The school choice debate has perhaps never been more central to the national conversation than right now. With the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on charter schools and President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of billionaire choice-advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, the issue is now directly in the spotlight.
To be clear, my position is anything but simple. I am not a staunch traditionalist when it comes to education. I refuse to get swept up in the anti-charter fervor. I’m actually foolish enough to believe traditional public and charter schools can coexist harmoniously. The original spirit of the charter movement – where charters serve as hubs of innovation for students who truly require an alternative experience, for the purposes of informing future practice for traditional public schools – makes sense to me.
There are many exemplary charters throughout the nation taking unorthodox approaches to learning and yielding positive results. The list of schools and charter management organizations doing great work is long enough for traditional public schools to take serious note. In communities where educational opportunities are inequitable, this can’t be summarily dismissed.
We must wrestle with the fact that 72 percent of Black families in particular are in favor of public charters, according to a TVOne poll. That’s why I feel both the NAACP and Movement for Black Lives’ call for a moratorium is guilty of scapegoating the entire sector and oversimplifying its problems.
That said, charters are not the panacea for closing gaps in achievement and equalizing opportunity in communities of color, as some supporters purport. The allure of charter schools has taken on a life of its own and in some cases adopted an identity not matched by reality. There appears to be a belief that merely being a charter makes a school better. Overselling the idea that sprinkling “charter dust” on a school will lead to better outcomes is equally erroneous.
Scholars have warned this belief may be leading to a “Charter Bubble,” similar to the subprime mortgage crisis that preceded the Great Recession. There are many terrible charters that exacerbate inequality and are hypersegregated by race and class. The calls for greater quality control by the NAACP should also be noted, as this fulfills the original premise of charters—an exchange of autonomy for accountability.
Detroit as our example
In all of this, one thing is certain: Decisions by DeVos, if she is confirmed as secretary, would have major implications in this debate and tremendous consequences for millions of students of color, who often find themselves on the outside looking in on a quality education. DeVos has increasingly been in favor of expanding access to charter schools in her native Michigan, but she also lobbied against regulations to ensure oversight and protect families. If Detroit serves as an example, the charter sector hasn’t made good on offering a better alternative to Detroit Public Schools.
Michigan is also home to the largest proportion of for-profit charters in the country, a sign the sector may be expanded and turned over to the free markets under DeVos. My greatest fear is that the squabble about school choice will be exploited and used as a trojan horse to increase vouchers and education saving accounts in the name of giving “poor and underserved communities” better school options – an appeal I find disingenuous. The thought that an uber wealthy White woman who has never attended, worked in or sent her children to public schools would suddenly know what’s best for kids of color and or those in poverty is far-fetched.
More work must be done better to strike a balance between these two positions. I believe in the promise of public education. I just so happen to believe that includes traditional and charter schools. Parties on both sides need to work hard to find a compromise that serves the needs of families and offers a quality education for the most students.
If a more nuanced understanding can’t be reached, it’s probable that we’ll be left with more failing traditional public schools and substandard charters serving primarily Black and Brown students. A losing situation for everyone. We cannot fall prey to the divide and conquer.
James Ford is is the program director at the Public School Forum of North Carolina. Prior to this, he served as the 2014-15 North Carolina Teacher of the Year. This commentary originally appeared on www.educationpost.org.