CREDIT: Green Dot Public Schools
Ms. Hampton, English Language Arts teacher at Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School discusses text with students.

The raft of proposed legislation in the state Legislature seeking to limit or cap charter schools all share one disturbing element: the bills ignore the impact charters have on the students they serve.

headshot of author

Michael Phillips

I know for certain that a charter school changed my life. It was 2004 and I had taken a chance a few months earlier and submitted a lottery application to attend the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona.

I was filled with anticipation — so much so that every day I checked our rust-colored mailbox in the small apartment I shared with my mother in South El Monte. I didn’t know a lot — just that this new charter school said it was focused on educating students for the 21st century. This was done by providing students with both academic and entrepreneurial knowledge combined with core knowledge of the visual and performing arts.

When I brought my mother the application, I remember her saying, “Is this a private school? I want you to go to a good high school, but you know we can’t afford it.”

I explained to her that it was a not a private school, but rather a charter school, all of which are public and tuition-free. Before that year I had never heard of a charter school either. Where I grew up, nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, my neighborhood was plagued with gang violence and drugs and the local schools were not the greatest.

The day I finally received a letter from the School of Arts and Enterprise, I raced into my room and tore at the envelope, feeling a mix of nervousness, excitement and fear. When I read “Congratulations and welcome to the School of Arts and Enterprise,” I was overwhelmed with happiness. The thought of my education had never thrilled me this way.

Our campus was a renovated warehouse, we lacked a proper cafeteria and sport teams, but my charter school felt magical to me. Maybe it was the small class sizes, the extra supports, the unique curriculum, or the teachers who truly believed in us. What I do know is that it was a place where diversity was embraced, where having a lot of energy didn’t classify me as a disruptive student and where being outspoken was considered positive.

My new school was so great that it didn’t matter that I spent four hours a day on public transportation getting to school and back home. For the first time in my life I was able to see my potential first hand. All of a sudden, my future was no longer an abstract, I yearned for a college degree and a career that fulfilled and challenged me. My goals felt tangible and I knew I was working towards them every single day, in every class.

I now work for a charter school network. As a staffer at Green Dot Public Schools (a unionized charter network), I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share the stories of our students, schools and educators.

This year I met a student at Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School who, as I did, commutes a great distance to attend the school because of her unsatisfactory experiences at her neighborhood schools. Before attending a Green Dot school she felt like school wasn’t important. But her mindset changed when she attended Ánimo Pat Brown school; she eventually worked her way from failing all of her classes to getting As.

My charter school education has helped me accomplish many goals in life, including being one of the few in my neighborhood to attend college and the first person in my family to earn a college degree.

A single choice changed the trajectory of my life, so when I hear that future students may be robbed of their choice to attend a charter school, it’s heartbreaking. In all aspects of life, society encourages choices and options, yet when it comes to one’s future and education the idea of choice is damning — but it doesn’t have to be.

By now we know that when it comes to education one size does not fit all, so why does a family’s zip code still determine the quality of education they receive? If we truly care about students and have their best interest in mind, families should be free to choose the education option that best suits their child.

It is essential that our elected leaders remember this — and remember families like mine.

•••

Michael Phillips is a staff writer at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management organization. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Ava 6 months ago6 months ago

    Charters have served their purpose and have made schools better. They forced schools to compete for students; however, do the research and you’ll see that many of these charters do not provide equal access to all students, don’t deliver on promised results, and are segregated. Many wealthier parents are using them to benefit their children and communities only. Like Magnet schools that were created to give opportunities to low-income minorities into “better” schools, charters are … Read More

    Charters have served their purpose and have made schools better. They forced schools to compete for students; however, do the research and you’ll see that many of these charters do not provide equal access to all students, don’t deliver on promised results, and are segregated. Many wealthier parents are using them to benefit their children and communities only. Like Magnet schools that were created to give opportunities to low-income minorities into “better” schools, charters are being used in the same capacity. Look at LAUSD’s Magnet schools. They are filled with privileged students like at my school. Most students bussed in aren’t poor. Do the research on greatschools.net, which was created by charters btw and compare the data. You’ll see that many of these schools aren’t fulfilling their promise to the community that they’re in.

    LAUSD is the prime example of waste, fraud, and corruption. Whoever controls it and right now Corporate Beutner is in charge, controls education in the most populated state in the world. I know, I’m a teacher, a semi-administrator, and a muckraker.

    Please do the research. The truth will set you free.

  2. Paula Meyer 6 months ago6 months ago

    If you find yourself falling for this promotion, please consider taking a course in critical inquiry.

  3. el 6 months ago6 months ago

    No kid should have to travel four hours a day to get an education that fits their needs. This is a compelling anecdote, but how is it useful in helping us create a system that meets the needs of every student in California? There are public schools with small class sizes and with unique curricula. There would be more if we funded them adequately to do this. There are no rules in ed code that prevent districts … Read More

    No kid should have to travel four hours a day to get an education that fits their needs.

    This is a compelling anecdote, but how is it useful in helping us create a system that meets the needs of every student in California?

    There are public schools with small class sizes and with unique curricula. There would be more if we funded them adequately to do this. There are no rules in ed code that prevent districts from having differentiated schools to target specific career pathways and interests. In some regions, transferring to different public schools is fairly easy. We could make it easier – especially if we had the money to have some excess capacity so students can make choices.

    There’s nothing in this article that suggests that “charter” is magic or what about charters can’t be duplicated within regular public school districts.

    The whole point of charters was supposed to be to try new ideas that can be duplicated and replicated back to traditional public schools so that all students can benefit, not just a few.

