WASHINGTON — Yellow scarves emblazoned with the logo, “National Charter School Week,” circled everyone’s neck at the “Put Kids First” rally at Friendship Chamberlin Elementary’s gymnasium on Wednesday.
Speakers included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and basketball-player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie. Representatives from Washington Latin Public Charter School and the Black Alliance for Educational Options were also on hand for the event in Southeast Washington along with 150 charter and private school students and about 50 adult guests.
Advocating passionately for nationwide school choice programs, the speakers continued a debate that began in Wisconsin in 1989 with the first voucher program, and has since gained many supporters and enemies across the U.S. Despite the ongoing national debate, President Barack Obama didn’t mention the issue at his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
At the core of the school choice debate are Cantor’s words in the gymnasium, “We cannot be a great country without great schools.” If the school you go to isn’t right for you, “You should have the right to choose one that does… Each and every one of you.”
The school choice advocates at Wednesday’s rally are in support of the establishment of public charter schools and voucher programs.
Charter schools are public schools that don’t have to comply with some traditional state and federal regulations: they have curriculums proposed and designed by teachers or community leaders and accept students who chose to leave the school they were assigned to in their district. They can be publicly and privately funded. Voucher programs, on the other hand, are government subsidies for children in public schools who wish to attend private schools.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter school enrollment has grown by 80 percent in the last five years and now includes more than 2.3 million students in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Cantor and Leslie would like to see the program expanded to the remaining states and more widely accepted by teachers organizations and legislators.
However, evidence that charter schools provide a better education than traditional public schools is inconclusive. Factors like socio-economic status of students, levels of students’ early education, average class size, and funding further confuse the survey data collected by various agencies and organizations.
Some programs, like the Knowledge Is Power Program, show significant gains in educational achievement for charters over traditional schools with similar student bodies, but others show no difference or even lower college attendance rates.
Lisa Leslie didn’t rely on data to back up her support for school choice, though- she gave a personal example. As a junior in high school in California, she was on the honor roll and had a 3.7 GPA, but still struggled with the SATs. Leslie, who graduated from University of Southern California, said she realized this happened because she wasn’t receiving the best available classroom education. “I had done everything I had been asked to do, but not everything I needed to do,” the former WNBA player said.
“In our country, they don’t tell us which church to go to or which grocery store to go to, so why should they tell us which school to go to?” Leslie said.