Education Reform Debate Misses The Point

The type of public school – traditional or charter – is not where we should be spending our energy.

02/13/2017 01:05 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2017

Are charter schools good or bad for low-income children of color? It’s a question that will come up a lot in an increasingly polarized political environment where a sitting Vice President of the United States needed to vote to break a tie over the confirmation of the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

It also happens to be the wrong question.

The type of public school – traditional or charter – is not where we should be spending our energy.

The right question to ask, particularly for public schools in low-income urban neighborhoods, is the following: Is my local public school, charter, traditional or some other variation, connected to neighborhood initiatives in housing and community wellness? Is there a larger revitalization strategy for the neighborhood that takes these essential pillars of a healthy neighborhood into account? In other words, is there a holistic strategy to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty?

According to Michael Sorrell and Gerald Britt, Jr., “Addressing the educational deficits of under-resourced communities is more complex than merely replacing personnel and implementing new plans. If we are truly sincere about fixing our schools, we must create an environment for our students where real learning can take place. This will only occur by taking aim against the largest barrier to a quality education. This necessitates acknowledging and combating the havoc that extreme and concentrated poverty plays in the learning process.”

We would argue that schools fail because neighborhoods fail, and to solve that problem we need neighborhood schools that are partnered with neighborhood revitalization efforts.

The Purpose Built Communities Model of holistic neighborhood transformation includes a cradle-to-college education pipeline, mixed-income housing, and community wellness facilities and services delivered through cross-sectoral partnerships and guided by a dedicated nonprofit “community quarterback” organization. Neighborhoods in 16 cities are now implementing this model for long-term change to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. Of the three components of the model, education, housing and community wellness, education is perhaps the most important.

Within the Purpose Built Communities national network there are both charters and traditional district schools engaging in innovative cross-sectoral partnerships to address the broader challenges faced by their students. What they all have in common is a high degree of site-based decision making and integration with simultaneous investments in housing and wellness.

Too often, people equate “charters” with “choice.” These terms are generally used interchangeably. In our model, we emphasize that the degree to which we support charters is tied inextricably to whether or not they are neighborhood-serving. This might seem like a small point, but it cuts to the core of what we think the problem is and how that problem is to be solved. School choice advocates argue that kids should not be forced to attend “failing” schools and therefore should be given alternative choices. In other words, failing schools is the problem to be solved. We would argue that schools fail because neighborhoods fail, and to solve that problem we need neighborhood schools that are partnered with neighborhood revitalization efforts that will create the conditions where children of all income levels prosper and thrive.

Some public school districts, like Atlanta Public Schools (APS), have started to look beyond schools to neighborhoods as a whole. APS recently created an affordable housing task force and has created new partnerships to deliver high quality instruction and wrap-around services in several schools in low-income neighborhoods. We may see similar innovations in other cities as school districts recognize that concentrated poverty is the greatest barrier for low-income children to receive a high quality education.

Local leadership from both the private and public sectors are necessary to change the conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has documented the “toxic stress” present in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Exposure to sources of toxic stress early in life can have a great impact on a child’s ability to learn as well as other long-term health, social and economic outcomes. Shonkoff says, “the consequences of toxic stress are among the most expensive problems society deals with. Prison is incredibly more expensive than early childhood programs. Economic dependence is much more expensive than people earning a living and paying taxes. Being healthy is much less expensive than paying for heart disease and diabetes and stroke. All of this is not only morally imperative, but it has huge financial cost implications.”

Local leadership from both the private and public sectors are necessary to change the conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. A healthy, safe neighborhood with an excellent public school – charter or traditional – can help lift children out of poverty. That is where all of our collective focus must be.

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