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‘If We Don’t Fight for Our Children, Who Else Is Going to Do It?’ Charter Advocates to Continue Democratic Debate Protests Thursday in Los Angeles

By Carolyn Phenicie | December 18, 2019

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The rift in the Democratic Party over charter schools will be on sharp display again Thursday, as advocates, parents and students rally outside a Los Angeles presidential primary debate to protest what they say is an attack on their freedoms.

Advocates frame Democrats’ increasingly sharp rhetoric against charter schools — present at all levels of government, but recently exemplified in proposals by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to crack down on the sector — as an attack on the rights of African-American and Hispanic families to steer the destinies of their children.

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“This is a solution that has worked for our families. Why is it being abridged? Why are people pushing against this? If it’s a solution that works, we should allow that solution to go forward,” said Ricardo Mireles, founder and executive director of Academia Avance, a charter school in Los Angeles.

Protest leaders found a particularly ripe location for protest in Los Angeles, which has 277 charters serving more than 138,000 students. Unionized public school teachers went on strike earlier this year over the issue, and the city’s school board ultimately agreed to pass a resolution calling for the state to institute a charter moratorium.

Maria Padilla, who will attend Thursday’s protest, sends her daughters Savannah, 7, and Madison, 5, to Equitas Academy in Los Angeles. But she didn’t set out to send them to a charter. It was Equitas’s high academic scores, particularly the small gaps between the performance of students of different races, that sold her, she said.

“They should know that these charter schools are really making a significant difference in our community,” she said.

The debate protest comes on the heels of a teachers-union-sponsored forum Saturday, where Warren was challenged about what she’d say to the families of color who can’t wait for traditional public schools to improve.

She emphasized that she doesn’t doubt the sincerity of those families, and that her plan wouldn’t affect existing charter schools.

“My proposal is how about we put $800 billion into our public schools and make them all excellent schools,” she said. “This is about equalizing opportunity. This is the big division in America today.”

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Following a protest at a speech in Atlanta last month, Warren pledged that she’d revisit her charter proposal and make sure she got it right.

But she was also widely derided for comments in an interview she gave to the National Education Association, released earlier this month, in which she seemingly blamed families assigned to poor public schools.

“If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school,” she said. “Go help get more resources for it.”

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Democratic candidates, including Warren, have pointed to scandals in the sector and say that charters pull public money from traditional schools without being subject to the same accountability measures. Teachers in most charters are not unionized.

The idea for the debate protests grew out of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual conference in Las Vegas this summer, when advocates noticed a rhetorical turn against charters among many Democrats, Mireles said.

The advocates, working through the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, have since protested outside Democratic debates in Houston; Columbus, Ohio; and Atlanta this fall.

Leaders have learned important lessons from previous debates, such as being in the right place to attract media attention, and at the right time, Mireles said. The action for Thursday is scheduled for 3 p.m. Pacific, the perfect time for a spotlight on evening news broadcasts ahead of the debate two hours later.

It’s difficult to tell if the protests are working to change the perception of charters, but they are getting the word out, Mireles said.

“It’s clear that prior to these efforts, it had been very one-sided. … The focus on charter schools was only on the anti-charter side,” he said.

Parent advocates say they just want the candidates to listen and acknowledge their right to school choice and the successes their children have had in charters.

“We want to be heard. That’s all we want, is to be heard by people who may end up running the country,” said Sarah Carpenter, an organizer with the Powerful Parent Network.

Carpenter, who emphasizes that she isn’t pro-charter school so much as in favor of giving families options, was part of a group that protested outside Warren’s speech in November and an effort to protest and meet with candidates at the Pittsburgh forum. Were it not for a prior commitment at home in Tennessee, she’d be in Los Angeles, she said.

“When parents aren’t afraid to stand up for their kids, that’s what success looks like to me,” she said. “If we don’t fight for our children, who else is going to do it?”

Lost in much of the national debate around charter schools is the relatively little impact a president, of either party, has on the sector, with most decisions on charter policy made at the state and local level.

Congress must approve funding for the federal charter school program every year; House Democrats had sought a 10 percent cut to the program this year, but the final compromise released this week holds spending flat at $440 million. And the program itself is a drop in the bucket of the $40 billion in federal spending on K-12, itself only about 10 percent of what is spent on schools in the U.S.

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