School Choice Advocate Responds to “Go Public” Campaign

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My son and I doing a homeschool math lesson. Courtesy photo.

My son and I doing a homeschool math lesson. Courtesy photo.

Inga Munsinger Cotton by Megan Ortiz at www.mean-baby.comParents, you can send your kids to charter schools and still be a good person. The same goes for parents who homeschool or send their kids to private schools. The responsible thing to do is to find the situation that works best for your child’s education, then look for ways to make the system better for all children.

I have felt this way for a long time. A year ago I wrote, “[N]o one should judge a mother too harshly for the things she does for her children.”

Recent events have re-focused my attention: the launch of Go Public, a local booster campaign.

Go Public is a collaboration among the 15 independent school districts in Bexar County and presents itself as “a campaign to generate better awareness of the facts about Bexar County’s independent public school districts and the wonderful, life-changing things that happen in our schools every day.”

[Read more: “The Secret is Out: ‘Go Public!’ Campaign to Promote Public School Success”.]

Go Public touts data about graduation and college enrollment. Similarly, SAISD Foundation Board Chairman Carri Baker Wells, at a re-branding event for Centro San Antonio, recently shared the news that San Antonio ISD’s dropout rate for 2013-14 is likely to drop below 10 percent.

In a recent story on the Rivard Report, “Inner City School Success: San Antonio’s Best-Kept Secret” Director Robert Rivard noted that the audience seemed surprised by this news; I encourage the SAISD Foundation and Go Public to be transparent about how they reached these numbers.

charter_schools_no_shameIf your children are going to a local public school, and they are happy and thriving and learning there, then I am happy for all of you, and you should stay there. The public school districts in Go Public currently serve most of the schoolchildren in Bexar County, so I welcome news about their successes and improvements. What I don’t like is the undercurrent of shame in the Go Public campaign.

The website invites visitors to sign a Go Public Pledge: “I pledge to Go Public with my love for Bexar County’s public schools.”

I would never ever sign a pledge like that. My top priority is doing what’s best for my kids.

The Go Public campaign doesn’t say it out loud, but implies that parents who choose to opt out of the public school system are somehow harming the system and the community.

Back in August, Slate published an article that put the shame factor front-and-center: “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”, by Allison Benedikt. The title pretty much says it all. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Dish, has excerpts of various indignant responses: “Private Schools Aren’t The Problem”, by Patrick Appel for example.

The best rebuttal I’ve read is “If You Think Giving a Child Poorer Options is Good for All Children, You Are a Bad Person: Not Actually a Manifesto,” by Kate Clancy, Context and Variation (Scientific American), September 4, 2013. Clancy raves about her daughter’s Reggio Emilia-based, university-affiliated private school. Clancy sees herself as her daughter’s caretaker:

That is why this value judgment about public versus private education, a thinly veiled iteration of the Mommy Wars, is wrong. Children can’t give consent, they live their lives at the whims of their caretakers. One of the reasons kids often develop picky eating habits, or push back on bedtime, or misbehave at school comes from their trying to find some way, any way, to get out from under the oppression of being a constant second class citizen. Once you see how the author’s whole argument is that we should improve education at the cost of kids, it becomes ridiculous.

Clancy says our goal should be to “lift up all kids and give them better educational experiences”:

Rather than see my role as my kid’s ambassador as one that puts her in situations for supposed benefit of all kids but not necessarily optimal for her, I would rather make the kid ambassador job easier for all the other parents who want access to the right education for their kids.

Clancy has identified the way forward: helping more parents get informed and get access to the education that suits their kids. By contrast, the Go Public campaign tries to get families to focus only on their local public school district. As I have learned from my own experience, sometimes the local public school is not a good fit, which is why I am homeschooling my son this year, and have applied for enrollment at a charter school for next year. I am my son’s caretaker, and looking out for him is my responsibility and my pleasure. Parents should not feel shame about looking at alternatives to their local public school.

My son and I doing a homeschool math lesson. Courtesy photo.

My son and I doing a homeschool math lesson. Courtesy photo.

There’s another aspect to the Go Public campaign: it encourages parents to settle for the school they live closest to. I am aware that my family and I have certain advantages. In 2011, my family moved from a rental in San Antonio ISD to a house we bought in Alamo Heights ISD. When things went sideways for my son at public school, I was able to keep working while homeschooling because I have specialized training—I’m an attorney—and I have a strong family support network. I could choose to go back to work full time and pay private school tuition, like many of our former neighbors in Monte Vista, and some of our neighbors in Alamo Heights, too.

