Imagine you’re an African American single mother working two jobs to make ends meet. Your mission in life is to provide a safe upbringing for your children, which includes access to a high-quality education.
All across Philadelphia, and in dozens of other cities in the United States, this is a realistic challenge. I spend the majority of my time meeting with families such as this, listening to the concerns of parents learning about the horrific school conditions into which kids are forced, and sensing the hopelessness of the situation. That’s because, unfortunately, for these vulnerable communities, the fight for a better education is met by powerful oppositions.
For these families, with limited resources, it’s difficult enough to engage with the education establishment. It is controlled by the teachers’ unions, which have long been on the front lines of the crusade against charter schools. By itself it is a formidable enough opponent to severely restrict the voices of the vulnerable.
But now, these families face attacks from an organization that should be by their side. The NAACP has become a forceful partner in the battle against charter schools, declaring for a moratorium on charters for the second year in a row. The NAACP’s mission is supposed to be to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all people and to eliminate race-based discrimination. When it comes to education it is doing the exact opposite. By opposing charters, the NAACP is holding back black people, starving them of the educational opportunity they deserve and setting far too many on a dangerous life path by forcing them into failing public schools.
For many families, charter schools are a lifeboat, and if the rope is cut, kids will drown in a life of despair.
So what are these families supposed to do? Well, for one thing, they now clearly understand the battle lines and should no longer be fooled into thinking the NAACP has their back. But they do have strong allies. The power of the families can be felt when we band together as a community and fight for what’s right.
That is what inspired me as a former school-bus aide to fight for better educational opportunities for my children and grandchildren — first as a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and now as the leader of Educational Opportunities for Families, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that harnesses the power of like-minded parents from across the city who believe that a child’s access to a high quality school should not be determined by his or her address. And these parents include anyone who is taking care of a child, whether it be grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or neighbors.
If parents in vulnerable communities like North Philadelphia are going to be successful in changing the direction of their kids’ lives, they must partner together. It would simply be impossible to create the kind of change we seek given the opposition we face unless that happens. And that means building consensus among diverse groups of parents with similar objectives: increasing awareness of school choice issues, educating them about the battle for the future of education, and supporting parents who are speaking up to education and political leaders.
It is these education and political leaders in Philadelphia and Harrisburg who continue to make it difficult for parents who just want the opportunity to send their kids to a good school. Instead, these powerful forces would rather keep the status quo where education opportunity is determined by zip code, which we know is a recipe for continued poverty and, worse, an accelerant for the school-to-prison pipeline that sets these communities back decades.
Our opponents are well-organized, well-funded, and have the resources to outlast us. They do not respect us either. They think we will eventually pick up our losses and go back to being quiet, accepting that a poor education is our families’ destiny. But what they don’t have is the passion and the tenacity of that single mother working two jobs whose only care in life is to provide their children with a better way forward. One of those may not win this war, but banded together, I like our chances.
Sylvia P. Simms, a former member of the School Reform Commission, is executive director of Educational Opportunities for Families. This piece is part of the Center for Education Reform’s Voices of Color, Voices of Opportunity series.