To the Emmy Award winning writers and producers of Abbott Elementary,
Congratulations! Your show and its backstory are an inspiration to the Black community. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that sometimes I’ve had to tune out because the subject matter was perpetuating false narratives about my community and it is no longer funny.
A recent episode spotlighted how top students were leaving Abbott Elementary and transferring to a charter school. While the storyline may seem entertaining and harmless, viewers were left with the perception that charter schools were individually choosing students to enroll in their schools, thus leaving district schools helpless.
This episode presents a teachable moment to clarify a common misconception about charters, especially in light of the midterm elections when politicians are creating mass confusion around school choice. First, the narrative of how the charter school system works is incorrect. By law students are picked by a blind lottery system. Second, the application process starts with a parent or guardian’s consent to apply to an alternative school.
Unfortunately, the narrative you aired diminishes the diligent vetting process parents go through when seeking better education options for their children; options that allow parents to cast a wider net versus limiting them to schools in their immediate neighborhoods.
This is no laughing matter. However, what is comical is how traditional public schools receive higher funding per student, and blame performance outcomes on funds leaving their schools and going to charters. Recent statistics show that the average charter school received approximately $2,730 less per student than the average district school. Meanwhile, most charters offer more instruction and better results - with less money.
There are many Black and Brown educators in communities, like Philly, who have experienced the brilliance in teaching and wanted to do more to have a greater impact. However, this reality only became possible when they opened their own charter schools. Charter school leaders of color are fighting to keep schools open, keep students safe, and give them equitable academic advancement. Misconceptions damage this progress, and our voices become muted by false perceptions.
Sadly, real education issues are overshadowed by political partisanship. Republicans and Democrats say they support charter schools, but for very different reasons. Republicans use charters to have autonomy to create schools that align with their principles on homogenized learning. Democrats want the autonomy to focus on improving public schools by focusing on academic improvements that traditional schools have failed to create. So, as much as we may not agree with our conservative charter allies, we do agree that having the autonomy to run a school and teach what we feel best is better than allowing students of color to remain in the school-to-prison pipeline.
This season, as you put pen to paper, here are a few topics to consider: How about shedding light on how both political parties are monopolizing real education issues to get voted into office, while leaving children in the dark ages of learning? There are true but amusing stories of elected officials publicly shunning charter schools to receive campaign dollars from labor unions, while secretly sending their kids to public charter schools. Or how about the school district leaders and representatives who fight to keep poor performing schools open, but will only send their kids to high performing, elite private schools?
When incorporating public issues like charter schools in future storylines, I hope you consider using your platform to illuminate the true education battles we fight everyday. The only thing standing in the way of quality public schools in our communities is poor leadership that refuses to put our children’s needs before their own interests. And that is no laughing matter.
To take a queue from Sheryl Lee Ralph and Dianne Reeves - Black and Brown charter school leaders are an “endangered species, but we sing no victim’s song.” We fight to exist with our own independence, challenging the status quo and the systemic racism that has far too long left our children behind and forgotten our value.
We are schools that deserve to exist, without bias, false narratives and manipulative support. We want to be heard, supported and free to build and expand in our communities for the advancement of our most valuable resource - our children!
Jay Artis-Wright is the Executive Director of The Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, an organization dedicated to promoting public charter schools and chartering to advance and protect the right of self-determination for Black and Brown people.