What about the families who can’t afford to buy a house in a different neighborhood, or pay private school tuition? Tuition-free, open-enrollment public charter schools may be the best hope for those families to get their kids into college. The Go Public campaign is hurting needy families if it discourages them from applying to public charter schools. As Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said at the BASIS San Antonio dedication ceremony, “Your zip code should not decide your fate.”

If the Go Public campaign stifles the flow of information about school choice and traps some low-income families in underperforming schools, then it is not serving the public good.

There is a growing community of families and supporters in San Antonio who believe that the rapid expansion of charter schools offers the best chance to help the most kids get ready for college and the careers of the future. Expanding school choice options for families does not hurt existing public school districts; on the contrary, the schools of choice may introduce new ideas to the community and spur improvements at existing schools. I believe that by spreading the word about charter schools and other education choices, I am helping families and improving the system as a whole. There are lots of other ways to help, and I encourage everyone to work together to lift up all families.

Parents, please don’t sign any pledges that limit your ability to be the best possible caretaker for your kids. Instead, educate yourself about the wide range of education options available to your family: public school districts, public charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, and more. Choose the situation that will give your kids the best possible education, and don’t feel ashamed about it.


Inga Munsinger Cotton is a mom, a lawyer, and a geek. She blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms, a resource for parents who want to learn more about charter schools and get involved in education reform locally. You can follow her writing on Facebook at SACharterMoms, on Twitter at @SACharterMoms, and on Pinterest at sachartermoms.


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19 thoughts on “School Choice Advocate Responds to “Go Public” Campaign

  1. Inga, Well said. Why should a parent’s choice for better education for their child ever be questioned? Kids are unique, schools are unique, and parent situations are unique. I am blessed to live in one of the BEST school districts in San Antonio, and my children are zoned to some of the most well respected public schools in San Antonio. However, we choose to send my middle schooler to a charter school and my high schooler to a magnet school far away from where we live. And we make LOTS of sacrifices (time, money, effort) to do this. That being said, the choice we made for our children (notice different children within the same family, different choices) is not the right choice for other kids. Most of our neighbors’ kids are thriving in their local schools, some go to private schools, some are home schooled, and some go to charter or magnet schools. Different kids, different families, different schools. Viva la choice!

  2. Thank you, Inga, for articulating precisely how many of us contemporary homeschool parents feel: that our education choice is one on a range of possibilities from which we may sample over the course of our family’s education journey. I often describe the “walls” between homeschool, public, or private school are becoming more permeable. For many people, that feels uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and threatening.

    Yet it’s happening here in San Antonio and elsewhere. Attempts to shame people about it isn’t going to stop it.

    We have become a culture so caught up in judgment that we have become conditioned to see each decision different than our own as a condemnation of our choices and work rather than merely as an opportunity for others. That sounds like what is happening with this campaign, which is unfortunate.

  3. I would ask the same question of you as I did of the reporter that went to the Great Hearts meeting: will you respond or comment on the NY Times article about the lack of diversity of some charters. You are one of the proponents of Choose to Succeed, but there does seem to be a problem with their diversity. Are you saying it is OK to send your kids to a school that is not diverse in a community that is over 50% Hispanic?

    • I don’t mind responding. The NY Times article was blatantly false. The BASIS San Antonio students population is very diverse, and may even be majority Hispanic. In Washington DC, the BASIS students are majority AA.

  4. This is the first I hear about the Go Public campaign but my view is that the entire system should be geared toward raising the level of education across the board so that there are options for all. Not every child needs Pre-K for SA, but it will help improve the starting point for the public schools, and this is a benefit for the educational system as a whole. By the same token, not everyone will be ready for the accelerated curriculum the new charter schools are offering. However, they do fill a gap that our districts, particularly SAISD, are not addressing. In terms of urban renewal, this allows families to move anywhere in the city and still provide their children with an affordable first-rate education. We were drawn to Southtown from Castle Hills by Bonham Academy and moved our family here to be part of the community we grew to love. This would not have been possible had Bonham not been an in-district charter. As our children grow, we have look ahead to what SAISD has to offer at the middle school level and beyond. Bonham has wonderful dedicated teachers and administrators, but they and their students have been let down in their plans for development by the incompetence of SAISD’s board, with the assistance of our local preservation activists. The middle school itself is strong due to the efforts of dedicated teachers and parents working creatively with the limited resources they are provided. But what about high school? Unless I am mistaken, even the best students who have maximized the resources available at SAISD high schools can find themselves less than optimally ready for competitive colleges. I am reminded of the successful Jefferson graduate who was featured in your KLRN program and found herself unprepared for the level at which she was expected to keep up at her university. The “good” schools are Young Women’s Leadership Academy and maybe the IB program at Burbank. But what about everybody else? What if you have boys? We have the means to send our kids to private schools, but the average ones are not that much better than the public schools, and the elite ones can have a social environment we don’t want for our kids. They are also extremely expensive and preclude some of the travel and cultural experiences we consider part of our children’s education. BASIS, Great Hearts and others to come will allow families to stay and contribute to the communities they want to live in while not short-changing their children’s education. Rather than spending money on propaganda to guilt families into staying in their local public schools, the districts need to improve their own schools. The charter schools will hopefully have the secondary effect of raising the local bar so that public schools can aspire to meet their level of education, benefiting the entire community.

