This was written by Allison Brown, a former trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities Section, and a parent. She founded an education consulting firm that works with school districts and schools to focus on federal compliance through equity and collaboration with students, parents, and communities. Her email address is

By Allison Brown

“You got me guh.” That’s what D.C. kids say when they’re really irritated or just tired of hearing the same old thing. That’s how I felt reading Fred Hiatt’s piece in The Washington Post that presents publicly funded, privately managed charter schools as the miracle solution to the puzzle of how to improve teaching in schools.

I should say first that I have seen the good that charters can do firsthand. As a charter school parent, charter school board member, legal education consultant — as well as a long-time resident of Southeast Washington, which has been underserved for so long — I get the allure of “choice” in education.

But the public charter versus traditional public school frame is wrong, destructive, and ultimately hurts children. The public education system should not, as some suggest, be set up as a Darwinian or laissez-faire free-market competition. We are talking about educating children, and the grown-ups owe them more than ideological food fights.

Schools should help teachers do their jobs — guide student learning — by empathetically respecting student voice, making learning fun, and incorporating parents in the learning process. This can — and is — happening in many different school management structures. Arguing over whether teachers work better in public versus charter schools is akin to saying it’s better to wear blue or gray into a major battle. Why aren’t we talking about what tools teachers need to do their jobs?

Charter school champions are fixated on public charter schools as the panacea. Why do they so vociferously advocate for charters, not on their own merits or test scores, but in contrast with the traditional entitlement public school system?

If children truly are our focus, we need to have an honest conversation about just how they are faring under privately managed charter schools.

Once a charter school opens, accountability rests with each school’s own board of directors or trustees, usually a group of people with full-time jobs outside of the school. The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the charters, does not have a transparent system to address family concerns about how a particular school is being run or to handle protests when a child is expelled or simply asked to leave.

Public schools, like them or not, are beholden to that federal web of laws that require such constitutional protections for children as due process prior to the administration of exclusionary student discipline.

There are measures of success that some charter schools celebrate, such as their lofty scores or graduation rates, but they don’t reveal how they attained them. There is no real public accounting of how many students in the graduating class were there in the freshman year, or how many students left the school, were forced out, or gently nudged out because “maybe this school isn’t the right fit for you.”

Similarly, the most competitive traditional public schools pick and choose its “out-of boundary” student population in the same way, pushing students who may lower the school’s test scores out the door.

There is no safety net for the kids who aren’t a “good fit” in either system, leaving a lot of kids, almost always children of color, to bounce around trying to find a place to learn.

I see countless parents — all parents of color — afraid to advocate on behalf of their children within schools, lest they get singled out and kicked out with no recourse. Being a “system of choice” gives administrators of some of the most competitive schools — traditional public and public charter — an incredible sense of arrogance toward parents and teachers who ask uncomfortable questions or who deign to advocate strongly for their children. You don’t like it? Leave.

Traditional public schools have their challenges, not least of which is that they are part of an arcane system trying to operate in a modern, and increasingly flat, world. Public schools are steered toward over-reliance on Common Core standards and other boilerplate and outdated methods of instruction that serve to stifle creativity and generate robotic order.

Even so, advocating for the continuing spread of charter schools unchecked is advocating for the Wild Wild West in education. This focus is on the ideology of free markets, rather than the nuggets of gold within any system that work for our children, including tools, training and resources that teachers need.

We need to have the moral and ethical discussions as we proceed with this educational experimentation. Exploration with impunity is how people — usually people of color who are in the way — get hurt.

As it is today, we get a new crop of charter schools approved each year with no real overall city plan for addressing the needs of the city’s most vulnerable students. (Why not situate a voluntary enrollment alternative educational center at an underenrolled high school east of the river, for instance, and solicit charter applications based on that needs-based assessment?)

We simply approve charter applications that are pitched well, but don’t follow up or monitor what happens with each child, or give families a real voice in how things are run and how their tax dollars are spent.

Yes, there are many charters getting it right — incorporating students’ families in a meaningful way in the learning process, respecting student voice, taking seriously their mission to educate every single child they receive with no excuses. But there are some public schools getting it right too.

We need to stop senselessly hacking away at low-hanging fruit, such as scrutinizing teacher salaries and evaluations (which are only publicly available in the traditional system and not the charters).

Instead, we need to focus our energies on sharing those practices that work in every public school, traditional or charter, and as well study aspects of private and international instruction that work. We need methods other than high-stakes testing to ensure that students are keeping pace academically; we need to stop demonizing teachers and instead elevate the profession; we need to stop competition among schools and school systems.

Anyone who has gone through the process of trying to navigate the D.C. system knows that so-called competition and “choice” is a theory, not a practice. D.C. parents: Raise your hand if you’ve played the lottery game and lost — and find your child waitlisted everywhere.

If left unchecked, the charter bubble will burst, and if there is no safety net to catch the schools, where will our children be? To say nothing of our tax dollars.

Connecticut and other states have seized on the parent-school compact requirement in the No Child Left Behind Act to develop methods to engage families in academic instruction rather than marginalize parents and accue them of failing their children. Many schools have developed community partnerships so that students are required to volunteer their time rather than be suspended out of school for misbehavior. These are nuggets worth replicating.

Constantly griping and bickering about what color shirt to wear? We all should be guh.


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