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Charter schools have existed in San Diego since 1994, but the debate over whether they’re good for public education shows no signs of slowing down.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. In San Diego, there’s been a steady growth of students opting out of traditional schools and into charter schools. This year, roughly 20 percent of students living within San Diego Unified boundaries are enrolled in charters, and district officials expect the numbers to rise.

Both nationally and locally, the debate often focuses on students of color – namely, whether charter schools are adequately educating black and Latino students, as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Over the summer, the NAACP, the best-known civil rights organization in the country, called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. On a recent episode of our Good Schools for All podcast, former San Diego Unified Superintendent Carl Cohn mentioned the moratorium as one reason to expect the battle to get even more heated.

“I believe – and I think there are all kinds of reasons why – this issue around choice and charters is coming to a head. You’re probably aware that nationally the NAACP has called for a moratorium on charters, all kinds of issues are pointing to just a huge battle around this issue,” Cohn said.

“Part of the argument is: You can’t wait, the generation of poor kids of color who are going to get lost if you don’t give their parents a choice. NAACP is arguing that dual school systems are fundamentally unconstitutional.”

But the NAACP’s stance on charter schools sparked intense pushback, not only from editorial boards, but also from many organizations that serve communities of color.

Part of that may be due to the fact evidence suggests black, Latino and students from low-income families attending urban charter schools often outperform similar students in traditional public schools.

A 2015 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that black and Latino students, as well as those from low-income families, do particularly well in Southern California’s urban charter schools, outperforming similar students in traditional public schools, in aggregate.

Chris Stewart, a Minnesota-based education writer and former member of the Minneapolis school board, believes the NAACP’s position reveals a split within communities of color – a division based on class, rather than race.

Labor is heavily represented in NAACP leadership, which drives its agenda, but is largely disconnected from large segments of the communities it represents, Stewart told me.

“The NAACP board is loaded with teachers and workers selling their own communities on the way to go,” Stewart said. “It’s the problem of having middle-class people defining the problem and driving the conversation about charter schools. They’re imposing their values on the rest of the community and choking off conversation about what will create better schools for students in all neighborhoods just because their kids already have safe harbor.”

Stewart doesn’t have universal praise for charter schools. He points to Michigan and Ohio as two states where charter school oversight is lacking. But in general, he sees many of the criticisms leveled against charter schools as disingenuous.

“They’re taking concerns that run through public schools and making them endemic to charter schools,” Stewart said.

In November, the ACLU of Southern California released a report that said 253 charter schools across the state used exclusionary admission policies, like requiring students to submit essays in order to enroll, or denying admission to English-learners and students with low GPAs.

The ACLU maintains these practices are inherently unfair. And, indeed, charter schools are public schools and should be open to all students.

What that report left out, however, is that traditional public schools can be guilty of similar practices.

At the School of Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet school in southeastern San Diego, students must audition to gain entry. Longfellow K-8, a magnet school in Linda Vista, does not accept students who are still learning English – even though the school is itself a language school.

Part of the problem, Stewart said, is that parent voices are underrepresented in the debate over charter schools, which distorts the conversation. As a result, people tend to overlook the fact that families often seek out charter schools to get their children’s basic needs met.

“It’s so endemic to middle-class thinking to make the story about everything except the practical considerations for choosing a school, like safety, or whether kids will get certain benefits, like after-school programs.”

That’s certainly true for parents at The O’Farrell Charter School in Encanto. In a story this week, I talked to a number of parents about why they came to O’Farrell. Parents said they were looking for solid academics, yes, but also a welcoming atmosphere, teachers who cared and a safe environment for their kids. One parent said her top reason for choosing O’Farrell is that she thought it would instill a sense of respect in her child.

Lauren Ramers, an academic coach at O’Farrell, said it’s easier for people to criticize charter schools if they’ve never lived in a low-income neighborhood.

“Most of the people making the harshest criticisms about charter schools are coming from a very privileged place where they’ve never lived in a community without access to a quality school,” she said.

Ed Reads of the Week

Restorative justice? Teachers say McLane High classrooms are spiraling out of control (Fresno Bee)

Kids can’t learn if they’re not in school. And with a growing awareness that black and Latino students are overrepresented in school discipline data, a number of districts have revised discipline policies to make them less punitive. As a result, some district have brought down suspension rates.

But now, another side to the story is emerging. Teachers in Fresno say that misbehavior is going unchecked and negative behavior is manifesting. Even as Fresno officials praised one high school for bringing down its suspension rates, teachers at the school were circulating a petition calling on the school district to institute stricter and more consistent discipline policies.

“There is not a well-defined plan for dealing with student misbehavior, discipline is not consistently enforced, and there is a lack of communication on disciplinary issues. Students are returned to class without consequence after assaulting teachers, both verbally and physically,” the petition reads. “When students face no accountability measures, it undermines the authority of all teachers, and creates a negative campus culture.”

San Diego teachers, if this is happening in your school, email me at mario.koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

Majority of English-Learner Students Are Born in the United States (Education Week)

Roughly one in five students in San Diego County aren’t native English speakers. For a number of reasons – English-learners, as the state calls them – often build up academic deficits and are overrepresented in high school dropout data.

It’s tempting to assume they struggle because they weren’t born in America or missed years of school. But this is good reminder that the majority of English-learners were born in the United States.

How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools (New York Times)

The debate over charter schools is often framed as a black-and-white, good-or-bad issue. That is, either charter schools are great and should be expanded or they’re dangerous and need to all be shut down.

But that framing doesn’t do justice to the nuances or different ways states oversee their charter schools. Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, has made even charter school advocates nervous.

That’s at least partly because Michigan, DeVos’ home state, has some of the worst charter schools in the country. Chris Stewart goes so far as to call Michigan a “charter school ghetto” and DeVos, a free-market ideologue who resists common sense quality controls.

This story puts a finer point on those concerns, and does a great job of explaining the importance of pairing efforts to expand charter schools with appropriate oversight and accountability measures.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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