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Why A Charter School Should Not Be the Obamas' Choice

This country is great. We’ve just elected the first African-American president, who has brought tremendous pride to many communities, but especially to African-Americans. I’ve seen it myself across the color and political spectrums.

It reminds us that you can have anything you want in America – unless you’re poor, that is.

Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to schooling your child. Much has been written about where the Obamas might send their babies to school. As they are looking at private schools, their new hometown paper, The Washington Post, is reminding them that there are other people who want such a choice, but the President-elect doesn’t support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows such a choice with taxpayer dollars.

There are others who want him to go to a charter school. One of his biggest fans, Democrats for Education Reform, a group which really believes he will carry their agenda, is pleading for him to choose a charter school in D.C., one of the 62 or so high quality schools currently serving almost 30 percent of the D.C. public school population.

While my organization is the nation’s leading advocate for charter school choices, I’m not so sure I want to see the Obamas choose a charter school. Though I disagree with our president-elect on many issues and fear that obsessive government solutions and spending will push us further into a government dependency, I want the best for him and his family when they come to Washington. I want him to have no distractions other than those that impact us all.

And frankly, if Sasha and Malia were to attend a charter school, here are just a few of the problems they’d encounter that are documented from schools here and throughout the country:

• Every month or so they’d learn that a city council member or their own member of Congress was pushing legislation to curb the freedom of the school to provide the kind of quality programs that such freedom encourages. They’d worry that such a move might hurt their school, and they’d have to wonder whether their choice was safe.

• They’d read in the newspaper about some study from some ivory tower institution, claiming that charters do well because they cream the best students. Even though Malia and Sasha would be sitting next to the most diverse student body they’d probably ever have encountered, from an income and possibly a color perspective, the Obamas would be told that their daughters are only doing well because the school creams.

• The head of the teachers union nationally, a friend otherwise to the Obamas, might say at a national convention (as she has numerous times) that charters don’t play by the same rules as other public schools, that they are mostly likely to reject special ed kids, when in fact most special ed children sitting along side Malia or Sasha may have hidden their disability at a traditional public school because their parents feared the dreaded IEP process of the school administration.

• The girls might be in a building that is less than stellar. The cafeteria probably doubles for the gym and the school meeting space where the choirs sing at Christmas or holidays. Unless the charter has a big fat grant from the Gates Foundation, there’s probably no nurse’s station because the public pays for only traditional public school facilities and not charter public facilities in most places.

• If the Obamas lived in Delaware they might wake up one day to learn of a moratorium on charters, making it possible that the legislature will further roll back the law. In South Carolina, they’d know that after two years, the state and school boards still refuse to give each charter more than 65 percent of what other schools receive. This would compromise just about every program they deliver.

• Mrs. Obama, as first lady of a child at a charter, you might also find the most dedicated, involved and passionate parents you’ll ever meet. Despite most being lower income and not having been involved at a school ever before, you’ll be overjoyed to learn that parents who choose are parents with power and they use it wisely. However, they often have to go to The Hill or show up at rallies at the city council to prove that they matter. That’s because there are city council members who really don’t believe that we should “do” public education in any other way than the one system that was created by Horace Mann back in the 1800s.

For these reasons, and more we could go into at great length, I’d prefer you find a place like Sidwell Friends or Georgetown Day (even though teachers are addressed by their first name there – you won’t find that kind of lower expectation of kids at a charter school) because for some strange reason, no one criticizes those schools. They are strong and deserve your patronage. There are lots of good private schools in the area of course. The Catholic schools offer a quality education for almost a quarter of what you’d pay at Georgetown Day. There are schools like the nonsectarian Nannie Helen Burroughs School, which has educated African-American children in their community for more than 20 years and is almost on a par with a Georgetown Day, minus the sports and international activities, APs, etc. They do it with whatever funds they can find. Thankfully the Opportunity Scholarship Program helps their children get the education they deserve.

I for one know that the Obamas will come to believe that. Meanwhile, I found the most difficult and important choices I’ve made are the schools to which I’ve sent my four children. Unfortunately, Maryland came to charter schools too late for me and in my county the only proposal ever sought was denied on arrival by a school board that just couldn’t figure out why parents might need a choice. I’m one of the estimated 25 percent in Montgomery County, MD that sends my children to private schools, so clearly there’s a demand.

But back to the President-elect and his family. Charter schools are working for about 1.5 million children, and in the District they are the key to why Chancellor Rhee can do what she is doing. They have opened up minds and hearts to a better way for children. The few that haven’t worked have, like any failing school should be, closed. But despite working 20 hours a day, on less funding and still meeting the needs of the vast majority of their kids, these schools have to fight every day for the right to exist and must put up with political shenanigans that have more to do with adult jobs than children’s welfare.

So stay out of that one, Mr. President-elect. We don’t need you to have more worries than the ones you’ll already have upon arrival.