As we celebrate National School Choice Week, I can't help but think of how a single choice changed the course my life and how differently things would have ended up for me had I not been given the chance to experience the transformative power of a high-quality education. But, at the same time, I can't help but think about the kids on my block, my fellow students in Newark's South Ward, who weren't afforded that very same opportunity - and the injustice that many of them faced being trapped in a persistently failing educational system with no way out.
It's those bright, talented kids - now adults, whose limitless potential was never realized - that motivate me to do this work and push me to fight for educational opportunity for our next generation. Every child in this country deserves access to a high-quality public education - no matter the block they're born on. It's the fundamental civil and human rights issue of our time.
Thankfully, through the hard work and dedication of thousands of advocates, educators, families, and elected leaders, we've made significant headway toward expanding public school choice and educational opportunity to more American students than ever before. Together, we've expanded access to high-performing public charters for millions of children - particularly children of color and those in low-income communities. We've helped raise educational standards, lift graduation rates to record highs, send more kids off to college, and narrow the achievement gap - to name a few.
Places like New Orleans, Washington state, Washington, D.C., and my hometown of Newark have taken the lead in investing in education opportunity for their students, and it's paying off more and more each year.
According to a 2012 Stanford University study, Newark ranked 2nd in both reading and math for the impact of charter school enrollment on students' average annual learning gains, with a total gain of 7.5 months per year in reading and 9 months per year in math.
When it comes to progress in New Orleans and Louisiana, there's so much to celebrate - not least of which is a new crop of Democratic education champions taking office at all levels throughout the state. Today, 95% of students in New Orleans attend a charter school and Louisiana's commitment to accountability means charters offer high-quality educational options for families. The percentage of New Orleans students attending a failing schools has dropped from 62% before Katrina to just 6% in 2014. The high school graduation has increased from 54% to 73% and college enrollment jumped from 37% to 59% between 2004 and 2014.
Over in Washington State, families and advocates are out in full force to protect their children's futures, campaigning fearlessly to enact a new public charter law that will permanently ensure that the 1,200 plus charter students will continue have access to expanded educational options. Similarly in Washington, D.C., families are clamoring for additional high-quality seats. In a recent poll, 83% of parents, agreed that in order to ensure DC remains an attractive place for families, that the city needed to both improve quality at DCPS schools and expand the top-performing public charter schools so more parents can choose the school that's best suited for their child.
This progress is phenomenal, and it's been my absolute privilege to see first-hand the precious souls whose lives have been touched and transformed through the power of education. But there's still plenty more to be done to protect and further the achievements of the past decade in order to ensure that this important work continues in communities across the country.
But let me be perfectly clear here - this isn't about the act of making a certain choice; it's about the power of opportunity and having a choice in the first place. I wouldn't dare to tell you whether your neighborhood public school or a public charter is a better fit for your child. I'm not here to advocate that we sacrifice one school or degrade one system for the other. What I am fighting for is the best possible public education with the richest set of options for all children, so that families are empowered to make the choices that are best for them - so that they aren't trapped in the same situation as most of my neighbors growing up.
The truth is we're all in this together, advocating for the same educational promise and opportunity that every American student deserves.
As School Choice Week winds down, I'm glad that we have the chance to lift up the important work of public school choice advocates across this country and their tireless devotion to our students. But we all know that this mission continues on well after this week's celebrations subside, so I look forward to working alongside each one of you to ensure that more kids in this country get to realize the power of opportunity and have a better shot at a brighter future through education.
Shavar Jeffries is the National President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a national education reform organization with 13 state chapters across the country. Learn more at www.dfer.org.