A political play or pushback against mediocrity? Why we need charter schools in the suburbs

Do we need a charter movement in the suburbs?

Education activist Derrell Bradford recently argued that yes, we do–but mostly because it broadens the base of clout-heavy supporters and makes it more palatable for self-interested politicians to “do the right thing” on school choice.

I would agree, but for a very different reason posited by Mr. Bradford: We need competition to rouse suburban schools from their lethargy and the pervasive belief that these schools are doing great simply because they come stocked with well-prepared students.

As much as I long for a bit of a suburban shakeup, I don’t expect charters to get much of a toehold outside of urban areas in the near future. Charters may have been created to spur innovation in a moribund sector, but the reality is that charters mostly exist as a form of educational triage, where the most desperately ill-served children get a shot at a healthy education.

In his essay in The 74 called “The Politics & Partisanship of America’s Education Reform Debate: Time for a Suburban Strategy?” Bradford offers a different twist:

Maybe you do need that dual-language-immersion charter school in the suburbs — not because you care about it educationally, but because its families help you make the case for charters politically. Maybe you think charter management organizations are the way to go, but to the extent the process to create them may crowd out leaders of color and neighborhood mom-and-pops — which grow authentic and local constituencies — you understand they shouldn’t be the only answer. Thinking like this could have headed off the NAACP charter moratorium with which we now all must deal.

Maybe you realize that if you believe in “choice,” you can’t believe in it only when the choice is you. And maybe you get that the fastest way to reach scale that has lasting political impact is actually to partner with private schools, who served the charter school base and educated generations of minority leaders, including our last president, long before the word “charter” was anything more than a kind of bus. And maybe you do that because you share opposition even if you don’t share interests.

I’m too much a pragmatist to start rallying for suburban charters for purely political reasons, but I’m not enough of a hypocrite to oppose a charter in my backyard simply because the need is less urgent. I vividly recall editing an essay by an activist who made his living fighting for charter schools–until he decided to fight the homegrown dual-language charter seeking approval in his New Jersey hometown because it was “irrelevant” and “hyper-niche.”

Boutique-y charters with specialized missions have a place in the movement, even if they are not a top priority for those of us committed to school choice as a vehicle for equity and quality. But there’s a middle ground here between urban charters serving desperate  parents and suburban parents seeking an innovative school model. There are plenty of suburban schools that are now serving a growing number of high-need students, but are not educating them well or serving them equitably.

Maybe that’s where we can start our suburban charter movement.

Photo courtesy of Education Next

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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