Whether Families Choose Diversity or Cultural Affirmation, Charters Meet Their Needs

Jan 22, 2018 12:00:00 AM


For many years, education policy has focused on closing educational access and achievement gaps that exist between low-income, predominantly communities of color, and more affluent communities. This is critical work that needs to continue. But there is another gap in urgent need of attention. It’s called the empathy gap. The empathy gap is the lack of understanding that exists between different races, religions, ideologies, cultures, and experiences, and it is a root cause of the unnecessary division and, as we’ve seen, potentially violent conflict plaguing communities across the U.S. and the world. One need only look at the news for proof, such as the example of the recent rise in reported hate crimes, which is likely only the tip of the iceberg. We need to close both gaps if our country is to ever reach its full potential. But we can’t focus on the real issues when false ideas about segregation and charter schools run rampant. Let’s state once again: correlation is not causation. [pullquote]Many charter schools were intentionally created to provide quality choices for families in neighborhoods highly segregated by race and income.[/pullquote] Generally speaking, their demographics are similar to the neighborhoods where they are located and to those of the local district-run public schools in those neighborhoods. Schools reflect their neighborhood housing pattern. What’s different? The quality of education those charter schools are offering. And that’s why families choose them. Segregation occurs when government assigns you by race to inferior schools. But when Black parents, for example, choose a culturally affirming school with a predominantly Black student body, that is not segregation; that is allowing parents to choose the education they believe is best for their children. Choosing an affirming environment is very different from being forced to attend an inferior school. Many of these schools are predominantly Black or Brown and led by community members with a passion for achieving educational equity for children of color. They affirm their students and prepare them to reach their dreams. We applaud and support their work. What has always made charter schools truly unique and special is the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Contrary to what critics say, diversity is important to the school choice movement. Research shows students benefit cognitively and socially from integrated schools. The challenges of building teams and reaching consensus in a diverse environment foster creativity, persistence and innovation. The families choosing members of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition prize the opportunity for their children to grow in this kind of environment. Moreover, [pullquote position="right"]the charter school movement is important to creating diverse schools.[/pullquote] Charters are allowed, in fact, encouraged, to develop enrollment policies that bypass traditional school attendance zones. As a result, they can actively recruit underserved populations through the use of weighted lotteries and can implement other incentives, such as programmatic flexibility, to create environments that appeal to diverse families. At the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, we understand diversity is not a necessary characteristic for all schools. At the same time, we also know that thoughtfully integrated, racially and economically diverse schools are a positive force for equity, justice and reducing the empathy gap. Our schools, from Rhode Island to California and from Massachusetts to Louisiana, are bringing communities together across lines of difference and supporting all students to achieve at high levels. Because what all children need are excellent schools.

Sonia Park

Sonia Park is Executive Director of Diverse Charter Schools Coalition and has over 18 years of experience in school start-up, support, accountability and development. She has a background in organization and school development, support, and accountability in relation to school-based, district, state and federal policies and practices. Prior to joining the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, she served under Secretary John King at the US Department of Education as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Innovation and Improvement where she worked on policies concerning charter schools and provided guidance for Race to the Top-District grantees. Before this, Sonia was the Executive Director of Manhattan Charter Schools, a two-school charter network located in lower Manhattan. Sonia also worked under the New York City Department of Education’s Chancellor Denis Walcott as the Executive Director of Charter Schools, Accountability, and Support. She has also worked with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, NY Charter Schools Resource Center, NY Charter Schools Association, and Edison Schools. She’s presented at statewide, regional, and national charter schools conferences and has been a national a peer reviewer. As a consultant, she’s worked with such organizations as the NY State Education Department, Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, New Visions for New Schools, The Newark Charter Schools Fund and the Children’s Aid Society.

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