Thousands of public school charter advocates, including parents, students and teachers joined with public policymakers in Nashville, Tennessee for the National Alliance for Public Charter School conference. The gathering marked the 25th anniversary of Minnesota becoming the first state to authorize a public charter school in 1991.
The conference is one of the largest events in the school reform community organized by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a national advocacy organization that supports increasing the number of charters while providing technical and legal advice to existing charter schools.
NAPCS president and CEO Nina Rees thanked supporters for their hard work in support of the charter school movement but also challenged attendees to press on.
“The opposition is fighting with compelling lies and we are responding with statistics,” she said.
Personalizing the struggle, Rees cited her Iranian heritage, saying that in places like Iran basic liberties and civil rights are commonly denied to most citizens. “The right to send your child to a good school is as fundamental as the right to vote,” she told the large and boisterous crowd.
“The right to send your child to a good school is as fundamental as the right to vote”
Although support for the expansion of public charter schools is strongest among conservatives and libertarians, there were signs at the gathering that the movement is making gains in broadening its base of support. Among the more prominent spokesmen for the charter school movement is Roland Martin, a journalist formerly with CNN and now the host and managing editor of News One Now. Martin also had emcee duties at the gathering. Although known as a reliably progressive voice on most issues, Martin is also a fierce supporter of letting parents and families in underserved communities have access to high-quality schools, including charter schools.
Besides Martin, Dr. Howard Fuller, a professor at Marquette University and a longtime civil rights leader addressed the more than 4,200 conference attendees. Fuller argued for lifting caps on public charter schools, but also called for a rise in the minimum wage. His comments reflected a diversity of political opinion and thought that was evident in conversations with attendees throughout the conference.
Tom Torkelson, the founder and chief executive of IDEA Public Schools, used his time on stage to condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, which drew cheers from the crowd. Torkelson, who won the $250,000 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, which is awarded to the top public charter school system in the country, told Opportunity Lives, “Last time I checked, we did not have a surplus of highly educated young people… seems like a real common sense issue that people should get together on.”
Torkelson also said the racial achievement gap demands continuing boldness. “The gap between children of color succeeding in college and children from white families succeeding in college is bigger now than it was in segregated America,” he said. “This is unconscionable.”
Rees mostly steered clear of the presidential election in her remarks, only mentioning Republican Donald Trump as someone who is “hard to place” on school reform and noting that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is not as supportive of public charters as her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The president praised charter schools in his 1997 State of the Union address.
Also included in handouts to the conference participants was a timeline of the public charter school movement, highlighting a 2008 presidential debate when then-Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) joined Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) pledging their support for expanding charter schools.
As proof that demand for charters is growing, NAPCS reports that more than 1 million families sit on waiting lists, hoping to send their children to a public charter school. Despite serving nearly 3 million students in nearly 43 states all across the country, NAPCS announced a new goal of servicing 4 million students by the year 2020.
“I’m encouraged when I think about the progress of the charter school movement, particularly over the past five years, and I look forward to giving another 1 million children the opportunity to attend a great charter school,” Rees said in written statement.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter:@IzzyOrtega.