially accessible mean next to nothing to students whose K-12 education failed to prepare them for college.
Around the time of the November debate, a group of charter school advocates traveled to Atlanta to let their voices be heard. In an exchange with Senator Elizabeth Warren following the debate, these parents made clear their displeasure with her anti-charter education plan and wondered why, when their children were evidence that charters are working, she would want to stifle that innovation. Since then, we have seen video of Senator Warren insisting that it is parents’ jobs to improve their home school if they don’t like it. Let’s be clear—many of these schools have been underperforming for years, have squandered public funds and are systematically failing generations of low-income students. Their outdated, entrenched systems are built to protect the interests of adults, rather than putting the students’ needs first. Warren has not suggested DIY health insurance reform or banking reform. But she would have low-income families roll up their sleeves and get to work on one of our nation’s biggest challenges—public education—that is just as daunting.
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And to be even more clear—the families stuck in these schools are often low-income, non-English speakers who are working multiple jobs to keep food on their table. To tell them they need to do more volunteering and that they, alone, bear the burden of improving their schools is not only tone-deaf and lacking empathy, it’s insulting and flat-out wrong.
Many charter school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. When their neighborhood school fails, their only reasonable option - in cities and towns where it actually is an option - is to join the lottery for a charter school. They aren’t able to afford elite private schools, like some of the 2020 contenders, or pick up and move to a higher performing school district. Rather, they are at the whim of their lawmakers, who should focus upon implementing the best educational policies to serve all students.
Although the faces of the candidates who will be on stage at the Democrat debate on January 14th don’t reflect the majority of the population of charter schools, we hope these potential nominees will give their black and brown voters the respect they deserve and finally listen to their concerns. It’s time for the leaders of the Democrat party to actually do what they all claim and stand up for those who need it most.
Amy Wilkins is an African American democrat who is senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Amy comes from a family with deep roots in the civil rights movement.