The charter school movement has long been controversial, and criticism has risen recently over a number of schools that have not been performing as expected. However, the yearly National Alliance for Public Charter Schools conference, held between June 30th and July 3rd in Washington, DC, proved yet again that the movement is alive and well in spite of its critics.
Undoubtedly, a highlight of the conference was the keynote address, delivered by Armando Christian Perez -- also known as the international pop superstar Pitbull. While most of his fans know him for his dancefloor hits, Christian Perez is also a passionate supporter of the charter school system, in large part due to his hardscrabble upbringing. He is personally invested in it as well -- three of his children are currently enrolled in charter schools, and he is personally backing a Miami based charter, the Sports Leadership and Management (SLAM) school.
But perhaps the most emotional moment was the induction of Lisa Graham Keegan into the Charter Schools Hall of Fame. Keegan, who recently came out with an excellent book, Simple Choices: Thoughts on choosing environments that support who your child is meant to be, has long been a pioneer in promoting choice for students and parents.
As Christian Perez said in his keynote, "we believe in freedom and charter schools give parents the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children." There is no better description of Keegan's arguments in Simple Choices. In telling the story of her life, she brings the reader on an inspiring journey through the education reform process in the U.S. -- a process in which she has been a leading protagonist, as a legislator, an administrator, and a constant and tireless advocate.
Keegan is entering the Hall of Fame because she has dedicated her entire life to ensuring that individuals can make their own choices, in an ongoing battle for the right for millions of Americans to choose excellent schools. In what is now a rarity in her Republican Party, Lisa is a conservative who believes that freedom to choose should apply to all aspects of individual life. As she writes, "I am obsessed with allowing people to be who they are by insisting on their free choices... it is important to me to be consistent about that."
Keegan has carried that philosophy with her through a number of roles. She served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995, where she helped to pass what is still one of the most comprehensive charter school bills in the country. From 2005 to 2000 she was the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and further encouraged the expansion of charters. Since then, she has been involved with numerous charter advocacy organizations, such as the Arizona Charter School Association and National School Choice Week, as a founder, chair, and participant. In the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, "Lisa is a rarity among politicos, not only because she has retained a sense of humor about herself, but also because she has created a style of conservative activism that actually produced change."
Simple Choices highlights the fact that even though the benefits of variety and choice are generally well understood, when it comes to education, the approach is still one-size-fits-all. But where the book truly succeeds is in avoiding a drawn out laundry list of policies, regulations, and legislation in favor of a more engaging discussion of the "simple choices" that she and her family have made over the past several decades. By describing her own personal and family challenges, she emphasizes her belief in "the inherent value of each unique child and how their talents can flourish under the leadership of uniquely talented teachers."
Keegan uses her biography to demonstrate the ways in which the education system doesn't provide children with the structure to realize their varied potential. To her, choice is the key for the system to provide quality education to everyone, regardless of gender, income or race.
What she understands is that choice matters because without it, parents are limited in where they can send their children and, thus, are trapped by the circumstances of their surroundings. While American education is facing a number of challenges -- greater access, better quality, and faster modernization -- Keegan remains steadfastly optimistic that greater choice can have an immediate, positive impact.
For some of us who have known her for years, our only wish would be to hear more stories about her positions as education reformer, her two elections to Superintendent, and the nuts and bolts of her other policy work. From my perspective, as well, the delegations she led to Chile and Argentina to promote school choice -- which I had the privilege to join -- would make compelling additions to her narrative. Hopefully, that will all come in her second book!