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WATCH: Education Experts Look Ahead to the Next 30 Years of School Choice

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When you ask Dr. Charles Cole about the future of “school choice,” he’s not going to mince words about his views of how the question itself is worded.

“I think it’s named poorly, which probably leads to who gets to sit at the table and make decisions,” said Cole, founder of the education advocacy group Energy Convertors. “It shouldn’t be called ’school choice’; it should be called ‘parent choice.’”

“It’s always going to be parents and students for me.”

Empowering parents, particularly those of color, to have a voice in how and where their children are schooled was one of the key themes of an Aug. 4 panel discussion presented by The 74 and the Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools program.

As Cole put it, parents “have to be at the very head of that table and they have to be the coaches and quarterbacks of those teams because they are the people that have to live with the consequences of what these systems are doing with our babies.”

Giving parents a choice is one thing. But giving them good choices is another, former Georgia state Rep. Alisha Morgan pointed out. “There are parents here in Georgia,” she said, “who are heartbroken, who are facing anxiety right now because they are faced with not having enough choices for their kids, having no choices at all or just having really really poor choices.”

Morgan said she was disappointed that the loudest calls for more choice have come from advocates, rather than parents or students. “We don’t have the folks that are directly affected by this as the most significant part of the movement,” Morgan said.

“It’s mostly us advocates … who are out front, who understand this, who are doing it. But we don’t see the number of parents that we need to see. And we don’t see the number of young people.”

“We lack the sense of urgency that we need that would have existed in other movements.”

She also noted how proponents of school choice — or parent choice, as Cole would put it — come to the issue from a full compass of viewpoints. “It’s about equity for some and leveling the playing field for others. It might be about the free market for some; it’s about escaping schools that don’t work or just finding a school that just meets the needs of a child.”

“But I don’t know if we speak with one sound voice,” she added. “I don’t know if we have a clear direction or a clear end goal when it comes to choice.”

The panel was a bookend to a similar event presented in June by PPI and The 74, which focused on the 30th anniversary of the first law authorizing charter schools. While that conversation assessed the progress, frustrations and lessons of the past 30 years, the Aug. 4 discussion sought to peer into the future and address what school choice, charters and the entire education system would look like at the midway point of this century.

Naomi Shelton, CEO of the National Charter Collaborative, spoke forcefully about how Black and brown charter school leaders, particularly those running stand-alone schools, need more and better support.

Shelton called for an “overarching level of support and advocacy and making sure that we’re … amplifying the work of these single-site leaders.”

“We can talk all about the big-box chains of charter schools,” she said, “but it’s the people who have decided to commit themselves to the individuals that are in the communities and that look like them that need the support right now.”

Patrick Jones, senior vice president of the Mind Trust, called for the “building of a comprehensive ecosystem around education” to benefit school children of color.

“We can’t solve this problem just by getting schools to become better,” he said. “If prosperity in our community is going to be sustainable, we must understand that all academic, social and economic aspects of what schooling is is our responsibility. The whitest space in school reform right now is the finance room in any school district and in any charter school.”

Jada Bolar, executive producer of the National Parents Union, offered a first-hand account of what school choice could mean to a young student of color in Akron, Ohio. Ten years ago, Jada’s mother, Kelly Williams-Bolar, served time in jail after being convicted of lying about her residency to get Jada and her sister into a better school district.

In her new district, known as Copley-Fairlawn, “we had greenhouses; we had computer labs; we had a rock-climbing wall,” Bolar said. By contrast, “in Akron, Ohio, we had a box, with dirt. And that was our greenhouse.”

Her mom’s decisions “originally did backfire, but it set me up for the rest of my life,” Bolar said. After her mother’s arrest, an anonymous donor came forward to pay her way into a private school. “He reached to my mom and said, ‘I’m super moved by your story. I want to help. I want to make sure that your daughter is continuing to get a better education.”

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