“Joe Biden must stand up for charter schools”: An Opinion Piece by Natasha Trivers and Naomi N. Shelton

This opinion piece was published by the New York Daily News on December 3rd, 2020. 

As two Black education leaders who have made it our life’s work to fight for educational equity for students and families, it is disappointing to see people — especially Democrats who purport to appreciate the destructive power of systematic racism — turn a blind eye to the impact of high performing charter schools.

The national conversation about education has become far too polarized and partisan, with the traditional public school sector calling for the exclusion of charters at every turn. The age of Trump led to even more division in our country; in some quarters, to be pro-school choice now means you are somehow against traditional public schools.There are tens of thousands of charter practitioners and advocates who have worked tirelessly to improve public education in America for decades just as traditional public education champions have. What attracted us to charters from the beginning were the high expectations set for each student, data-driven remediation to accelerate learning, and the autonomy they are afforded to nimbly respond to the needs of their community.

And there have been strong results. A recent Harvard study found that “student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector…the difference [amounting to] nearly an additional half-year’s worth of learning.” The study also found that “the biggest gains” were for “African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools.”

President-elect Biden has rightfully noted that we need to heal the soul of our nation. This healing should include a bipartisan effort to improve our public schools, especially in light of the crippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Why not increase funding for all public schools — district and charter alike — instead of being divisive and treating public education like a zero-sum game? Why not allow low-income Black and Hispanic families to choose the right school for their children rather than speaking about what’s best for them in a paternalistic way?

As a president-elect who understands the role Black voters played in securing his election, it is perplexing that the Biden administration would neglect to listen to the millions of Black families that support school choice. Given the role high-performing charters have played in changing the education landscape for Black and Brown children in this country, it is equally perplexing that the Biden-Harris education transition team includes policy leaders, union representatives and traditional public education advocates but does not include one charter practitioner, parent or advocate.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens years of academic progress for all students, but we know who will suffer most: those who were already underserved before the pandemic hit us: low-income Black and Brown kids.

At high-performing charters around the country, attendance rates during the pandemic are as high as 92%. Charters are using innovative ed-tech platforms, providing internet hotspots and other basic needs to families free of charge, studying standards yet to be mastered, and recalibrating constantly. Why not share lessons learned across the traditional and charter sector to ensure that all public school students are receiving the education they deserve?
Meanwhile, charters have been deeply engaging with community members after the moment of racial reckoning the country found itself in following the George Floyd protests this past summer. Even here we see the promise of public charter schools: to respond quickly to the demands and needs of their stakeholders.

Some have called on the new secretary of education to place a moratorium on new grants from the federal Charter Schools Program. For 25 years, the CSP has provided states with resources to help ensure that every child can access a high-quality education at a public school. At its current funding level of $440 million, the CSP amounts to less than 1% of federal spending on K-12 education. A moratorium would ignore the majority of Democratic voters who support charters, including 58% of Black and 52% of Hispanic Democrats.

Charter schools are not the cure-all to the educational inequity that plagues us in America. There is room for improvement, as in any diverse sector. But many charters have proven that they hold the key to unlocking part of the answer, and these high-performing charters should be studied and replicated.

So we urge the Biden-Harris transition team to ensure high-performing public charter schools are supported and strengthened so they may serve the families who need them.

It turns out the answer to the question, “who knows what is best for Black and Brown children?” is quite simple: their parents. The question today is will the Biden administration and those who support public education in America listen to them?

Trivers is CEO at Democracy Prep Public Schools. Shelton is director of community engagement for the KIPP Foundation and a volunteer member of the Public Charter School Board in the District of Columbia.

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