I want what all parents want — for my children to attend great schools that value and support their strengths, meet their needs and prepare them for success. For my family, that meant choosing charter schools.
That’s why I was so upset by a recent article on problematic efforts to “rein in” charter schools (“St. Paul officials debate ways to rein in growing charter schools,” April 14). It’s also why the article itself, which left out why families seek out these schools in the first place, was problematic, too.
Why so many point fingers at charter schools — which enable all families to find the best fit for their children — is beyond me. Charters create new options for those of us who can’t buy homes in specific districts or send our kids to high-performing magnet programs or to private schools.
Our bottom line needs to be getting kids into the best school for them. And the fact is, a child’s zoned district school may not always be that school.
For example, in 2018, St. Paul Public Schools prepared 66% of its white students to meet or exceed the state’s math standards, compared with just 17% of the district’s black students. And it’s not just about poverty. Among white, low-income students in SPPS, 35% were proficient in math — more than double the rate for all black students.
For me, those statistics hit too close to home to ignore. My kids can’t afford to wait. Enrolling in a charter has allowed me to find a setting that felt like the best fit — right now, today — to support my child’s potential.
Instead of being forced into schools that weren’t working for my children — and a system that still isn’t changing with the urgency that our youth deserve — I had the power to seek out alternatives.
When privileged families exercise school choice, no one bats an eye. When low-income families and families of color exercise school choice, we must be “reined in.”
The hypocrisy is frustrating enough. But what’s worse is that those trying to rein us in often overlook the question that matters most: How are the children?
If they asked that question, they’d know that, for a lot of families, charter schools have been the first schools to value and support our kids. In charter schools, my children were engaged and focused. They had teachers who made them feel like they were important and worth the effort, teachers who taught culturally relevant curriculum, used restorative disciplinary practices and made every attempt to let students know they were in this together. For my older children, attending charter schools with a specific focus that matched their interests was especially important.
I am grateful that I had a choice in my children’s education. It’s a choice all families should have.
Efforts to limit charter schools, and thereby trap children in a system that has failed them, are not about doing what’s right for kids. They’re about protecting that system. They’re about distracting us from the harder work of improving that system so that children and families choose to come back.
There are a million steps St. Paul officials should take before they point the finger at charter schools. They should take a close, hard look at the district’s disparities for students of color. They should work to improve SPPS, which continues to serve the vast majority of the city’s kids. They should demand accountability and results — from charter schools just as much as district options.
But above all else, they should talk to families like mine. They should ask us about our hopes for our children. They should ask us why we left the district. They should ask us how our kids are doing now, and how the district can learn and improve from our experiences.
The media should ask us those questions, too. They have a responsibility to seek out the stories behind the trends and data, and to bring our voices to conversations that have left us out for far too long.
Tonya Draughn is executive director, Uplift MN.