As the son of poor sharecroppers from East Texas who came to California to work as migrant farm workers, I greet the new school year as a time of hope and possibility for my family.
Neither of my parents was able to complete elementary school in the segregated South, but they knew education was the ticket to a brighter future for my brothers and me. With their encouragement, I went on to graduate from UCLA and Harvard law school. I was lucky to have been raised in a small town with few minority students and an excellent Public School system. Many of my relatives and friends who lived in Los Angeles did not receive the same education opportunity I was afforded.
As a result, I have spent the greater part of my adult life committed to expanding educational opportunity, especially for poor black and brown kids who are just like me. I am increasingly dismayed at the nasty polarization in education politics. For those of us who say we are concerned about public education, we urgently need to change the tenor and discourse about how to improve all of our schools.
Regrettably, this new school year has begun amid ill-informed denunciations of charter schools by the NAACP and Black Lives Matter; a skewed and misleading piece by TV comedian John Oliver; and closer to home, a hyperbolic call to arms by the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union for Los Angeles Unified schools, against charter schools more broadly and specifically against Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, of which I am a founder and on whose board I still sit.
Missing in all the critiques of charter schools is any mention of student needs and achievement. Instead we are fed abstract arguments about the need to protect bureaucratic government systems that have shortchanged minority families for decades. Missing has been the voices of hundreds of thousands of parents who have found a better opportunity for their children in innovative, autonomous public charter schools.
At Alliance schools, neither our students nor their parents care about the governance structure of their school. Like my parents, what they care about is if their school is safe and welcoming and whether it lives up to the promise to educate all students regardless of how they walk in the door. At Alliance, we have lived up to that promise.
The average Alliance student enters our middle and high schools four to five grade levels behind in reading. Yet, 95 percent of Alliance students graduate in four years and 95 percent of those graduates are accepted to college.
It is highly insulting to the 12,500 families and 1,200 teachers, school leaders and staff — who have worked tirelessly to build Alliance into one of the largest and most successful public school networks in the nation — to dismiss their hard work and dedication to student success as a nefarious conspiracy led by a secret cabal of “billionaires” determined to destroy public schools. It’s also an offensive distortion of reality.
When I hear the president of UTLA regularly condemn Alliance specifically and charter schools more broadly, I feel that I am living in an alternate reality. In any rational universe, Alliance schools would be celebrated, studied and asked to share what we have learned.
There is a strong case to be made for the positive impact charter schools like Alliance have had on traditional public schools. In Los Angeles, we have helped to change the debate and expectations about what is possible, especially for black and brown students in our city’s lowest-income communities.
More important, we’ve made a difference in the lives of our students and their families. Beyond the exceptional results of Alliance schools, the 2015 research study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the academic gains in math and reading for African American, Latino, low-income and special education students in urban charter schools are significantly higher than traditional urban public schools. The example of what is possible at high-performing charter schools has helped spur the LAUSD to increase graduation rates as well as strengthen its commitment to college-ready education for all students.
I applaud LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King’s effort to cool the heated us-vs.-them rhetoric fueled by the teachers union, and instead turn her focus on charters and traditional schools learning from each other, increasing high-performing schools of all kinds and offering low-income families the school choice that more affluent families have.
As we begin the new school year, let’s focus on the wonder and promise that can be seen in eyes of every child who walks into a school — any type of school. It is long past time to turn down the bombastic rhetoric and divisions driven by adult politics and focus instead on what works to provide all of our children a high-quality education.
Virgil Roberts is an attorney at the law firm of Bobbitt and Roberts, and a member of the board of directors of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. This commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and appears here with permission from the author.