  5. At Go Public, we applaud Ms. Cotton for being a strong advocate for her son and making him her top priority, but our aim and intent could not be farther from her speculations. There is no implied shame in asking people to love their Bexar County public schools. We believe all parents and community members, even those who send their children to charters or private schools, can still love and support the traditional public schools system. Far from “stifling the flow of information about school choice,” the aim of Go Public is to spread positive information about our 15 public school districts in Bexar County. We recognize that we haven’t done the best job of telling our story and as a result, many of the things people have come to associate with public education are negative. Although we know public schools (or any other schools for that matter) are not perfect, the narrative that public schools are failing is just not true. It’s our job to change that perception. We know our teachers and our kids our doing awesome and inspiring work because we see it every day. They do it in spite of the noise going on around them, including the negative views that some people hold about their abilities, their communities and their districts. How great would it be if they heard people saying good things about their school for a change? We need to lift up our schools, not tear them down. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have a front row seat to what goes on in our classrooms. It is incumbent upon us to open those doors and show them. Whether people decide to enroll their children in public schools or not, it is in everyone’s best interest that public schools succeed. Go Public is about engaging with your local school through volunteering, mentoring and even helping to improve it, as well as by sharing the positive work that occurs every single day in public school classrooms.

  6. We’ve done it all, ourselves. Public, private, homeschool, and now charter. We’ve done them all because we have always searched for what was best for each of our kids. It has sometimes been a year by year decision, based on what our needs or options were. That’s the nice thing…options! But, there is still PLENTY of room, and a very big need, for more of those options. It should be ‘our’ choice.
    Our kids, our cities, states, country…is suffering sadly and I truly feel a big part of that is due to a poor education system. Enough is enough. My family and I care less about the ridiculous politics and care more about giving our kids a fightening chance at being successful and happy so that they can help make this world a better place.

  7. As a 15-year veteran teacher at a magnet high school, I know from experience that the quality of charter schools varies greatly. I can tell you some horror stories: a girl from a charter school with 8th grade algebra credit who subsequently failed it at our school and also at summer school, a boy with a 100 GPA at a charter who struggles to make Cs after transferring to a public school many consider mediocre, a girl from a private Christian school who was 14 and had never heard of DNA. Studies of charter schools with populations similar to public schools show that most public schools outperform charters on standardized tests and graduation rates. One reason some charters do well is the ability to “kick out” those who won’t do the work. Public schools don’t have that option. Before you apply for a charter, ask about its teacher turnover. Some are notoriously bad–they replace the ones who leave with inexperienced teachers who burn out quickly when asked to fulfill the responsibilities of not just the classroom, but the running of the school. Do not assume charter schools are better. Do your research.

  8. One of the points of the movement to support public schools is that schools need engaged, active parents.
    In city after city, the shift toward “choice” has led the engaged parents to withdraw their students from good schools (usually for charters, but also private), leading to an overall decrease in parental participation and financial contributions (bake sales etc.) for the public school. The parents who stay in the public school are more likely to be single parents, more likely to work 2 jobs, and more likely to lack college education, MORE likely to receive food stamps and LESS likely to spend those food stamps on the right foods. Struggling parents, the ones whose students could benefit the most from a charter school, rarely sign up for a charter school. College educated middle-class parents, though, they always sign up.
    Over several years, the public school gets less parental support and input because, again, the most engaged parents left. Then the public school becomes worse, with administrators who are out of touch, teachers who have a hard time connecting with the remaining parents and less time for anything, because there are less people willing to volunteer for even 30 minutes.
    When that happens, parents can look at the formerly-good school and say “yes, the right choice is to avoid that school and do whatever I can to help my own family.”
    It takes a lot more work to fix a bad school than to maintain a good one. Bad high schools are referred to as “dropout factories,” and their students are more likely to commit crimes, less likely to be able to support themselves with a career (which means increased tax money spent on prisons and public assistance).
    So the problem is a societal one. It is about the community, not about a particular family. We as members of a society need good public schools. Sure, from a personal perspective a private school might seem like the best option. But like anything, it is more complicated than that. Providing the best for our own children includes protecting them in broader ways: a child can get a high quality private education, then grow up to have a good job but an increased tax burden because we spend more money on prisons than on education; or, in a more extreme case, the child could simply get mugged by a public school dropout. I argue that those phenomena are connected. No one is an island.
    (That being said, no, I do not consider charter and private school parents to be bad people!)

