By Neerav Kingsland and Richard Whitmire
In Illinois you can almost imagine the spittle on their lips as furious lawmakers take aim at charter schools. Some want to do away with a commission that considers appeals when charters get spurned by local school boards. Others want to bury charters in paperwork or ban student recruiting, guaranteeing they can never operate.
What's playing out in the Illinois legislature is part of a national movement to thwart charters. What is lost in these conflicts, however, is an irreducible truth. Every attack against successful charter schools is an attack on parents who want a different public school option because their neighborhood school has failed them and they have no options.
The message of the pushback movement, which is partly fueled by turf-jealous school boards and administrators, is this: Our schools should be the only schools. Charter schools -- despite being public schools -- should be banned.
Fortunately, while some in Illinois are mired in trying to deny opportunities for families, other states are moving forward and creating the conditions that allow for children to flourish in new public schools.
In Louisiana, the state has transformed the chronically underperforming New Orleans school system by developing the nation's first charter school district. In New Orleans, 91% of students, nearly all minorities, attend charter schools. And results have followed. New Orleans' high school graduation rate has risen from 54% to 78%. To put this in context, the national graduation rate for white students in our country is 83%, which New Orleans is on track to surpass over the coming years.
How did this unlikely transformation occur? Louisiana created the Recovery School District, which empowered charter schools to provide an alternative public school option for families attending failing schools. The state held these schools accountable for results and equity: New Orleans has achieved remarkable gains in student achievement while maintaining an expulsion rate lower than the state average.
In Tennessee, an astonishingly bold move is taking place. The state agreed to turn over many of the worst performers -- schools in the bottom 5% -- to charter schools. In these schools, one in six kids reads on grade level. The goal: Within five years move the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25%. Sounds impossible, right?
What makes it possible is that Tennessee is tapping into the network of the best charters in the country. For example, following a community engagement process California-based Aspire Public Schools was matched with the troubled Hanley Elementary in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis. To date, everything is going to plan: At the beginning of the year, only 3% of the students read at grade level; by late February that had risen to 25%.
In California, the state has wisely allowed county officials to overturn school districts who reject the growth of high performing charter schools. Over the past several years, the best educational opportunity for low-income Latino students in San Jose, CA has been the emergence of Rocketship charter schools. But the primary reason Rocketship charter schools have been able to grow is the Santa Clara County School Board has bested local district anti-charter efforts.
Now, local school superintendents in the San Jose area have taken to the courts to plug that gap and deny charters such as Rocketship an opportunity to grow. Restricting the appeals process, as is proposed in Illinois, is highly effective. The losers, of course, are Latino families.
Other states are moving in the right direction, including New York. For a time, it looked like the pushback movement would find a foothold in New York City. The progressive mayor there, Bill de Blasio took a swing at charter schools, a campaign promise that seemed to play out well on the stump, and found that he infuriated thousands of low-income minority parents who see those schools as an education lifeline. Thankfully, New York's centrist Governor, Andrew Cuomo, stepped in to blunt the attack.
The nation is at crossroads. On one hand, we have the Illinois legislators trying to block families from sending their children to better public schools. On the other hand, we have states such as Louisiana and Tennessee that have built bipartisan support around the idea that excellent educators should be able to open new public schools.
When weighing this from the perspective of parents, it seems clear that we must reject the "our schools should be the only schools" way of thinking. Let educators create great public charter schools. Give families the power to choose these schools. It is only by handing power back to educators and families that our nation will ever achieve academic greatness.
Neerav Kingsland is the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. Richard Whitmire is author of On the Rocketship: How High Performing Charters are Pushing the Envelope.
This commentary first appeared in USA Today