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A case for choice and public schools

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City Arts & Technology High School is a charter school located in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco needs more people talking about the quality of our education system. I agree with Nato Green’s column about charter schools on Oct. 30, which said: a “free public [education] system … is the bedrock of equal opportunity for all.”

And, like Green, I do not support the status quo. I also “support desegregation, overhauling Proposition 13 and hiking taxes on the rich to fund good schools for everyone.”

It seems that where we differ is in how we achieve those goals, and what we are doing to bring increased levels of accountability, transparency and effective change in education legislation. The bottom line: We need higher-quality schools in every neighborhood. We need to do all that we can to decrease the barriers of access for students to get a good education, while simultaneously increasing the number of quality schools overall. I believe free, open-enrollment, nonprofit charter public schools can provide one source of quality school options for families, especially in communities where our district schools are not yet meeting our expectations. Charter public schools are not the solution to all of the challenges in our K-12 education system. However, they are one option for families who are wanting to look beyond the traditional district school.

The question for the San Francisco Unified School District is this: What are we doing to attract, retain and empower families within our district so that they know the SFUSD is the best choice for their child?

Unfortunately, contrary to what Green wrote in his article, some people do support the status quo. This is important to note, especially given the influence of politics on education. As a candidate for the Board of Education, I can testify to the sometimes-overwhelming influence of politics in local school board elections — the fundraising expectations, endorsement interviews, candidate questionnaires … the list goes on. However, let us not blame school choice and nonprofit charter public schools for the failures of our K-12 public education system. Let us not dismiss the 6,438 students currently enrolled in charter public schools in San Francisco, or the hundreds of charter teachers and administrators who have dedicated their careers to improving educational outcomes for all students.

Indeed, it is important to question the impact of large organizations on political races, generally. It is easy to point to people with power and wealth who contribute to pro-charter groups and criticize the influence of “big money.” But the reality is that both sides of the state Senate race have taken in huge checks, and both sides have a history of supporting charter schools. Scott Wiener has received contributions from charter organizers, while Jane Kim has consistently voted in favor of charter renewals during her term on the Board of Education.

Nevertheless, I urge everyone to look closer at the work happening on the ground. Carefully examine the educational outcomes of students and the lived experiences of families, then form an opinion on whether charters are impactful. In 2015, more than half of California’s top-performing public schools, with the highest concentration of low-income students, were charter public schools. In 2016, San Francisco’s top-performing open-enrollment public high school for English-Language Arts is a charter school. These data points, as measured by the Smarter Balanced State Test, are just one indicator of student progress and school quality.

Are there charter schools not doing right by kids? I am sure there are. Those schools should be closed. In the same way that there are some district schools in need of a major overhaul, both charter and district schools need to be continuously improving and constantly reflecting.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and an advocate of charter schools, has said proximity is key to deepening our understanding and developing empathy. Musician John Legend, Sen. Cory Booker, former Black Lives Matter leader Rashad Anthony Turner and former NAACP St. Petersburg President Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes all have made similar calls. In the vein of being proximate, it is important to engage with all stakeholders to better understand intent and impact. Has Green had the opportunity to listen to the stories of families who felt they had no other option but to enroll their student in a charter school? Has he reached out to teachers and school leaders to get a better picture of the charter community?

I challenge Green, and every other critic of charters, to step out of the typical political arguments surrounding charter public schools and consider the daily impact of charters on the families and educators in San Francisco; at the end of the day, our students are the ones to be most impacted.

I firmly believe that a free public school education can be transformative for all children. High-quality teaching and learning should be the norm across our schools. As a product of public schools and educator within the charter community, I know that we can and must do better. I have made a commitment to social justice and educational equity, which is why so many educators and I are deeply committed to this work. I know I am not alone.

Phil Kim is a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Education. He is a former public middle school science teacher, and now works as manager of innovation and science for KIPP Bay Area Schools.

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