  9. By the way, research by Orfield and Gandara at the Civil Rights Project shows that people who move their kids out of underperforming schools are just as likely to (inadvertently) move them into charter schools that also underperform. And on average, charter schools in a given city are not any better than the public schools (half are better! But half are worse, sometimes much worse). Of course, attentive parents will move their kids again… and the same problem repeats, as the most engaged parents leave the school, seeking what is best for their own kid. In every charter city, you can find bad schools that are completely full! They get paid to teach the children of parents who often lack college or possibly even high school education. If you ask the parents, they will tell you the school is “great,” because that’s what the charter school’s salesperson told them.

  10. I don’t believe that this is or should be an “either or” issue. Community members, parents and non-parents should work to improve education according to their abilities AND it should not be at the cost of the kids. Perhaps you’ll find here, a few more “ands” for the conversation.

    Full disclosure: we’ve chosen an academically rigorous charter school to re-engage our bright child who was bored and disengaging – he is energized and challenged rising to a position of ownership of his own education. Our younger child is still well served in our neighborhood (magnet) elementary.

    Should both children eventually exit the ISD, that would change our role from parent to community member, but not eliminate what we believe to be our responsibility to contribute to the education of the community children in terms of our resources (time, talents, and taxes.

    As such, we work to stay informed and vote on city, county, ISD, state, and national issues. We have volunteered on community improvement boards, and we support our neighborhood (and extended family members and friends) school fundraising efforts. The law provides for our property taxes collected to go to the city, county, ISD, and state coffers to be divided for the common good, predominately for education, as determined by the laws created by our elected officials. While 70-80% of the funding allocated by these lawmakers for each child’s education comes out of those coffers to fund my child’s enrollment in our charter school of choice, 20-30% remains for the common good. Time – done, talents – done, and funds – done.

  11. Great article- my child did not thrive in Alamo Heights schools either. If you are interested in sending your child to a charter school, please consider Great Hearts Monte Vista. Open enrollment is happening NOW. Last day to be considered for the 2014-2015 school year is December 5, 2013. It will be a lottery, so there is no harm in applying. Be an advocate for your child! You don’t need to tolerate public schools any longer! Bexar County public schools are threatened by the mass exodus to charter schools. Of course they had to start a marketing campaign! An example of more money being taken out of classrooms and away from students. Shame on YOU, Bexar County Go Public Campaign. Keep your car magnets and get back to educating the students left in your schools.

    • Griffin, your comment was offensive to me, a Bexar County public teacher and parent of 3 publicly-educated children.

      I applaud the effort of public schools to band together and tell their stories. As I stated in my previous post, not all charter schools are good schools. Don’t be fooled by their marketing campaigns.

  12. I truly appreciate this article. As a parent of a KIPP Camino charter school student, I have seen first hand how a school with high standards for its students, teachers and parents can flip a stereotypical inner city population upside down and bring kids, including my own, into a world of advanced academics that is awe inspiring. My son received his preschool education from a cooperative Montessori/culturally diversified private school called The Circle School. Here he was given such individualized learning attention that once he entered public school, we quickly learned he was a grade advanced and not being challenged which led to some disengagement, causing frustration with the teachers at his school. After meeting with the teachers year after year and hitting wall after wall, we decided we’d look into KIPP Academy. The philosophy of working hard and acting as a team with the school appealed to our family. It’s hard work no doubt, but the school doesn’t ask us to do anything they’re not willing to do with us. My son is scoring straight A’s in almost every subject, lives math and science and has close relationships with all his teachers, whom he’s not afraid to call after hours for help. That’s the choice I’ve made for my kid’s education. Best one yet. And I believe all parents and their children should have access to that choice.

  13. I homeschool my 4 kids because all of them have special needs not being met in the local public schools in one way or another. I support the Go Public initiative. Charter schools can and do kick out any kids that perform badly or require accommodations. Obviously, they would have to in order to have the “100% graduation” rate so many tout, especially when the local neighborhood school doesn’t have the same rate. Charter schools are simply a way to privatize schools and make money for a small group of investors without actually providing a better product.

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