It’s not about charter schools. They’re not the point.
It’s about kids.
That’s the message I heard loud and clear at the WA Charters annual conference this past weekend. It hummed quietly like a fridge that you only notice in those moments when everything else is quiet. Like a mantra that disappears into the fabric all day long, easy to consciously miss but impossible to not soak in.
It’s not about charter schools. Charters are a vessel, not a destination. It’s about kids. It's about kids. It's about kids.
And that’s why I have been able to get behind Washington’s charter movement. That has been the message from the beginning, just as it was the message from the beginning of the conference.
We heard on Saturday morning from Jalen Johnson, currently a junior at Summit Sierra, a charter school in Seattle’s International District. He talked about having felt lost, unknown and hopeless as a Black student in Seattle Public Schools with multiple mental health diagnoses attached to his name.
That all shifted when he and his family chose Summit Sierra, the school he described as a “centerpiece of his mental health journey.”
“I see myself and my Black counterparts thriving at Summit,” Jalen said. “That’s how it should be.”
The morning session also served to illustrate how tired the whole “charter school vs. traditional public school” debate has become.
Having heard a third-year charter student speak so movingly about his school’s role as an agent for positive change in his life that I wasn’t the only one in the room blinking away tears, we heard from Rob McKenna, who serves as lead counsel representing charter schools, parents and students in the appeal on the ruling from last February that upheld the charter law on all counts. He touched on the legal opposition to charter schools, but all he really seemed to want to talk about was all the ways the students and teachers at these innovative, equity-driven public schools inspire him.
We heard perhaps most impactfully that morning from Shavar Jeffries, who held the room rapt as he spoke frankly and vulnerably, telling his at-times shockingly tragic personal story, and explaining how his own experiences in life and in education led him to the path he has chosen.
When Shavar was still in middle school, his mother was murdered by the abuser she was trying to escape. Through luck in the wake of tragedy, through hard work and dogged grandmothering, Shavar ended up attending a college prep high school. He took multiple city buses through Newark to get an education from people with, as he described it, “an unyielding belief in young people.”
From that stepping stone, he ended up at Duke University, and now, as the president of Democrats for Education Reform, he advocates for kids and families based on his experience with the power of education and school choice to create opportunities and new trajectories.
Reflecting on what I heard from Jalen and Shavar, I’m left more than anything with a feeling of respect for them and their choices. Whatever conclusions Shavar has reached given his challenges and experiences, they’re valid. Whatever beliefs Jalen holds about the school he attends, which happens to be a charter school, they’re valid. He’s reached them in a thoughtful, meaningful way.
It was refreshing to hear critical conversations that have evolved beyond the tired “charter vs. traditional” debate and are instead focusing on tangible and positive outcomes for public school students, regardless of whether they attend a district or charter school, and regardless of their zip code.
As McKenna said, “Innovation can and does happen in our traditional public schools — it just doesn’t happen often enough, consistently enough, or for enough students.”
All of our public schools, whether charter, traditional or otherwise, are full of kids right now who need us to set aside politics and preconceptions and act with urgency on their behalf. We need to effect change together. It’s nice to know that even if their detractors aren’t quite ready to move on, Washington’s charter school movement is long past wasting its time on tired debates that don’t put kids first.
To learn more about charters or visit one in your area, visit WACharters.org/schools.