I started this blog some four years ago due to encouragement and inspiration by a blogger named Crazy Crawfish. Crazy would say, I’m not the smartest man in the room but my job is to make enough noise to get the smartest people possible in to the room to start having a real convesation about the issues. I’ve always aspired for this blog to be a similar tool. In ordere to have a real conversation, you need to have as many perspectives as possible. Education policy discussions tend to produce a lot of tshirt slogans while in reality things are much more nuanced then they appear. Over the years I’ve been blessed to have readers share their experiences with me. Which might actually be the best part of doing this blog. When given permission, I try to share. These are the words of Aidan Hoyal, a parent brave enough and kind enough to give us insight into her families education decision making process. In my opinion, hearing people’s stories is critical to making good policy. So thank you Aidan for allowing me to share and all of you please take these words in the spirit they are shared. We may not agree but remember all of our experiences are not identical.
Disclaimer: I am a parent. I don’t work for a school or a school board or school district. I taught Spanish for a long time, but not K-12. These opinions are my own.
“One Parent’s Voice on School Choice”
The dialogue around school choice in Nashville needs to include more parent and student voices. The discussion about charter schools has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by Nashville families. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current Presidential administration’s outright attack on public education.
Unfortunately, the media, as well as blogs and social media posts from education advocates including some of our elected school board members, often label families that chose charters (aka “charter supporters”) with extreme characterizations. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers; or we’re painted as poor, uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.
This is simply not reality. Nashville families who choose charter schools ARE public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences, and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.
My husband and I chose our neighborhood zone school K-4 for our child and had a very positive experience there. When we faced the transition to middle school, our default was our neighborhood school. In fact, I attended the same schools my child is zoned for in middle and high school. But, we also wanted to explore all options offered by Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). We narrowed it down to three schools: our zone school, one magnet school, and one charter.
When we chose the charter school for our child, it was NOT because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was NOT because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did NOT make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers, or education policy wonks.
What we DID do was spend months studying everything we could learn about those specific schools, visiting each school more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, letting our child “shadow” another student at the schools, and openly discussing different options as a family. I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that public education forms the backbone of our democracy, and that every child has a fundamental right to a quality education.
These ARE the reasons why we chose our school:
* a discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices;
* a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning;
* a shared community identity intentionally informed by the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of its families;
* a culture of kindness and engagement that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and-
* necessary bus transportation
I’m not saying this all works perfectly. Like at any school, there is always room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other schools don’t incorporate some of these same practices. The point is, MNPS made these public schools available, and we carefully examined our options. As is the case with the academic magnet and special theme schools, this charter school offers something unique. We chose this school model because we believe it is the best fit for our family, as well as a benefit to the broader Nashville community.
I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools. The examples raised by charter opponents about charter mismanagement, and in a few cases outright misconduct, are not lost on me. Corruption and profiteering in charter organizations is no more acceptable than it is in our existing public school system.
But that does not mean that EVERY charter school or charter supporter is corrupt or willfully blind. Nor does EVERY charter school “cream” high-performing students from the crop (as many academic magnet schools do). Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Presenting a specific charter operator’s failure as an indictment against all charter schools is misleading, particularly if that school operates in a different state. If we are worried about charter school mismanagement, then we need Metro Nashville and the State of Tennessee to LIMIT charter authorization to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.
There are some states that allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools. And some states allow non-profit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage their schools. Tennessee currently prohibits both. Charter schools in Tennessee are subject to state audit procedures and requirements. It is my expectation that in carrying out these audits, Tennessee protects the public interest by holding all our schools to the highest standards of accountability.
People on either side of the charter school issue struggle with the persistent and deeply rooted systemic inequalities in our public education system. Yet, it is often the voices of those most impacted by these inequalities that are left out of the school choice conversation. If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, we must look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.
We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools housed in separate school district zones are themselves rooted in the context of economic inequality and racial segregation. Failing to tackle the institutional structures that helped create existing inequalities prevents us from moving forward. Some charter schools aim to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school. We need schools like this, especially when they provide a small-scale model for system-wide change.
I can only speak to our experience at our chosen school. If that school stands out as an exception among charter schools, then so be it. As a parent and an engaged citizen, I believe there is room in Nashville for exceptional public schools, be they traditional neighborhood schools, magnet/theme schools, or public charter schools. I know that my family is not alone in thoughtfully and carefully choosing the right public school for our child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would drive more meaningful and productive community dialogue around school choice.