The Common Thread between Charter School and Private School Choice Advocates

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Magic 8 Ball predicting "Signs Point to Yes."

Can the charter school and private school choice advocates get along?

That’s the question we set out to answer last week on a panel at the National Charter Schools Conference. We’ve got some good news to report back: signs point to yes.

The hour-long conversation—which included myself, Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, Philadelphia charter school pioneer David Hardy, and Robbyn Wahby of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission—covered everything from scarce resources to teachers’ unions, parent engagement, chronically underperforming schools, racial inequity, and the current political climate. 

There was absolutely no disagreement whatsoever about the premise of the debate: charters are under fire. Choice is under fire. Our movement is not as unified as it once was. 

No issue attracted more attention—from those on the panel as well as those in the audience—than accountability and whether choice schools should have to adhere to the same rules as public schools. 

David challenged the question and flipped it around to focus on those who are benefitting from K-12 education instead of the education provider: “Accountability means, when your child comes home, do they know more than they did when they left that morning. Are you happy with the results of your child in that school?”

Derrell noted that the environment is much different today than it was a decade or more ago when policymakers began looking for ways to quantify student and educator success, eventually settling on a technocratic system based more on test scores than outcomes. 

“It's a different moment in America,” he said. “I think the better question is not ‘do you want accountability’ but what should it be, what should it look like, how much do we want to value the person that is shaped by the system, and how they feel about the experience."

Robbyn, whose organization regulates charter schools in Missouri, argued that layers and layers of rules and regulations over the years have made it difficult to figure out what matters but expressed concern that her fellow panelists were tipping too far in favor of parental satisfaction as the only measurement of school quality.

“Accountability is good when it provides for what it was designed to do,” she said.

Despite underlying tension about how much regulation schools should face, there was a great deal of consensus around the issue of racial inequity and the need to make sure options are available for communities that historically have been left behind.

Robbyn noted that there are more than 500 school districts in Missouri that inherently restrict choice based on geography. The system, she said, is “absolutely historically built on race."

In Philadelphia, David said school districts are going out of their way to make it difficult for charter schools or other schools to open—all while propping up chronically low-performing schools in communities of color.

Derrell pointed out that it’s easy for people to criticize choice when they can move to a new neighborhood to access a better schooling option. That’s not the case for low-income and minority families:

"People are living in a world of choice that they have to game most of the time to participate as an equal,” he said. 

So, what did we learn at the end of an hour?

We’ve got a lot more in common than we thought, but there are always going to be some fundamental fracture lines, especially when it comes to rules and oversight. That said, if we keep our focus on students and families that benefit from options, we can all move in the same direction. 

Derrell said it best when he described why choice can be so tricky:

"There are only a couple of policies that are both policies and values. Choice is a value—it's a way you want people to interact with the world—as much as it is [education savings account] legislation or a charter authorizing framework.”

That new framework is how we are disrupting a traditional K-12 system that existed largely unchallenged for the better part of a century. The why is actually far more important. Whether via charter schools, private school choice, inter-district transfer, or other means, our goal is to provide opportunity for all kids—not just those with the ability to move or pay. 

Thanks to everyone who took part in our panel discussion—and to everyone who attended this year’s conference. We look forward to continuing the conversation. 


Robert Enlow is the president and CEO of EdChoice, a sponsor of the 2019 National Charter Schools Conference.

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