Even someone as young as me has heard the familiar expression, “Everything old is new again.” That’s what I couldn’t help thinking today when my Education Policy Center friends told me about Richard Whitmire’s new Education Next piece titled “More Middle-Class Families Choose Charters.”
Maybe that’s just because I’m so attuned to watching these things that I fail to see the surprising element in the headline. But then again, maybe it’s just my fault for being in Colorado. Whitmire does raise an interesting point, framing the issue as follows:
What’s happening here raises a compelling question: could an influx of middle-class parents into charter schools emerge as a political game changer? It’s too early to answer that question, but it’s the right time to ask it.
The San Antonio charter story is only one among many across the country that involve middle-class parents. In Arizona, parents see charters as akin to high-end grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—options that doctors and lawyers and mayors might choose. In California, especially in rural areas, charters offer parents their only options for specialty schools such as Montessori and Waldorf. For these parents, unlike their counterparts in San Antonio, the attraction is an education philosophy rather than accelerated academics.
Yet another reason middle-class parents are becoming more familiar with charters is the “intentionally diverse” school movement. Charters ranging from the Denver School of Science and Technology network to the E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., intentionally draw a mix of families, by race and income.
It’s great to see the mention of our neighbors at DSST. Yet even well before that successful charter management organization was more than a gleam in the eyes of its founders, many Colorado parents were the activist drivers who took our state’s third-in-the-nation charter school law and began building local success stories.
Please consider this an invitation to check out the 2013 Independence Institute story — er, issue paper — On the Road of Innovation, which is all about how Colorado’s charter law came to be. It was a bipartisan political effort to get the law in place, but it also unleashed a lot of grassroots energy:
Two charter schools opened in the fall of 1993. By December of the same year, various groups of parents, teachers, and community leaders had met in Aspen, Aurora, Boulder, Center, Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, Conifer, Crested Butte, Delta/Paonia, Denver, Durango, Lakewood, Littleton, Longmont, Northglenn, Pueblo and Vail/Eagle Valley to map out their own programs. Twelve more charter schools opened in 1994.
These early pioneer charters represented a diversity of models and philosophies, including the Montessori and Core Knowledge examples cited in the Education Next story. As shown in the Colorado Department of Education’s official 2013 report to the legislature on charter schools, the sector steadily has become more diverse in race and socioeconomic levels. (Meanwhile, this perpetual little 5-year-old wonders why I have to wait one more whole year for the next report.)
So in one very real sense, the public charter school movement here in Colorado was originally built on the backbone of middle-income families in many communities who sacrificed to give their kids a different educational option. Over time, we’ve seen the doors open wider for healthy and inclusive changes.
I get that it hasn’t worked that way in every part of the country. The fairly rapid growth of charters in places like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., not to mention our own Denver, show that these things can progress in different ways. Just another sign of the movement’s diversity.
Given Colorado’s own history, though, the promise of having more middle-income families as charter advocates in other states should indeed be a boon to the cause of choice and innovation.