In progressive publications and websites like Slate and Salon, there’s a narrative underway that charter schools are part of a plot to privatize public education. While they have been able to repeat this unsubstantiated assertion for several years, it is now time that individuals from the charter school world voice their opinion. As Latino charter school educators who attended traditional public schools in Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, respectively, we are offended that our fellow progressives would denigrate charter schools without speaking to parents from communities where they are in great demand.
The fact is, high-performing charter schools today are offering thousands of children of color a path to college and success in life that did not previously exist. According to a Stanford
study of urban charter schools, learning gains for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students amount to months of additional learning per year in both math and reading. We’ve seen it in our own schools.
A Look at the Academic Gains
At El Paso Leadership Academy (EPLA), 70 percent of our students have risen two or more grade levels in reading and 65 percent of our students have risen three or more grade levels. Some students have grown as many as eight grade levels in a single year. Our success is remarkable given that over 85 percent of our students qualify as low-income and traditionally underserved students with over 80 percent being of Latino descent. We have a special education population of over 30 percent compared to the average 8 percent among our traditional counterparts. During a recent standardized assessment, the school calculated that over 60 percent of our students came into our sixth-grade class two or more grade levels behind in math, reading and writing. An example of this was when one of our teachers realized that a sixth-grader acted up in class to avoid having to read aloud because the student read at a first-grade level. This student, sadly, was not alone—many of our students come in with similar deficits. It is telling that traditional schools keep passing these kids so our charter school is left to teach children unable to read and write beyond a second-grade level. Student surveys and interviews we conducted found that the overwhelming majority of our students reported they finally felt like their teachers cared about them as individuals, provided help, attention and no longer felt like a number. Magnolia Public Schools is located in Bell, a small city in southeast Los Angeles. Bell is a working-class, urban, primarily Latino community. Magnolia serves low-income students, with 94 percent of its students receiving free and reduced lunch. After three years of operation, it became the highest-performing school in Bell with an
academic performance index of 763. This academic success was due in part to our school’s focus in providing a curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant, and challenging; an emphasis on high-quality teaching; authentic parent and community engagement; inclusive school leadership; and positive disciplinary practices. Magnolia’s teachers are fantastic because they recognize that the challenges facing these students will require them to share duties with their colleagues. It is amazing how hard we must work to secure our recertification to continue serving our students, a recertification process that has never extended to traditional public schools especially in poor communities like the ones we were born in, have taught in and currently lead schools in.
No More Separate and Unequal
Given our experiences, it is disappointing to keep reading misleading articles that make sweeping generalizations about the charter school movement. They accuse charter schools of ripping off taxpayer dollars and having little oversight and accountability. We wish they read state charter school laws and realized that charter schools are held at a higher standard of accountability compared to traditional schools and that many underperforming charter schools are being shut down. We wish we could say the same of failing traditional schools that have been condemning members of our community to poverty for the last half-century.
Public schools today are not much better for Latino and Black kids than when we attended them in the 1980s. A big part of the problem is the education industry itself, which is both resistant to change and driven by self-interest. Over the years, it established separate schools for Blacks and Latinos and funding formulas based on zip code rather than equity. It opposed affirmative action in teaching and administration, and bilingual education for immigrant children. It denies administrators the tools to identify our most effective educators and offer them incentives to work in our neediest schools.
Charter Schools Are Helping Change That
It used to be that the only recourse for parents of color were the courts and the political arena. With charter schools, that is finally changing. Charter schools are not perfect. As with traditional public schools, their success depends on hard-working teachers and administrators doing their jobs every day and not making excuses for learning challenges driven by social and economic circumstances. But what’s different about charters is that they have to continually earn the trust and support of parents. They are not guaranteed students every year like traditional public schools. If they don’t get results, student enrollment declines and eventually the schools are replaced by something better. We serve communities of working-poor families regardless of a student’s academic standing. Most of our kids live in homes at or below the poverty level. We must meet the same expectations as all schools, with even lower funding levels. The majority of Latino and Black
parents support high-quality charter schools. So, to our progressive friends who profess to be worried about these students, we urge you to reflect on your words and actions and ask whether they really square with your values. We urge you to venture into our communities and see the value we are providing our communities first-hand instead of spreading generalizations conjured up by individuals who have a motive to divert attention away from their failures and simultaneously our success. Instead of telling Black and Latino parents what is best for them and their children, we urge you to remember that self-determination and a parent’s right to choose the best schools for their child is a core progressive value. And finally, we urge you to direct your outrage where it can do some real good—at a system that continues to under-serve our children.