Will the Real Cherry Pickers Please Stand Up?

Growing up here in Chicago, my mother never once thought about sending me to a neighborhood public school. My mother cleaned homes in affluent neighborhoods. She saw the stark contrasts between her clients’ expensive neighborhoods and ours, the academic reputations of their schools versus the ones near our home. Those schools, exemplars of public education at its best, were also symbolic of the kind of public school cherry picking that seems to be widely accepted when it happens at elite magnet schools—but not at all at charter schools. I know, because I benefited from attending one of those magnet schools. My mother initially sent my older brother and me to nearby Catholic schools because they were safer—although not necessarily more challenging academically—than the schools in our crime-afflicted West Side neighborhood. When she noticed how bored I was, how easy school had become, she learned to navigate a confusing maze of application procedures to steer me in eighth grade to a public school with selective enrollment, one of the best in the city. I was admitted into a gifted program in a K-8 school about 5 miles from my home and was bused every day to get there. One year at this remarkable public school prepared me to apply to the most competitive high schools in Chicago, which requires high test scores and grades and typically accepted fewer than 10 percent of applicants. I got into two schools, Whitney Young and the International Baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School.

Sticking to the Magnet

In every major city, there are magnet high schools like Lincoln Park and Whitney Young that draw thousands of applications from the highest-achieving students and their often equally driven parents. And it’s even harder to get into these schools now than when I was applying—fewer than 20 percent overall are getting into the top 10 schools in Chicago, with the very best schools accepting fewer than 5 percent, and it’s the same in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. These schools offer a wealth of AP classes, great teachers and rich extracurriculars. They regularly send their students to the Ivies and colleges of a similar caliber. This is cherry picking. But since it’s under the guise of traditional public schooling, a blind eye is turned even when racial inequities are obvious. If we’re lucky, maybe there’s a bit of handwringing. The allure of these schools is precisely because they reject far more kids than they accept, thereby defeating the purpose of public education, which is supposed to be open to all.

Repelling the Charter

Charter schools, however, are another matter. They are routinely accused of cherry picking although they are required by law to admit all who apply and are banned from requiring entrance exams. Most overwhelmingly serve low-income children of color. Nevertheless, they are regarded as monolithic. Charters are accused of destroying public education even though they are, indeed, public schools. They do not undermine the tenets of public schooling as magnet schools do. Why is a two-tier traditional public school system permissible yet there are regular calls to cut off funding to charter schools or halt their growth altogether? No serious efforts have been undertaken to stop the test-based admissions policies of magnet high schools. The class dimensions here are telling. A recent poll by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that low-income people are more likely than high-income earners to say school choice is more useful.

The Hypocrisy of It All

People who endorse the nuclear option when it comes to charter schools are not considering the casualties—low-income families who want to choose the best schools for their children—and all the while blithely preserve their own privilege. They attack Education Secretary Arne Duncan—because he recently made the decision to send his kids to private school (after years of choosing public schools for them)—yet fail to see their own hypocrisy. It is not hypocritical to both support public education and to send your children to private school. What is disingenuous is to be a public education advocate, have your children attend private school and then deny parents, specifically low-income ones, who want to exercise that same power to not send their children to unsafe, underperforming neighborhood schools—just as my mother decided with me many years ago. Had there been quality charter schools around when I was going to school, I’m sure she would have jumped at the chance to enroll me in one.

Denying the Reality

Poor people already face so many limitations in their lives; it is unconscionable that school choice opponents want to place further restrictions upon them. Charter schools, like magnets, provide parents the ability to pick schools that fit their children’s needs without having to pay tuition or jump so many hurdles. School choice is a very personal decision; the push to shut down charters disregards the opinions of thousands of parents who believe charter schools suit their families. It also denies the realities low-income families (like mine) often face—the stress of poverty, juggling multiple jobs, a sense of powerlessness, living in dangerous areas where good schools are not plentiful—when there are those who decide they should be happy with the educational scraps tossed their way. My mother wasn’t happy with those scraps, and I am all the better for it.  
Caroline Bermudez is Senior Writer and Press Secretary at Education Post.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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