School & District Management Commentary

The Fight Over Charter Schools Is a Distraction

By Jia Lok Pratt — February 28, 2017 4 min read

I left corporate America more than 10 years ago to join the education reform movement. I took an administrative leadership position within a high-performing charter network because, as a first-generation college graduate, I knew firsthand the power of education to shape one’s life trajectory. I wanted to be part of the solution to improve public education for all children, and charter schools seemed a promising catalyst to transform public schools.

A decade later, my passion for the movement has changed. Somewhere along the way, the narrative of charter schools seemed to shift from “inspire and innovate” to “why can’t all schools succeed?” The goal switched from establishing a proof point to gaining market share.

I had not joined the education reform movement to fight for charter expansion. And I definitely didn’t join because I believed teachers in traditional public schools were less talented, motivated, or passionate educators than teachers in charter schools, or that they cared more about their jobs and pensions than the children they teach.


The discourse on public education has boiled down to a war between reformers and teachers’ unions, and the arguments on both sides serve as examples of reductive reasoning at its worst.

The options presented to reformers: Save public schools, or proliferate charters? Give parents the right to choose high-quality schools, or let kids languish on waiting lists? Believe poverty does not determine a child’s academic achievement, or that poverty must be fixed before low-income kids can learn? Those leaders holding the mic on both sides of the argument have limited the conversation to a false dichotomy that pits educators against one another.

As a past education reformer who still supports charters and as a progressive thinker who can’t stomach the rhetoric of either side, I wonder when we will wake up and realize that we are having the wrong conversation.

Even the staunchest charter proponents don’t suggest that charters can grow to serve all children who attend underperforming schools in urban districts. If the true goal of education reform is to bring high-quality education to all children, reformers should bow out of the ideological wars and elevate the discourse on urban public education. They must craft a more inclusive narrative that restores charters’ original purpose as inspirational models and uplifts teachers in traditional public schools as partners in a common struggle to improve education.

I wonder when we will wake up and realize that we are having the wrong conversation."

Why? Because the state of public education in America is a reflection of the state of our larger society. The inequalities found in public education are no more unjust than those found in our employment, health, housing, and criminal-justice systems. A true education reform movement should extend beyond school walls and address not only the achievement gap measured by standardized tests, but also the social, economic, and racial injustices that affect children’s lives.

I long to be part of a reform movement that pushes for change while exercising humility and acknowledging the role history, policy, racism, bureaucracy, and funding play in keeping public education separate and unequal for African-American children. Instead, we should be willing to press pause on growth plans to address the real impact of reformers’ actions on the communities they serve and districts in which they operate.

The success of charter schools was made possible through vast philanthropic support that spans the political spectrum. In my home state of Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is an avid charter supporter who has contributed millions to charters and boasts a namesake school on Chicago’s West Side. Since taking office in 2015, he has single-handedly held the state budget hostage until the demands of his pro-business “turnaround” agenda are met. As a result, funding of basic social services has been decimated, child-care vouchers for low-income parents have been eliminated, and promised grants to low-income college students have been placed on hold.

These safety-net programs provide critical supports to low-income families served by charter schools and have a direct impact on the educational outcomes of Illinois’ children. The irony of the governor’s actions is not rare among charter funders, with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos defining the extreme.

Education reformers can no longer turn a blind eye to the impact of powerful charter supporters’ actions on the children they are trying to serve. For too long, the reform movement has remained silent on issues beyond school walls, focusing advocacy efforts and support solely on issues and politicians in favor of “choice.” This comes at the expense of the greater socioeconomic interests of students and families. In 2017, the stakes are too high to remain politically neutral in the name of choice.

Let us wake up and realize that educators in charters and traditional public schools are working amid the same gross economic and social inequalities. We as a country are facing challenges no single faction can tackle alone. The stakes are too high to continue to fight on opposite sides of a false dichotomy that, if won by either side, would still fail to bring high-quality education to all students.

It is time for reformers to join in solidarity with teachers’ unions, who are already on the front lines. Together, they must start a new conversation rooted in the belief that the possibilities for increasing educational equity are abundant and not limited to the choices placed before them now.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘Why Can’t All Schools Succeed?’


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