    Replies

    • Michael Phillips 6 months ago6 months ago

      Thank you for your comment. Traveling for so long was not ideal, but the result was a better education and exposure to the arts, two things I knew I wouldn’t have received at neighboring traditional schools. You mentioned districts having differentiated schools to target specific career paths and interests; they are called magnets. While charter school enrollment is determined by a randomized lottery, the magnet enrollment process is much more complex utilizing a point system … Read More

      Thank you for your comment. Traveling for so long was not ideal, but the result was a better education and exposure to the arts, two things I knew I wouldn’t have received at neighboring traditional schools. You mentioned districts having differentiated schools to target specific career paths and interests; they are called magnets. While charter school enrollment is determined by a randomized lottery, the magnet enrollment process is much more complex utilizing a point system and competitive application requirements.

      I agree that all public schools should receive adequate funding, including charters because they are public, too. Many charters have created models designed to be replicable by district schools, like Green Dot. There are a couple of elements that remain more difficult for districts to replicate, given how difficult it is to evaluate or let go of ineffective teachers (they get shuffled to schools like the ones I was zoned to), and given the lack of accountability there is for district schools to serve all students well and with high expectations. Both of these elements are present in many charter schools across the state, but are often met with such intense pushback that districts remain frozen.

      All this to say, the system has failed countless students. As the first person in my family to attain a college degree, I know it failed my parents and countless others in my family, but a cap on charter schools will not solve the problem.

  4. Tara Bayne 6 months ago6 months ago

    I’m a parent to two new school age children. I observed the schools in my area extensively before deciding I did not want my child’s first public school experience to be in an overcrowded classroom that had an endless cycle of kids and overworked teachers who didn’t want to be there. I found a local charter for my children and it’s the best thing that could have happened. My Kindergartener is reading and writing close … Read More

    I’m a parent to two new school age children. I observed the schools in my area extensively before deciding I did not want my child’s first public school experience to be in an overcrowded classroom that had an endless cycle of kids and overworked teachers who didn’t want to be there. I found a local charter for my children and it’s the best thing that could have happened.
    My Kindergartener is reading and writing close to full paragraphs. He’s doing math that I’m not even sure I understand. He’s using words like accountability, perseverance and understands what they mean. I could care less about statistics: Look at the actual students and families these charters are helping. I admit charters are not for everyone. But I wish there were more available to show the good they are doing for our kids’ education and future contributions to the community.

    Replies

    • Michael Phillips 6 months ago6 months ago

      Thank you for reading my piece. I’m thankful for school choice because I know the impact my charter school has had on my life and the positive impact charter schools have on countless students.

  5. Replies

    • Michael Phillips 6 months ago6 months ago

      Thank you for your comment Caroline. Green Dot serves the most vulnerable students, often they come to us from traditional schools far below grade level and not on a path to college. Students grow and thrive at our schools and graduate prepared for college, leadership and life. I’d love for you to meet one of them 🙂

      https://blog.greendot.org/how-school-culture-helped-this-student-academically/

      • CarolineSF 6 months ago6 months ago

        That fake response doesn’t address a single one of the points in the commentary I posted. The heart of the matter is that charter schools harm public schools and the children in them — no matter how sophisticated the billionaire-funded PR promoting them is.

  6. Kimberly Lemmon 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for publishing this article. I am a teacher at a charter school in Adelanto, CA, and many of the students in my school come from similar circumstances as the writer. I know for a fact that our school has made a huge difference in their lives, as well as the lives of their families. So often I read such negative information or opinions about charter schools, on this site and others, … Read More

    Thank you for publishing this article. I am a teacher at a charter school in Adelanto, CA, and many of the students in my school come from similar circumstances as the writer. I know for a fact that our school has made a huge difference in their lives, as well as the lives of their families.
    So often I read such negative information or opinions about charter schools, on this site and others, and it was extremely encouraging to me to read this article and see a positive view of charter schools that shows the true impact they can have on the lives of students!

    Replies

    • Michael Phillips 6 months ago6 months ago

      Thank you for your kind words, Kimberly. Though it is disheartening to see so much misinformation and negativity cast at charters, I have to remember that those who believe those things have never set foot inside of a charter school, nor have they visited the communities they serve or met the students and their families. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of countless students in Adelanto.

  7. tom 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to write that personal and positive account of your charter school experience. Too often charters get maligned by the powerful unions who have conflicts of interest, and no matter what they say during strikes, seems to put the interests of adults ahead of kids. Sure charters need some oversight but academically they have been shown to be as good or better than traditional public schools. … Read More

    Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to write that personal and positive account of your charter school experience. Too often charters get maligned by the powerful unions who have conflicts of interest, and no matter what they say during strikes, seems to put the interests of adults ahead of kids.
    Sure charters need some oversight but academically they have been shown to be as good or better than traditional public schools. As important, once in a while we hear about charters being a great deal less expensive to get the same results. Doesn’t that sound good at this point in time – maybe you can comment on that?

  8. isaac abdul haqq 6 months ago6 months ago

    Mr. Phillips ignores some sad truths about his old charter school. 81% are below standard in math. Its students test in the 11th percentile on the SAT. His alma mater was approved by the state, not cash strapped Pomona Unified, which outperforms his old charter on both metrics. Warm feelings are no substitute failure. When failure is the only option, how is that a choice?

    Replies

    • juanamarro 5 months ago5 months ago

      I see those numbers as being a consequence of the fact that charter schools are only permitted in the worst school districts. So of course they will be “below standard”, just as the horrible schools they replaced.
      The key question is do they deliver a better education than what was previously offered to the same families.