Growing significance of School Choice Week
By Gloria Romero
(From The Orange County Register, January 18th, 2013)
The question of how much choice parents should have in their children's schools has long dominated the political discourse both in California and the nation.
Not surprisingly, choice has largely been limited. The question has become somewhat of a litmus test for, particularly, Democratic candidates and legislators in seeking the endorsement of unions for teachers and classified school employees. Overall, public sector unions have opposed offering and expanding school choice options because they fear the loss of membership as options for parents expand.
But this knee-jerk allegiance has begun to devolve. Increasingly, Democrats are joining with Republicans and Independents in supporting greater opportunities for school choice. Nationally, a growing nonpartisan coalition of office-holders, parents and community groups will recognize and celebrate School Choice Week, Jan. 27-Feb. 2. The growth of the movement in California is highlighted by the fact that the national kickoff will be held in California, with a bevy of speakers that appear more Democratic than Republican (I will be among them).
What has happened to begin eroding resistance to choice in a party that prides itself on being pro-choice?
Charter schools - which are legally independent and at least partially government-funded schools - just marked 20 years in existence. Since California's law, written by a Democratic legislator, creating charters was enacted in 1992, they have exploded in popularity once parents began to understand that they could "vote with their feet" on where to enroll their children. Today, California leads the nation in both the growth and overall number of charter schools with approximately 1,000 charters, constituting just under 10 percent of all public K-12 schools in the state. That's almost double the national rate of 5.8 percent.
Increasingly, education is being understood as a civil rights issue, and schools that chronically underperform are highly correlated with ZIP codes in economically distressed, high-minority areas. Critics of choice options have often simplistically claimed "poverty" explains academic failure. That's nothing less than the soft bigotry of low expectations of too many of our nation's poor. It also does not explain the growing data showing that quality charter schools operating in the same high-poverty ZIP codes outperform the traditional local school.
The state's "parent trigger" law (which I authored), empowering parents whose kids are trapped in chronically underperforming schools, is being successfully used to transform schools.
And just last week education reformers watched closely as Democratic school board members representing Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles - located in a historically African American neighborhood and one of the worst-performing schools in the city - voted to revamp it, including the dismantling of the school's staff. This was done despite the behind-the-scenes-organizing of unions to rile up the community and depict it as a hostile takeover by an "outsider" superintendent.
Undoubtedly, the school choice debate will continue to unfold, expanding to lend support for open-enrollment policies that free parents from ZIP codes, and advance Special Opportunity Scholarships, home schooling and tuition vouchers.
Education is the civil rights issue of our time and critically important to the health and economic vitality of our cities. These needed discussions will be spirited. California Democrats willing to set aside politics will be leaders in this new era of education reform.