Embracing the Democratic Legacy on Education by Expanding Parent Choice

President Obama's legacy of expanding educational opportunity and parental choice has been game-changing for children throughout our country, and in particular low-income children of color, who otherwise were consigned to schools that failed to ignite the flame of genius flickering inside them. In recent weeks, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has suggested she might backtrack on a signature feature of that legacy--expanded parental options to choose a high-quality public charter school--slowing the progress of schools that in too many communities in our nation are the primary bastions of hope for families of color seeking educational opportunities for their children. An anti-charter school stance tells communities of color throughout our country that the narrow interests of the status quo are more important than the educational interests of millions of children.

It is now axiomatic that our country's future turns on the extent to which our public schools--traditional, charter, or otherwise--cultivate the promise of all of America's schoolchildren. Yet on international benchmarks our children continue to under-perform. This means that large numbers of our children are ill-prepared for the demands of a global economy. In urban districts throughout our country, where we barely graduate half of our students from high school, the situation is even more dire. If we do not change course, we will continue a generations-old pattern of relegating those children to our country's economic and social margins.

At the same time that we have recognized the need for improvement of our schools, the research has also shown with increasing clarity the fundamental elements of how we transition from mediocrity to excellence. Highly-prepared, highly-skilled teachers and school leaders; work conditions and incentives that attract these highly talented professionals; reducing central-office bureaucracy and targeting dollars and supports toward schools and classrooms; data-based, job-embedded feedback and professional development in real-time; honoring students and teachers through performance-based accountability; parent choice through high-quality public charter schools: these ingredients have proven to work in districts throughout the country. President Obama's legacy is one of expanded choice and increasing graduation rates. It's progress we should build upon, not roll back.

A vital component of generating a system that produces these ingredients is empowering parents with choice. Schools and districts ought to respond to parent and child interests, not the priorities of political actors running systems. The former generates practices focused on child needs, while the latter tends to yield bureaucratic, quality-blind practices focused on adult needs. Choice, too, is a moral imperative. Too many parents, particularly parents of color, have seen the systemic inequities in our country reinforced by schools that replicate and solidify socio-economic and racial segregation. In fact, for this reason, Black and Brown parents throughout the country favor parental choice. Indeed, nationally, two thirds of African American parents want more, not less, school choice. Polling we conducted recently showed support for charters among Latino families to top 70 percent. Among union households, support for choice was 58 percent.

Indeed, Clinton herself has been a champion for choice, writing extensively about it in her book It Takes A Village. In 1997 she described a current plan to expand charter schools as "one of the best ways that any state or community can begin to provide other options within the public school system." And in 1999, she had the political courage to make her case directly to the National Education Association: "I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within the public school system to meet the unique needs of their children."

Secretary Clinton has a long history of fighting for children and the dispossessed, and children throughout the country have benefitted from her pioneering leadership. But in the aftermath of President Obama's bold, transformational leadership, those who seek to slow down the progress experienced under President Obama see an opportunity to re-assert themselves politically. Polls consistently show that majorities of parents generally, and even larger majorities of parents of color, support expanded parental choice and the opportunities those choices engender for their children. The next Democratic presidential candidate has a choice to make: whether to continue the President's legacy--which also happens to reflect the priorities of voters, and expand opportunity for children--or to revert to a status quo in which urban systems indenture children to a future far beneath their possibility. For Democrats who seek not only to uphold the party's tradition as a fighter for equity and expanded opportunity, and to win elections while doing so, the choice is clear. We hope Secretary Clinton recognizes this reality as clearly as the voters do.

Shavar Jeffries is National President of Democrats for Education Reform.

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