OPINION: Parents don’t consider charter schools political – why do politicians?

Rickea Jackson is a junior at Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA), a charter school that’s one of the highest-performing schools in Detroit. In addition to being a standout student, she’s also one of the best high school basketball players in the country, ranked as the No. 9 prospect in all of America by ESPN.

When it came time to pick a school for her, Rickea’s family wanted a place where she could thrive both athletically and academically. They found the perfect fit at DEPSA. Athletically, the school won the Class C girls basketball state championship this year. Academically, it’s the highest-ranked open-enrollment high school in Detroit by U.S. News & World Report, earning a prestigious Bronze Medal.

Rickea spoke on the steps of the State Capitol on May 8 as part of Charter Day at the Capitol, expressing how much her school means to her.

“I have been attending DEPSA since the seventh grade, and I must say, this school has impacted my life in many ways, both academically and athletically,” Rickea said. “Academically, this school focuses on the most essential parts of getting into college. The faculty makes sure that all students are on the right track to graduate. DEPSA is a powerful place, and when you walk through the doors, it has a special feeling that no other school has.”

And here’s the thing: To students like Rickea Jackson, and to her family, charter schools are not about politics. Charter schools are about getting a great education.

And schools like DEPSA are proving a great education. It ranks No. 1 among all open-enrollment schools in Detroit when it comes to sending students to college. On that same list, the No. 1 open-enrollment school in the entire state is also a charter school – Central Academy in Ann Arbor. And the only thing that matters to parents at those schools is the quality of education their children are receiving there.

“Charter schools are not about politics. Charter schools are about getting a great education.”

Charter schools aren’t political to parents. They shouldn’t be political to anyone else, either.

Parents don’t care if it was a policy by Rick Snyder or Jennifer Granholm that allowed their child’s school to open and thrive. Parents want an increased role in the decisions about their child’s education. Parents want to keep politics out of schools so that Michigan funds what works.

What parents and taxpayers care about is that every student, like Rickea Jackson, regardless of race, income or family status, has access to a quality education. They want a vision of education that solves the challenges we face.

Unfortunately, too many leaders in education or candidates for office this year are not talking about a vision for education. They’re pointing fingers and laying false blame. They are perpetuating the old arguments, blaming charter schools, blaming teachers. What we know for certain is blaming and arguing are not a vision for education. 

Nearly 10 percent of all students in Michigan attend a charter school, and yet they’re being kicked around to satisfy the partisan needs of the grown-ups. That has to stop.

The reality is that solutions for public education have been and continue to be a bipartisan issue. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all strongly agreed that charter schools work. Governors John Engler, Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder all agreed that charter schools are part of the solution to our education system. Each of these leaders made decisions to grow and support charter schools.  

President Clinton, in a speech to a joint session of the Michigan Legislature in March 1997, called for increasing the number of charter public schools as part of his national push to grow charter schools. “There is no Democratic or Republican way to learn,” President Clinton said that day in Lansing. “Reading is reading, math is math.”

In October 2008, during the final presidential debate, President Obama said, “I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers unions. I think it's important to foster competition inside the public schools.”

Plenty of parents who are Democrats also strongly support charter schools. In Detroit – a city where more than 51 percent of students attend a charter school, and where parents undoubtedly vote overwhelmingly for Democrats – support is strong for charter schools. A poll this spring showed that only 34 percent of Detroiters oppose charters, compared to 53 percent who favor them.

Parents support charters because they see the quality education and choice they’re providing.

They aren’t following party politics; they’re following their kids. That’s what it’s all about – getting kids into great schools. And a great school is a great school, whether it’s a traditional public school, a charter public school or whatever. It shouldn’t matter how a school is organized or who’s running it. What matters – the only thing that matters – is whether that school is providing a great education.

It’s time to work on a shared commitment to create better public schools regardless of governance. I keep thinking back to Rickea Jackson, and the phenomenal success she’s enjoying at DEPSA. She doesn’t care what kind of school it is.

All she cares about was that it was the right school.