Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools on National School Choice Week

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There is inherent power in having a choice. Choices lead to possibilities, which can ignite imagination and foster ambition. Without choices, too much is left to chance.

When it comes to the education of our children, nothing should be left to chance. Charter schools empower families – many of limited means who have been systemically neglected by traditional systems with the choice to create a better future for their children.

Across the country, 3.2 million children, most of them black and Hispanic, have made that choice to be educated in charter schools, regardless of their financial situation or their zip code. Economically privileged families always have had educational options: They can choose to pay for private schools for their children, or they can move to a district with better quality schools. For millions of disadvantaged families of color, charter schools are the only hope for an alternative to under-performing and often unsafe schools.

That hope is now under attack.

As we mark National School Choice Week, there are increasing efforts to dismantle the system that has restored educational opportunities to those who need it most.

‘The opposition is fueled by arrogance and ignorance.

For two decades charter schools have transformed many urban communities. Now they are being used as scapegoats by leaders unwilling to challenge powerful unions or the status quo.

Democrats are moving in the wrong direction. Some, including a few who hope to one day be president, are willing to compromise the wishes of these parents to build political capital, disregarding the well-being of millions of children currently enrolled and the millions who would enroll if they were afforded the opportunity.

They are succumbing to pressure from the increasingly powerful teachers’ unions who have spent millions in opposition to the expansion of charter schools. They buy into blaming charter schools for financial distress in the education system rather than acknowledging and praising the real work done to make quality public education accessible to more black and brown neighborhoods.

In embracing this rhetoric, these politicians betray the very communities of color they say they want to support. More than 66 percent of students enrolled in charter schools are children of color. Nearly 60 percent are eligible for free or reduced meals.

And rather than engage in a comprehensive national discussion over the needs of our K-12 children, they maintain a relentless focus on the ways to reduce or eliminate college debt. That debate ignores the millions of brown and black students who don’t dare even dream of college. Wealthy kids are six times more likely to graduate from college than economically disadvantaged.

So why fight charter schools? They make up only 6 percent of public-school enrollment. Yet they are seen as a threat to the status quo. Charter schools are proving students of color can learn just as much if not more, and they have families who care just as much, with children who can and will graduate from college.

Frankly, charter schools are making the entrenched systems look bad. Charter schools are tuition-free, public and open to all students. Charter schools empower families with a choice that for far too long had been reserved only for those of extraordinary financial means, a choice to allow their children to attend a school that would be safe, nurturing and help them build toward college and beyond.

They give kids an opportunity for education that is inclusive, publicly accountable and locally driven. Researchers at the University of Arkansas have found charter schools to be more cost-effective and provide a larger return on investment.

Charter families and community: The onus is on you to raise your voices and amplify the successes.

Supporters must insist that leaders and future leaders acknowledge charter schools are not siphoning funds from public schools that should be getting those dollars. On the contrary, charter schools are public schools, offering safe, creative learning spaces for families to those who have been shamefully neglected by the establishment.

In this fight, children must come first. Families must engage in defending charter schools and convince all levels of leadership that in this battle for survival, losing would be devastating for the millions of children and families who have long been denied quality educational opportunities.

Everyone in charter school communities should have a stake in this battle.

Opponents believe students are enrolled in charter schools because parents are not smart enough to know what’s best for their kids.

This is a myth, and we have to fight it. Certainly, no one can claim every charter school has been a success. There are strict standards of public accountability and some have not lived up.

But there is overwhelming evidence of charter schools producing historic gains. It makes no sense to dismiss an entire category of schools that have proven to be a pathway of success for disadvantaged young people based on the underperformance of a handful.

Over nearly three decades, charter schools have restored pride in families who have often otherwise been stripped of the power to choose by societal, racial or socioeconomic disadvantage. These schools have brought renewed pride to their neighborhoods.

Parents need to let leaders know what the charter schools have meant to them, to their families, to their communities.

Moreover, politicians should not take for granted support at the polls from black and brown communities when they refuse to listen to their support for charter schools.

Across all charter schools, students are gaining an average of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days of learning in reading per year as compared to their district counterparts.

Millions of additional students would attend a charter school today if they had access to one. Part of the reason they do not is the lack of access to facilities to allow charter operators to keep up with demand.

Charter schools have proven the education gap is an injustice that could be ameliorated but for arbitrary and politically motivated impediments. In too many communities, operators of charter schools are prevented from accessing buildings that could be used to create stimulating learning environments. Bureaucratic limitations and funding inequities inhibit access to options that are readily available to district-run schools.

A recent study from the University of Arkansas examined funding disparities affecting charter school students as compared to their traditional school counterparts. Charter schools in 14 urban districts received an average of nearly $6,000 less funding per pupil than traditional public schools, a gap that has grown consistently since 2003.

Yet charter schools continue to prove their worth.

In 29 years, charter schools have learned many valuable lessons.

They know what works and how to replicate successful systems if politics does not impede the progress.

Cities and states can create conditions for high-quality changes by providing flexibility, funding equity, facilities support, accountability.

Political leaders see charter schools as a scapegoat rather than a potential partner to be part of a creative solution that keeps in mind the wishes of the black and brown community.

These disputes are not theoretical. Eliminating federal charter school funding would cut off one of the few paths leading low-income students to college success. And it would needlessly punish the families who have long been underserved by stripping them of the dignity of having a say in their children’s future.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing the charter school movement.

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