I’m a pro-charter school Obama and Sanders Democrat

Progressives who care about equity should support ballot question to raise the Mass. charter cap

AS DEMOCRATS NATIONALLY unite behind our nominee in Philadelphia next week, Massachusetts Democrats have the opportunity to unite behind a ballot initiative that would provide more high quality schools, especially for children in communities plagued by low academic performance.

My story demonstrates the challenges of bringing together the disparate parts of the Democratic Party.

In 2006, as a junior in college, I founded Students for Barack Obama to draft then-Sen. Obama into the 2008 presidential election. I went on to serve as national co-chair of Obama for America. In January 2016, again captivated by a candidate, I joined the Bernie Sanders campaign.

My work with the Obama and Sanders campaigns evinces my strong alignment with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Given my lifelong commitment to children in need, I considered entering the Obama administration in hopes of influencing urban education policy.  A white girl from small town Maine, my education consisted of rural public elementary school, homeschooling, a private day school, and Bowdoin College. I knew nothing about the educational experiences of children growing up in poverty; a ruthless empiricist, I set out to learn.

My explorations first took me to an Early Head Start program in Dorchester. Anyone meeting the bright and curious children there without context would forecast futures of great potential. Despite their daunting struggles, nearly all caregivers expressed a common yearning for their children: a better life.

As director of StandUp for Kids – Boston, I worked with homeless young adults who were once just like the toddlers of Early Head Start. After nine to 13 years in the Boston public schools, these young people had abandoned their “what I want to do when I grow up” ambitions and succumbed to panhandling.

I had read of “90-90-90” schools — in which 90 percent of children are low-income, 90 percent are black or Hispanic, and 90 percent achieve grade-level academic standards. Many such schools were charter schools. Eager to learn more, I joined the founding leadership team of Alma del Mar Charter School in New Bedford. We spent the same dollars per child as district schools but engaged in practices not typically found in district schools, including a school day from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm for most students, home visits, mandatory uniforms, picking kids up if they missed a bus, and hiring and firing based on teacher performance.

Alma del Mar is now a high-performing school offering impoverished children from a high-needs community an education comparable to that of their peers in affluent neighborhoods.  Nearly 500 children are on the waiting list.

While I am proud of my work in public education, I came to eschew questions about my non-campaign professional life from those within the Sanders campaign because of the disapproving reactions I often received. Even among the most informed progressives, myths surrounding charter schools abound: for-profit corporations run charters to make money off poor kids (in Massachusetts and most states, charter schools are public schools; for-profit charters are illegal); charter schools take money from public schools (the money follows the child; charter schools receive the same per pupil funding as any other public school); charter schools get results by cherry-picking kids (most charter schools select students through blind, public lotteries).

Charter schools are neither inherently good nor evil. Some are highly effective. Some flop.  Charters operate within a framework of increased autonomy and accountability, at least in states like Massachusetts with strong authorizers. Where district schools may fail generations with no consequences, charters are rapidly shut down if unsuccessful.

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For me, being a progressive Democrat and a charter school supporter are not antithetical. In fact, the values that inspired me to support Obama, Sanders, and now Hillary Clinton also drive my support for charters. Every child, regardless of her zip code, deserves to read on grade level by third grade, earn a high school diploma, enroll in college, and ultimately live a life better than that of her parents. Regardless of whether they exist within district schools, charter schools, or schools of some yet-to-be discovered type, we need more classrooms in which students succeed.

My friends and I chuckle now when we recall 2006, when they questioned why I was wasting my time on behalf of a little-known, first-term African-American senator. Like me, President Obama is a champion of high performing charter schools. Now is the time for Democrats to build upon the progress we have achieved during the Obama administration and support more charter schools in Massachusetts in the name of our common Democratic ideals.

Meredith Segal is an MPA candidate at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the advisory council of Democrats for Education Reform – Massachusetts.