|Conservatives Should Embrace Charter Schools|
By Ashton Ellis
Thursday, February 21 2013
If conservatives are looking for a new way to sell the movement’s opportunity message to more people, embracing charter schools as a civil rights issue is both good policy and good politics.
Fed up with a low-performing public school, parents at 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles decided to replace the administration and teachers, and turn over operations to a private charter school company called Celerity Educational Group.
The move was made possible by California’s first-in-the-nation “parent trigger” law, which allows a majority of parents with students in a school identified as systematically failing to demand and get one of four turnaround options, including conversion to a charter school.
And while using the “parent trigger” option to force a change is new, running successful public charter schools within Los Angeles is not.
Operating in some of the toughest schools in L.A., Green Dot Public Schools serves a population of over 10,000 students. Of these, 95.8 percent qualify for federal reduced-price meal programs, the key indicator of low-income.
But the proof is in the product. In the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent year statistics are available, Green Dot students had a graduation rate of 85 percent, and a college acceptance rate of 91 percent.
At the national level, KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, operates 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, with a combined student population of over 41,000 students. Of these, more than 87 percent come from low-income families, and ninety-five percent of the students are African-American or Latino.
Nationwide, “more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college,” according to the organization’s website.
A big part of parents’ attraction to charter schools is that many of them produce better results than traditional public schools in the same neighborhood with the same student population. KIPP and Green Dot, for example, accept the same types of students that neighboring public schools enroll, but expose them to a radically different learning environment – one that expects and rewards work, order, cleanliness and achievement.
Perhaps most importantly, all successful charter schools share a singularity of purpose in what the school is trying to do for its students. Though the methods vary considerably – ranging from Montessori to military-style academics to college-prep and beyond – each school enjoys the flexibility to orient every aspect of its mission to delivering a quality education.
Compare this flexibility and mission focus to the typical public school, and you begin to see why entrenched teachers unions oppose charters so strongly. In the traditional school environment, the compensation demands of unions are the key drivers – and distractions – for administrators. Along with costly fights over pay and benefits, unions also hamstring budgets by negotiating sweetheart deals for union-friendly vendors. Lost in the obsession over expanding rights is the educational responsibility owed to students and their parents.
Faced with either continuing frustration at a failing public school or the opportunity for a better education with a charter school, it’s no wonder that the popularity of charters among low-income families is growing steadily.
Because of the successes at campuses run by KIPP, Green Dot and others, an increasing number of parents are starting to realize that access to a charter school is the most important civil rights issue today.
Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that helped draft California’s “parent trigger” law, styles itself as a community organizer of parents trying to use the statute to escape failing public schools. By helping low-income families wrest control of their children’s school, Parent Revolution is making public education more accountable to the constituency it affects the most.
With so much of the charter school industry’s focus on helping low-income minorities, it seems like a natural ally of liberal reformers who claim to be the champion of the little guy. But because of the Democratic Party’s heavy reliance on teachers unions for campaign donations and get-out-the-vote efforts, most Democratic politicians either oppose charter schools, or let them fend for themselves.
Realizing this, the Republican Party, and conservatives most specifically, should fill this gap as soon as possible. Support for charter schools should be one of the leading examples of a policy that advances the Opportunity Society narrative championed by conservatives.
With forty states and the District of Columbia already allowing charter schools to operate, conservatives in 80 percent of the United States can take an active role in reshaping the educational landscape of their community, and with it, the cultural future of America.
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