Don’t Let the Party Poopers Ruin Your #SchoolChoiceWeek

It’s National School Choice Week, an annual celebration of all the forms of school choice. More than 16,000 separate events will take place as families, students, teachers and their schools showcase how effective education options can work for all children. These events are a nice break from the stream of invective aimed at those who work to ensure that more families can choose the schools that they believe will work for their children. The thousands of schools involved in these events are not interested in promoting conflict—they tend to focus on how to teach children instead. They want to tell stories about their school, what makes it special and why parents send their kids there.

There’s a War On

But conflict will come, and not by accident. It comes from a well-funded, organized and coordinated effort by the school choice party poopers. To be fair, the list of things they oppose is much broader than school choice. But any effort to emphasize families making choices is guaranteed to elicit their vitriol. This week’s events are a much-needed counterpoint to the drumbeat of anti-reform media work. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more work to get out good messages. It is even harder to talk with any nuance about the challenging realities that all those engaged in schooling face. Still, we need to continue to tell the good stories while simultaneously dealing with the real challenges. If we look at the conversation about charter schools, we can see the regular work of the party poopers. It’s not much of a rhetorical overreach to describe it as a “War on Charters.” Their strategy is identifiable because it has become so predictable and so untethered from reality. Among charter schools, what works and what is problematic is different from city to city and state to state. Across the country, we have strong charter schools doing a good job and wonderful schools serving as proof-points for what is possible. We also have local challenges and real problems that people involved at the ground level are addressing in their effort to provide better choices for more children. This is not easy, monolithic or predictable work. The real challenges in the sector make it harder to address unfounded criticism, but still, we can’t shirk from the need to respond just because the opposition isn’t making reasoned arguments based on some empirical reality.

The False Playbook

We have to deal with the opponents we have, not the ones we wish were arguing with us. Following the poopers’ handbook on misinformation, here’s what those opponents are saying:
  1. Charters are created as part of a coordinated conspiracy of billionaire, hedge fund managers.
  2. They are all for-profits, created to destroy public schools and steal public money.
  3. Their results are terrible, and if any results look okay, it’s only because they cheated.
  4. They teach religion, don’t serve kids with disabilities and discriminate so they can pick and choose their kids to serve those easiest to teach.
This is all crap. A clue for those working on reform who want to figure out which part of the poopers’ talking points are made up—check to see if their lips move. How does this work on the ground? In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the Broad Foundation wants to help a charter sector, which was already the fastest growing in America, to continue growing. That support of strong, public charter schools is treated as a conspiracy. Never mind that the upward trajectory of charter enrollment in LAUSD has been an uninterrupted reflection of the families choosing to enroll more than 150,000 children in local charter schools. In Chicago, the poopers would have us believe that parents of the 57,000 charter school students have all been “fooled” like victims of predatory lenders, convinced to dangerously invest their children into the charter school scheme created by Mayor Emanuel so he can shutter traditional public schools and fire all the teachers. I could go on, but you get the idea. You see it all the time. National School Choice Week is a great opportunity to counteract this spew. We should not expect the opponents to give up, just because millions of families want the schools they choose, or even because many in the charter school sector are honestly and sincerely wrestling with the legitimate problems while at the same time trying to support and accelerate the growth of the parts that work so well. We need to redouble our efforts to tell our good stories not just this week but every week. We need to respond to misinformation with accurate and honest truths about what is actually going on, and to amplify local voices with local expertise and a local vision for how our schools can meet all children’s needs.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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