Massachusetts · School Talk

Keri Rodriguez Lorenzo: Charter Schools are Progressive  

“Charter schools? Democrats don’t support those.”

It was a small group of anti-charter organizers who were saying it — and in truth, that was one of the more polite ways it was expressed. But that’s the kind of comment I heard at the recent Democratic State Convention. And to me, it was surprising.  After all, as a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, I have always supported public schools and the belief that every child deserves a shot at a quality public education. And as a proud Democrat, I believe we have an obligation to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts.

Here’s why:

I’m a single mother to three wonderful little boys. My oldest son Matthew is an amazing kid who happens to have special needs. My career began in journalism and I then worked with 1199SEIU for several years. I was the chair of the Somerville Democratic City Committee and served as a city commissioner. I had devoted my entire career to fighting for justice for other people’s families.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to find justice for my own child at school. During Matthew’s first two years in a traditional public school — for pre-k and kindergarten — he was suspended dozens of times. Even after working with an entire team of experts and being given every assurance that his needs would be met through an IEP, they continued to send him home from school several times a week and eventually resorted to locking him in the “redirect room” for up to 6 hours a day. The punishment was solitary confinement for my five year old. The crime? Not being able to sit down at rug time because of his ADHD diagnosis.

In our case, I was forced to move out of district — uprooting my entire life — to get my child into a public school that met his needs. That school was a charter school. You see, I knew the system. I knew there was another way to get my son into a better school. I’m willing and able to fight, and if I don’t know or understand the process, I have no problem demanding that someone help me figure it out. I had the resources to pack up my entire life and move to another district to access the school I knew was right for my child.

My boys are some of the fortunate ones. And I know it.  But thousands of children with mothers and fathers who are struggling aren’t so lucky. Their families are struggling to break the cycle of poverty but are forced to send their children to failing schools. Families whose children won’t be lucky enough to have their pulled in a lottery, who lack the means to uproot their life and move to another city with better schools.

How, as Democrats, have we let it get to this point?

After all, we are the true champions of public education. It was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion and the pride of our Massachusetts Democratic Party, who fought to move our nation toward a more just and equitable society — and challenged Democrats to dig deeper and do more to improve public schools. He fought for public schools — but also for real goals, accountability and for assessing for quality.

He would have been horrified to know that nine-in-ten low-income children of color in his home state had no choice but to attend schools that rank in the bottom 3% of districts across the state. It’s no coincidence that these are the same communities where three-quarters of the 34,000 children waiting for access to public charters live.

Being a progressive that supports public charter schools not only shouldn’t be controversial — it isn’t controversial. After all, our adopted party platform calls on every Democrat to “work to expand public school options — including charter schools.” Democratic leaders from President Obama to Howard Dean to House Speaker Robert DeLeo have called on all of us to embrace the role of public charters as part of the solution. They don’t see a longer school day, more personal attention, increased accountability and outstanding results as anomalies or threats to traditional public schools. They see them as an essential part of the solution for families.

And for good reason. Study after study has shown that public charter schools in Massachusetts do a better job closing the achievement gap that holds back poor children of color, a better job of serving English Language Learners and a better job helping children with special needs like Matthew succeed.  These are the very populations–vulnerable populations–that we have a duty and obligation as Democrats to serve.

How quickly we forget that in 1993–the year education reform was born in Massachusetts–we were far from leading the nation in education. It was only with the adoption of bold, innovative new ideas and initiatives–including charter schools–that we were able to launch a new era of achievement for the children of Massachusetts. And today, we have the best public schools in the country — and the best public charter schools in America. Those reforms were led by Democrats.

As a mother and proud Democrat, I believe it is not enough for us to sit back and remember our role as the champions of public education — we have a duty to lead the way toward innovation and improvement so every child in Massachusetts and across our great nation has access to the highest quality education possible.

All our children deserve a quality education. As Democrats and committed progressives, we must lead the way. Because if we don’t champion these families, who will?

What do you think?

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