In about two years, we’ll be arriving at the thirtieth anniversary of the 1991 introduction of charter schools in the United States. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools defines charter schools as “public, tuition-free schools that are open to all students often operated independently from traditional school districts.” Charter schools were introduced as a fresh, new concept to offer choice and different opportunities to parents with children forced to attend under-resourced and/or failing schools. Since their creation, variations of charter schools have appeared, from schools dedicated to one gender, or one community; to schools catering to one neighborhood, or one programmatic vision. This range of innovative missions and purposes is wide enough to encompass everything from STEM-focused schools, to intentionally integrated schools, to schools focused on Native American culture and identity. Every level of preK–12 education—preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools—are represented among the charter ranks.
As we approach the three-decade mark since the creation of the first charter school, the conversations about charters have been increasing in number and have become more intense. In terms of educational footprint, this expansion of discourse makes some sense: from humble beginnings, charter schools now educate 3.2 million students in over 7,000 schools, and that roster continues to grow every school year. But to what extent have those conversations been constructive? And then, how many of the people driving these conversations have first-hand experience of their own in charter schools, as attendees?
In this commentary, I’ll take a closer look at the discourse about charter schools—which, as we’ll see, leaves much to be desired in terms of equity. I’ll then propose a solution for that gap—more charter alumni at the table—and discuss how I’ll be using my work as a Next100 policy entrepreneur to help make that a reality.
A Blindspot in the National Conversation
After hopping onto Twitter or any website where opinions are valued, it doesn’t take long to test the waters of today’s conversations about charter schools.
You’ll almost certainly recognize many of the prominent politicians and organizations who are speaking out against charter schools, even when their doing so runs counter to the beliefs of a percentage of their own constituency. Democratic presidential candidate and senator Bernie Sanders, in what he calls his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, listed a moratorium on charter school expansion and completely dialling back the level of autonomy that charters have as his second-most important educational policy goal. Presidential candidate and senator Elizabeth Warren similarly proposed eliminating the main funding source for opening new nonprofit public charter schools. The nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, shocked many in 2016 when it called for a nationwide moratorium on charter school expansion. If you attend any education conference, you’re likely to run into a full-house panel featuring “experts” for and against charter schools. If you Google any education-focused publication, you’re likely to find many household names for and against charter schools. But almost never do we hear and see the alumni of charters at the forefront.
CEOs and executive directors of many charter school networks are trying to figure out ways to both enter and exit the conversation while prioritizing the families they serve. From politicians to charter leaders, Silicon Valley CEOs to advocacy organizations, the rhetoric is rising. But too many of these conversations result in a dead end—for the conversation, and for kids. One key reason for those dead ends is that the voices most informed by experience simply aren’t being heard.
Why hasn’t there been a call for these alumni to come together and provide their feedback about their experience and its impact on their lives and their communities?
The thing is: As charter schools grow older in the education space, so do their former students. Charter alumni have grown up to become school leaders, policymakers, service workers, small business owners, and, most importantly, independent thinkers. Most children in the first generation of charter students began at their charters as middle schoolers, and are now in their twenties or thirties. As we think about the types of conversations happening, we can’t help but wonder: Why hasn’t there been a call for these alumni to come together and provide their feedback about their experience and its impact on their lives and their communities? We as a progressive movement are learning to champion the idea of putting the people most impacted at the forefront of every conversation—somehow, though, in this one, we’ve left that priority behind.
That has to change. The voices of charter school alumni should be elevated, listened to, and appreciated. When thinking of a panel’s composition, charter school alumni should be prioritized. When thinking of experts for articles, charter school alumni should be both asked to contribute and quoted. As we develop plans that will impact the entire country, charter school alumni’s perspectives and recommendations should be amplified. After all, these are the people most impacted by the existence of charter schools.
It’s Time to Listen
When it comes to charters and discussing their merits, drawbacks, and points of potential growth, I appreciate the many complexities at play, and consider myself a realist. I understand skepticism of external figures planting themselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods in tumultuous times; I also understand the need for innovation and new models when we’re forcing our kids, especially our kids of color, into failing schools. I sit in the middle of a debate that has two sides with understandable points. The debate isn’t the issue: the issue is that I, a charter school alumna, and other alumni like me, aren’t being given a seat at the table, let alone the priority seats that we deserve. We are itching to give our stories, to share our experiences and recommendations; but we are being overpowered by elite organizations and experts who never experienced charter schools as closely as we have.
We are itching to give our stories, to share our experiences and recommendations; but we are being overpowered by elite organizations and experts who never experienced charter schools as closely as we have.
It’s no secret to my friends and family that a charter school had a profound impact on my life. As I’ve previously written for Next100, finding KIPP DIAMOND in Memphis was a life-changing moment for me. As a fifth grader, I celebrated the fact that I received instructors and leaders who looked like me, believed in me, and pushed me beyond measure. I knew all along the way that the experience was at once fun, eye-opening, and challenging. I knew, too, that there were things that should be improved about my school, and I was allowed to vocalize them at any point. What I didn’t know was that all of these aspects of my experience would change my life forever; nor did I know that this life-defining experience would be at the center of such a contentious debate—even well into my adulthood.
But my voice is only one among many we should be listening to, and my experience just one among thousands we should be learning about. At Next100, I will continue to make it a priority to pass the microphone and ensure that the people most impacted are at the center of each solution. Over the next year, I will do this by traveling across the country to listen to and learn from the people most impacted, and who therefore have an expertise that no one else does: the alumni of charter schools themselves.