This op-ed, written by Salome Thomas-El, Erica Dorsett, Daniel Walker and Cyntiche Deba, originally appeared in Delaware Online.
School’s out for summer, but for some Delaware leaders, that means more time to criticize public charter schools and scapegoat them for problems in Delaware’s education system. In his first week on the job, Delaware’s teachers’ union president Mike Matthews offered the following incendiary commentary on social media:
“The whole charter movement and NSA [Neighborhood Schools Act] in Delaware is because certain folks don’t want their kids going to school with the kids of other certain folks. Period.
t’s been a long and slow 20 years, but the deeper we go, the more we learn the “choice and charter” movement across the country is really about racism and classism.””
Such remarks are not completely a surprise coming from Mike Matthews, a regular critic of public charter schools who called for their moratorium. But Matthews’ racially charged and “us vs. them” rhetoric is particularly problematic coming from someone who claims to speak for Delaware’s more than 10,000 educators.
His remarks are a disturbing early sign for someone who served on the “district/charter collaboration task force” and should be concerned with strengthening the entire public education system — including public charter schools.
Perhaps Matthews is taking his cues from national teachers’ union leaders. American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten recently called efforts to promote school choice “polite cousins of segregation.” But if we are going to create an excellent education system, it is not going to come about by adopting the “war of all against all” ways of Washington, D.C.
When leaders attack and promulgate myths about Delaware’s public charter schools, they alienate and disparage the families (including those of many educators Matthews represents) of the more than 14,000 current students (and the many alums of these schools) who exercised their ability to seek other options for their children. These leaders also ignore what the public charter movement in Delaware is really about.
It is about increasing choice: Delaware’s public charters provide parents and students with options outside of traditionally-governed public schools that better meet their academic goals and needs. Public charters have also expanded options for lower-income families who felt their local district did not meet their child’s needs but could not afford to move to a community with better neighborhood schools or pay for private schools.
It is about diversity: Schools like Kuumba Academy were founded by parents and community leaders in Wilmington with a focus on the arts. Schools like La Academia and Las Americas ASPIRA Academy prioritize dual-language learning. First State Military Academy and Delaware Military Academy recognize some students learn best in a setting with an emphasis on military training, discipline, and citizenship.
It is about excellence: Public charters are a critical component of the state’s collective push for excellence for all students. That is evident in places like Sussex Academy, Kuumba (which has been recognized nationally for making great gains with traditionally underserved students), and Thomas Edison Charter School (where students from Wilmington consistently earn top national honors in chess) among others.
It is about innovation: Public charters were designed to be flexible, innovative, free from non-essential regulatory and contractual limitations, and responsive to the needs of the communities they serve. With such flexibility, a group of Delaware public charters was able to create a teacher performance appraisal process that was better tailored to educators’ needs and Delaware Design Lab High School became one of 10 organizations across the country to win a $10 million XQ Prize.
Ultimately, contrary to Mike Matthews’ claims, the charter school movement is not about racism and classism; it is about students.
It is clear that public charter schools are not without problems, and education leaders like Matthews are quick to spotlight examples that further divide us. But a fair observer would also recognize the longstanding issues in traditional public schools: from a decades-long track record of poorly educating certain groups of students, to highly-segregated schools, to a curriculum and teaching profession that lacks racial and ethnic diversity, to the lack of career and college readiness of high school graduates.
Acknowledging the flaws in either school system does not mean one is better than the other. It simply means we all have a lot of work to do to provide students the quality education they deserve.
If that is our goal, we can start by recognizing that families and students do not care about inane debates pitting public charters against traditional public schools. They do not want more division. They want great schools. Period.