Have you noticed an uptick in news articles about the “achievement gap” in San Francisco’s public schools? The reports from “an independent nonprofit” disparaging those schools and attacking the district? The Facebook and Twitter ads telling you that public schools are bad for black and Latinx kids?
You might even have seen attacks on individual schools that don’t exist. (Ever heard of West Portal Middle School?)
It’s not a coincidence.
The escalating coverage of the so-called “state of emergency” in our district comes at a time when charter school chains from other states and cities are trying to increase their foothold in San Francisco. They want to open new charter schools, siphoning off funds that would otherwise go to public schools. They’ve started a public relations war aimed at sowing discontent among parents and convincing them to enroll their children in charters.
Think about how many times you’ve heard our public schools are “failing.” In fact, data shows our schools are doing better than 20 years ago: more graduates, higher standards, more inclusive classrooms, more culturally responsive instruction. And yet the drumbeat rolls on: “failing schools,” “uncaring teachers,” “achievement gap.”
Of course, there are challenges. Like many underfunded districts, San Francisco has a chronic shortage of teachers and other staff members. It grapples with the legacies of residential segregation and the abandonment of public schools by affluent families. Yet, our schools have a mission to serve all students, no matter what socioeconomic level they come from, special needs they may have or language they speak.
The current leadership of the district has a vision and a commitment to uplift and empower our historically marginalized communities. Teachers and administrators in these communities are working hard to create more collaboration with parents and to help students succeed. Yet, as school district leaders work to meet these challenges, they are shamed and blamed by corporate competitors.
If the billionaires that bankroll charter schools really wanted to support quality education, they would put their money into assisting public schools and supporting better pay for teachers. Instead, they trash public schools, trying to build their own enrollment by convincing parents to switch.
Consider this: The three Bayview schools that are part of the KIPP charter chain serve one homeless student for every four served by nearby Bayview elementary schools and suspend twice as many students. KIPP reports “no expulsions,” yet 150 students who were previously at a KIPP schools are attending public schools in the San Francisco Unified School District this year alone.
This is typical. The UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies reported in 2016 that many charter schools artificially boost test scores and graduation rates by using harsh discipline to encourage lower-achieving youth to leave.
Charters balance their budgets by using young, inexperienced teachers. The average SF KIPP teacher has 2.5 years of experience, compared to 13 among teachers in the SFUSD. Students’ families are pushed to do “voluntary” community service and “encouraged” to leave the school if they don’t like it.
Right-wing billionaires and Silicon Valley technology investors have helped fund advocacy groups like Innovate, a San Jose group that pushes the charter agenda and denigrates public schools. Innovate is paying for Facebook and Twitter ads and hiring “community organizers” to convince parents of color that charter schools are on their side.
We love the idea of grassroots, bottom-up public schools, but that’s not what charter chains offer. What these outsiders push are privatized schools, unaccountable to the public.
The record of charter schools is clear. In districts where they’ve made major inroads — Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles — the performance of students has not improved. They take advantage of vulnerable communities, re-segregating schools and harming students. That’s why organizations like the NAACP have called for a charter school moratorium.
It’s time to push back on these false narratives. Our public schools aren’t perfect. No schools are. But they are full of dedicated, underpaid teachers who work to educate children from all backgrounds in an underfunded system.
We and many other families are proud of the fact our kids go to public schools. Our schools should align with our values, welcoming immigrant students and supporting kids who are homeless or have special needs, things most charters schools utterly fail to provide.
It’s time to set the record straight. We need to elevate the good work going on in our public schools. We need to speak up against falsehoods spread about them. When there are problems, we need to lean in and work to make things better.
We and many other proud public school parents have made our choice. We are fighting for our children’s schools and the dedicated educators who work in them. We are fighting for a public education system that serves every child.
Alison Collins is running for a seat on the San Francisco school board. She is an educator and parent of twin girls at Francisco Middle School, a member of the SFUSD African American Parent Advisory Council and a SF Families Union co-founder.
Arienne Adamcikova is a mother of an Everett Middle School student and a credentialed Spanish teacher at San Mateo High School.