As my daughters and I read “We must examine effects of school choice” (Jan. 2) by Steve Marchese, a St. Paul school board member, I couldn’t help but chuckle as he urged school choice advocates to consider effects on “actual students.”

Many school choice advocates are the “actual students” and families affected by Minnesota’s education system. And we care immensely.

When we talk about high-quality education, how often are students at the center of that conversation? Too often it leaves out why families like mine seek out charter schools. The answer is that choice allows families to find the best fit for their children in the face of a school system that often fails them.

In 2019, 65% of white students in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) met or exceeded the state’s math standards, compared to only 16% of the district’s black students. And results are not just tied to poverty. Some 33% of low-income white students in SPPS were proficient in math — more than double the rate for all black students. That’s data I can’t ignore.

When a parent sees that their student’s needs aren’t being met, they deserve options. My daughters can’t wait for the system to right itself. Enrolling in a variety of schools, including charters, has allowed me to find the best educational settings to support each child’s potential. This has empowered me as a parent, and my children as learners, and is far more than just a talking point, as Marchese argues.

We must consider the dynamics of race and segregation in our schools, but Marchese is wrong to boil this down to just whether a school has too many or too few students of color in its seats. It runs much deeper. There is a deficit of discourse when talking about race in education. Black students are seen as reliant upon white students to access rigorous curriculum and the hidden curricula of college-readiness. There is an illusion that integrated spaces are race-neutral — prompting people to blame communities of color for cultivating less academically oriented students.

Families are seeking out spaces where they won’t be scapegoated or disproportionately disciplined or not seen for the depth of the gifts and talents they bring to the table.

The potential of students of color — my children — is limitless. And it is not a reasonable option to send our children to schools that are culturally incompetent, disregard their strengths and cannot fully see and serve their unique needs. The mental, emotional and physical health of my daughters is paramount.

Having a choice in my child’s education gives my voice back in a way that wasn’t possible inside a slow-moving system. Charter schools offer different options that work for different kids, but that doesn’t have to make it a competition. Instead, we need to focus on collaboration to do what’s best for kids. That might mean some changes from what we’ve always done, but the status quo has been broken for too long.

The achievement gap is palpable and expanding. Working in schools, volunteering, living it as a student myself, and now serving as a charter school board member (where we do actually have publicly posted meetings and minutes, despite Marchese’s claim), I see it every day. I see children eager to learn but not getting access to what they need. My children felt ignored by their SPPS teachers. There are plenty of us who grew up in St. Paul who can tell you our white teachers put no effort into us.

At the end of the day, Marchese is right about one thing: We have to do better — but this isn’t the way to do it. SPPS has a lot of work to do. Charter schools have a lot of work to do. Our lawmakers have a lot of work to do. We all have a lot of work to do — and the key is collaboration. Working against each other does nothing but continue to widen the gap and harm our children.

 

Myisha Holley is a St. Paul parent, school choice advocate and student.