Yet from all the attention this debate grabs, you would never know that only about 6 percent of public school students attend charters. More students have parents who are undocumented immigrants, and far more are disabled. More children live in states where corporal punishment is still permitted in schools. But these students’ needs generally don’t have the kinds of impressive “change agents” associated with them, the smiling faces who attract big donors and awe-struck media coverage. They lose in the financial economy and the attention economy.
By succumbing to a binary view of charter schools, Democrats miss the bigger picture. Many parents choose charter schools because they want their child to get a great education. They want their kid to learn a language, study the arts and have a clean building and books in the library.
What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring those resources for all students? Not just the students who win a lottery, but the students who lose, or who never get to enter because they’re homeless or their families are dealing with substance abuse, and the adults in their lives don’t have the information or resources to participate in a school choice “market”? What if our system was built not to reward innovation for the few, but rights for the many?
What if we insisted that all our schools, for all our children, be safe and encouraging places? What if our new secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, focused on a plan as audacious as the New Deal, as well funded as the war on drugs, dedicated to an all-hands-on-deck effort to guarantee every child an effective learning environment? What if we as a society pursued the dream of great schools not through punishment (as in No Child Left Behind), and not through competition (as with Race to the Top) but through the provision of essential resources?
That pivot would require political leaders to abandon some of the principles that have guided education policy in our generation. It would mean that education philanthropists couldn’t set the agenda by funding the latest trendy reform idea. It would mean ditching the philosophy that we attain excellence through private consumer choice — the idea that a great school is something in-the-know parents “shop for” the way we shop for cereal — in favor of a commitment to excellence for everyone.
It would mean charter school supporters and avowed skeptics alike taking seriously the “educators don’t get paid enough” realizations of 2020 and addressing the teacher shortage that is going to worsen in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Beyond education, schools provide food, shelter, mental health care and a frontline defense against abuse and neglect. The pandemic has reminded us of how essential they are. We need to replace the fight over charter schools with the assertion that every child deserves a great school. And we need the political courage and imagination to make that happen.
Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education whose research is focused on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. She is the author of “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.”
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