Last week was National School Choice Week. To mark the occasion, a select group of bloggers was invited to participate in the Amplify Choice conference, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
I’m a product of the New York City public schools. I’m also the beneficiary of school choice. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. I attended the neighborhood elementary school. To get a better education, I chose to go to middle and high school in Bensonhurst, where I was enrolled in a program for gifted students.
The concept of school choice is not a new phenomenon. From the education reforms of the Progressive Era to the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, parents have sought alternative educational programs for their children.
In 1972, the Philadelphia Board of Education established the Office of Alternative Programs that was “designed to offer public school youngsters educational experiences different from those that have been offered traditionally and those that are currently provided in ongoing school district programs.” In a paper published by the Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Robert C. Hutchins wrote:
Educational options are being provided through a network of alternatives that make it possible for students and teachers to choose an educational experience that they feel is most appropriate for them. Establishment of more public schools of choice is the direction in which Philadelphia is heading.
Fast forward to today, Philadelphia has 84 public charter schools with a combined enrollment of 67,000 students, or one-third of all public school children. African Americans represent 62 percent of charter students, a higher percentage than in district-run schools (52 percent). While the education establishment debates the academic performance of charters, parents are making their own assessment about what educational environment is most appropriate for their child.
According to a survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, 62 percent of parents with children in traditional public schools have considered sending their child to a charter school. Among African American parents, 68 percent consider a charter school a viable educational option. The survey also found that 90 percent of charter parents rated their school as “good or excellent.” By contrast, only 40 percent of parents with children in traditional public schools think the school district as a whole is doing a good or excellent job.
Still, critics try to discredit charters by pointing out the leadership of the charter school movement is overwhelmingly white. So at the Amplify Choice Conference, I asked Virginia Walden-Ford, a cofounder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, whether African American parents express concern that the face of school choice is white. Walden-Ford said:
Parents want to see changes. They’re not caught up on who is the face of school choice. No matter what the face is, they say this is something that will benefit their children. They don’t care what the face looks like.
Back in the day, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote “Give the People What They Want.” What did the people want? The “people want better education now.” As a songwriter, Gamble had his finger on the pulse of the community. So it’s not altogether surprising the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a charter school operator.
Thousands of students are on charter school waiting lists in Philadelphia. It’s clear the people want more educational choices for their children.