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I’m an Unlikely Supporter of School Choice Week

I’m an Unlikely Supporter of School Choice Week_5fbeeb8185d76.jpeg
Charter Charter Schools Illinois Jobi Cates NACSA Politics School Choice School Choice Week

I’m an Unlikely Supporter of School Choice Week

I’m an Unlikely Supporter of School Choice Week

This week is National School Choice Week and that makes me very nervous about posting anything about my job on Facebook.

In November, I started a new job as the vice president of communications at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) following more than six years as director of the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch. The last op-ed I wrote while at Human Rights Watch described how I take my kids to prison to visit inmates serving sentences of life without parole—in other words, my liberal bona fides are intact. I got lots of likes and shares from my progressive friends on Facebook for that story.

When I took this position at NACSA, some of those same friends were confused. They know I share almost all of their political ideals regarding criminal justice, civil rights, and women’s and gay rights.

Their argument about the cognitive dissonance of my move goes something like this: People like us are pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality, anti-mass-incarceration, and we are pro-teacher, pro-union, pro-public schools. You can’t really be one of us and be pro-charter school. Some questioned the motives of the financial backers of the charter school community, believing that all charter school and other efforts to improve education are linked to a right-wing conspiracy to privatize schools. Those folks have not liked or shared anything I’ve posted about charter schools since I started, and I have, in fact, received several offline messages at best questioning the extent of my naiveté and at worst questioning my integrity or intelligence.

I started my career with a job that had me visiting Chicago public schools almost every day, sometimes two or three in a day. I visited more than 300 of the public schools in Chicago in less than two years. What I saw in too many of those schools made me come home weeping at night.

I recall one day in particular very well, but the scenario was not uncommon. A student acted up in the lunchroom as I strolled the corridor with the principal. I watched as a 200-pound male teacher slammed the child against the wall using his forearm to brace the child’s chest. The child, who had been laughing, gulped for air as his feet dangled. The principal kept walking, not missing a step. This was an elementary school in the running for a grant because of its model behavior program. Day after day, scenes like this unfolded in front of me.

So when the charter law was passed in Illinois, I was one of the first people to get involved. Not because I wanted to “privatize education”—charter schools are public schools. I got involved because the battle for school quality was failing in tough areas, and I was desperate to help create some alternatives that may be better, even if only for a share of the kids who needed them.

One of the charter schools I got to know early on is now in its 18th year. It consistently does better than its peers academically. But in the early days it did not—the test scores were no better than neighborhood peers. But when I walked into that school, I saw kids in a safe environment. I saw adults who would stop at nothing to make each day better than the one before.

Does this mean I think all charter schools are better, or that traditional schools don’t deserve support? Of course not. It just means that charters are a great public choice, especially in places where the options have been bleak for decades. I know all of the arguments about what that means for neighborhood schools, but I still believe, and the evidence seems to indicate, it is better to have the choice than not.

Some charters are truly great schools. Just try to tell a kid who goes to one of those great schools that they are part of a conspiracy, they could have gotten an equivalent education elsewhere, or that we should have spent another decade failing to fix their neighborhood school while their elementary school years passed them by.

This week, I’m proud to join my more vocal liberal partners in supporting public school choice. How about sharing this post so we know we are not alone?

Jobi Cates is Vice President of Communications for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the mother of two public school children. 
Photo of students at Rowe Elementary, a charter school in Chicago.

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