Dutton: Every student deserves a quality education

With the next session of the Texas Legislature around the corner, it is once again time to take stock of the state of public education.

The Texas Education Agency recently released ratings for schools — and without question there is much work to be done to improve student outcomes and address low-performing schools.

The current state of our public schools is precisely why I am troubled by a resolution being considered by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which calls for a moratorium on charter schools. I have a long history with the NAACP. I recall assisting the organization in the development of local chapter’s programs: The Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. And then there was the period of my service on the NAACP’s Energy and Economic Development Committee, whose policy decision during the President Jimmy Carter years arguing for energy price decontrol as the best economic alternative for the poor was the shot heard around the world.

When the Texas Legislature created charter schools in 1995, I was not an advocate. In fact, I stood on the House floor arguing against the creation of charter schools as a threat to the funding traditional public schools. However, not long after charter schools became operational, a friend who ran a charter school invited me to be a graduation speaker. What I saw completely changed my thoughts on charter schools. First, the parent-teacher relationships were absolutely amazing. Secondly, the valedictorian was a young lady who was a 21-year-old mother of two. The principal shared that this young lady would drop off her children at day care each school day, then catch a bus to school — and she was never late. I thought: “Where else but a charter school could this young lady have achieved her dream of graduating from high school as the first in her family to do so?” A traditional public school? I don’t think so. From that moment on, as far as I was concerned, this young lady became the face of charter school students everywhere.

This young lady is also the reason the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on charter school growth is no less than earth-shattering. The Texas Education Agency’s performance reports indicate that charter schools serve higher proportions of poor and minority children, who outperform their peers at traditional public schools in reading, writing and math. The proposed moratorium’s potential impact on African-American students is of great concern as charter schools have improved learning, increased choices within public education, and have provided flexibilities that foster education innovation.

When I was first elected to the Texas House more than 30 years ago, the landscape of public education was very different in that the only option for students was the school they were zoned to attend. There were no other public alternatives for families when a school was not meeting the needs of their child or when a school earned a record of poor academic performance. Poor and minority students were most impacted by schools with low performance ratings. It remains unacceptable that students can be locked into failing schools with no alternative to meet their needs and help them to achieve their highest potential. Students in underserved communities, absent charter schools, will be forced to tolerate the disparity in educational opportunities by simply virtue of where they live.

We have to demand better for our children.

Charter schools have flexibilities to innovate, but they must also meet the same academic and financial standards as other public schools. However, Texas’ accountability system was made more rigorous for charter schools, providing for closing charter campuses that fail state academic or financial standards for three consecutive years. The result has been two-fold: the closure of low-performing charter schools and an increase in the number of charter campuses offering a quality public education with measurable outcomes.

Charter schools continue an exponential growth across the state with an enrollment of nearly 228,000 students at more than 600 charter campuses, most of which are in urban areas where there is the greatest need for educational services, support, and resources for families and communities.

In my legislative district, there are seven charter school campuses serving almost 3,000 students. Seventy-four percent of these students are economically disadvantaged, and about 42 percent are considered at-risk. Fifty-five percent of the students are African-American and 40 percent are Hispanic. Most importantly, 100 percent of these students are benefiting from an alternative to the traditional public school.

I commend these partnerships, and I am encouraged by other initiatives like Districts of Innovation, which provide for school districts similar flexibilities that charter schools employ. Sharing what works only advances better student outcomes. However, calling for a moratorium on charter schools does nothing at all to improve student achievement or change low-performing schools.

Instead, we must continue to demand better for all children, regardless of their skin color or home address. Unlocking the genius in every student who shows up at the front door of our schools remains our primary objective — one that includes charter schools just as much as it does the traditional public school.

Dutton represents Northeast Houston. In the 84th Legislature, Dutton was a member of the House Public Education Committee and is Chairman of the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

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