Millennials, especially of color, are disrupting charter school debate

Millennials, especially of color, are disrupting charter school debate
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As the number of children attending public charter schools increases, the debate over the role of charter schools in our public education system has intensified.

Are public charter schools better than traditional public schools? Do charter schools serve the same kids as traditional public schools?  Should states place a moratorium on charter growth?

These questions, among others, imply false choices that mask the ways traditional public schools and public charters complement one another. But there’s hope for a path forward that pierces the polarized fire-fight that too often characterizes current discussions about charters — Millennials.

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While polling data suggests a disproportionate opposition to charters among African-American voters of all ages, polling data also shows growing levels of support for charters, as well as other innovations in education policy, among Millennials, who have largely rejected stale fault-lines and an uncritical embrace of legacy practices. In particular, new data from GenForward at the University of Chicago shows that Millennials, including Millennials of color, strongly support charter schools.

Unlike standard opinion polling, GenForward over samples young adults of color to understand the variations between racial and ethnic groups in the largest and most diverse age cohort in our country. This survey asked Millennials to discuss education-related views ranging from free speech to school discipline.

The results show a generation divided along racial lines in many ways — with the exception of only a few issues. One of those on which opinions were fairly uniform across demographic groups was public school choice. Sixty-five percent of African-American Millennials support charter schools. Other ethnic groups aren’t far behind: 61 percent of Asian Americans, 58 percent of Latinxs, and 55 percent of whites also support public charter schools.  

Many of these young people may have attended a charter school, or know someone who did. Unlike many of the people making education policy choices in national organizations, charters aren’t  a foreign concept to those who were most recently in the elementary and secondary school system.

On this issue, Millennials refuse to be boxed in. While they support charters, they also want more investment in traditional public school education. When asked to list the three best ways to improve K-12 education in their local school districts, the proposals most commonly chosen are increasing school funding, improving teacher training, and raising teacher pay. When it comes to helping students succeed, most Millennials tend to identify high quality teachers and principals as the most important factor.

African-American Millennials said the most important factor to them was having high expectations for all students and more than two-thirds said U.S. schools are not being held accountable for the performance of students of color.

This combination of policy prescriptions — increased education funding, expanded school choice within the public option of charter schools, better teacher pay and preparation, and high expectations for all students — makes a lot of sense. None alone is a panacea.

Expanded public school choice without accountability, a policy preference of the far right, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosArming teachers: Bad for students, bad for spending DeVos decries lack of free speech on campuses, says US has 'abandoned truth' Reforms to campus sexual abuse policy rattle Congress MORE, is a recipe for disaster as we have seen in places like Detroit. More rigorous teacher training and a higher bar for entry into the profession need to go hand in hand with increased teacher pay.

As this data shows, we can add the school choice paradigm to the list of things Millennials will disrupt. These Americans are now reaching their thirties. Many of them have children of their own. Some aspire to lead legacy organizations with the strongest voices in our politics. Others are unwilling to wait for the torch of leadership to be passed to them and are founding their own schools, non-profits or tech startups.

Progressive leaders should listen to these Americans and adopt a similar pragmatic approach. Their pragmatism and focus on solutions signals a way forward that serves the interests of our students, teachers, and country as a whole, and offers the opportunity to advance a policy agenda on a vital national issue beyond the narrow, polarized limits of our current debate.  

Shavar Jeffries is the national president of Democrats for Education Reform.