There is a big debate going on in Dallas right now regarding the charter school movement. If you’re not employed in the profession (or in the area), it would probably pass you by, but it holds the potential to drastically affect the Dallas educational landscape for many years to come. It’s about charters– and land.
Charters in Dallas are part of the public school system, but run separately. In Dallas there are a couple of different CMOs (charter management organizations), including KIPP, Uplift Education and Harmony Public Schools. Recently Uplift applied for a zoning permit to open a new campus near I-35 and Camp Wisdom Road. They are growing in the region, there is increasing demand and long wait lists to be admitted and they need more space. Parents are drawn to Uplift because of their results and their college focus. Every Uplift student must be accepted to college in order to successfully graduate.
In Dallas, where the public schools run the gamut from extremely high achieving to extremely low achieving, school choice really empowers parents. However, for each student that Dallas ISD loses to expanding charter networks, they also lose state funding earmarked for education. This has led to conflict over proposed space, the likes of which we haven’t really seen in the region. Uplift’s zoning permit was approved, but by a very narrow margin. It will likely continue to be a point of contention as they continue to expand in the area.
Charters aren’t miracle schools, and often face the same issues as traditional public schools. Still, there’s a lot to be said in support of school choice. Letting parents have some influence as to where their child attends rather than have their school dictated by school boundary lines and a home address. Charters often have more flexibility than public schools, but like most systems the quality of schools can vary widely, depending on the principal, teachers and resources of the school itself. In Dallas, education intervention programs like Reading Partners serve both traditional and charter public schools. Each offers different advantages. Charters can offer more intense academics and offer targeted learning, but they often can’t compete with the AP offerings, sports and arts offerings of traditional public schools. This can vary widely by campus as well. Comparing the two systems isn’t as simple as saying ‘charters are better’ or ‘traditional public schools are better’. What is clear, though, is that parents are interested in charters — in the unique learning experiences that they can offer and for Uplift, the college focus that is incorporated into all of their classes. Most of all, perhaps, charters offer something new and different, and can be seen as a way out; perhaps parents feel that their students have a better shot at success than they would if they attended the neighborhood school with a high dropout rate and potentially with higher rates of violence.
As education advocates, it’s our job to look beyond the politics and determine what is best for students and families. In Dallas, we must strive for opportunities for success for our students, whether that success is found in a traditional public school or a charter school. School choice gives a small piece of control back to parents, who can advocate for a better opportunity for their child by choosing a school for them, and the opportunities that come with attending that school. Still, we must go further than simple school choice. As charters expand, we must continue to advocate for effective teachers, teacher and administration longevity, academic intervention, special education support, college preparedness tutoring and mentoring… in both charter and traditional public schools. Every student should have the support they need to find their own path… regardless of the school they attend. We’ve got a long way to go.