Charter schools can help underserved students realize the American Dream

Miami Herald

More than a half century ago, Martin Luther King proclaimed that he had a dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This dream, an American dream fueled the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. But, today, we must ask ourselves: Have we moved closer to achieving this dream in the ensuing years?

The answer is complex, but it should start with a discussion on providing educational opportunities to all children, regardless of the color of their skin, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation and the like. More precisely, this means providing educational opportunities to all children regardless of their Zip code, who their parents or guardians are or their family’s social or economic station. For too long, America’s educational system has failed the poor and the underserved because it focused on the location of the children’s homes and not their academic needs. It’s imperative that we change this.

For years, non-educational reasons have dictated policy that has bound the very neediest of students to failing schools. Children have been judged on their Zip code, their neighborhood or their family’s income. Over time, the dreams of poor and underserved children were frustrated by their lack of knowledge, basic skills and experience. The introduction of educational choice has begun to provide additional options to parents who, until recently, had little or no other options than to attend a failing public school in their home Zip code. Educational options have been heartily embraced by parents of more than 300,000 students in Florida now being educated by public charter schools. Indeed, of those 300,000 students who currently attend Florida’s public charter schools, more than two-thirds are minorities.

Parents, who presumably want the best for their children, should have the right to decide where and what kind of school their children attend without being limited by the few options in their neighborhood or by a lesser socioeconomic level. More important, parents should not have to abide by the dictates of educational bureaucrats or other adults who lack sufficient interest in their children’s future.

Parental empowerment is an exercise of freedom. Parents understand the quality and level of education their child achieves is the major determining factor in their child’s ability to hold a job, earn a living, and be otherwise successful in today’s America. The Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, found that the poverty rate of people without a high-school degree is more than 20 percent. That same rate drops to under 5 percent for those fortunate enough to have a four-year college degree.

According to Florida’s Department of Education, charter public schools, as an educational option for minority students, have delivered far in excess than their traditional public school counterparts. More specifically, the Department’s most recent Report on Student Achievement in Florida’s Charter Schools confirms as follows:

“The achievement gap section of the report contains data that are used to analyze the gap between white students and African-American students and white students and Hispanic students in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. This section of the report includes 22 separate comparisons of achievement gaps. The achievement gap was lower for charter school students in 20 of the 22 comparisons while the achievement gap was lower for traditional public schools in 2 of the 22 comparisons.”

It is indisputable that school choice is delivering on the promise to educate the neediest among us, and parents continue to exercise their freedom of choice to enroll their children in public charter schools. In the exercise of choice, decisions made by parents should be supported by having the funding follow the child. In point of fact, high quality public charter schools do more with less, close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all students. This makes charter public schools a wise investment for Florida.

In the face of the success of charter public schools, local school boards have pressed their government-imposed advantage by taxing more, protecting adult interests, and have refused to share these new funds with the public school students who attend charter schools. Let’s not repeat history by having some students treated differently than others. Isn’t the safety of all public school students worthy of equal protection?

We must continue the fight for those most in need. They too, must realize the promise of the American Dream and it starts with education. This is what makes parental empowerment and educational choice the civil rights issue of today.

Ed J. Pozzuoli is CEO of Tripp Scott law firm, based in Fort Lauderdale.