Charter School Or Not?: Moms Weigh In

In this week's parenting conversation, two moms pursuing a public school education for their children – one in a charter school, another in a traditional public school – tell what they like most about their child's learning experience. Moms Ariana Quinones, of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, and Iris Toyer, of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, make separate cases for traditional public and charter schools.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. So today, we want to check in with two moms who have different perspectives on charter schools and whether they're performing for their own kids. One has a child in a public charter school, and the other in a traditional public school.

So we're pleased to welcome Ariana Quinones-Miranda. She's director of Advocacy and Outreach at Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, and Iris Toyer, founding member of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools.

Welcome, moms. Welcome. Thank you.

Ms. ARIANA QUINONES-MIRANDA (Director of Advocacy and Outreach at Friends of Choice in Urban Schools) Thank you. Good morning.

MARTIN: Iris, let's start with you. You have three childrens who - three children who went through D.C. public schools. One currently is a senior at a high school in Washington, McKinley Tech, which is not a charter school. You clearly are a savvy mom, and you clearly know what's available. Charter schools just have no appeal to you?

Ms. IRIS TOYER (Founding Member, Parents United for D.C. Public Schools): None at all.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. TOYER: You know, I not only look at the experience of my child, but my life's work really has been to think about my community. And I think the government has an absolute obligation to provide a high quality education to every child who lives in my neighborhood. And so I don't believe that we should have to leave the neighborhood to get a quote/unquote, "high quality education." I think that the people in my community - and I live Anacostia, thank you very much - ought to be able…

MARTIN: Which is a section of Washington, D.C., for those who don't know, which sometimes is perceived as less advantaged to some of us.

Ms. TOYER: Less advantaged. It, really, listening to the conversation, the people, apparently, are less smart. We're less professional. And some of those things, in terms of professionalism, no, we don't all have high-power jobs living in Anacostia. But certainly the parents over there want as much for our children as the parents who live anywhere else in the city. And so from my perspective, I think that I should be able to get that, and my children should be able it get it in their neighborhood schools.

MARTIN: Whether they should be or not, are they?

Ms. TOYER: Well, I will tell you that we exercise some choice, but our choice was in D.C. public schools. My kids went to a school just outside of our neighborhood, but still in Anacostia. And then when we went to middle and high school, we exercised more choice. D.C. offers a variety of programs, and so my son is at McKinley Tech, one of the higher performing high schools in the district, which I would invite charter schools to come to, to learn from us.

MARTIN: Ariana, let's bring you in. Your daughter just finished third grade at Latin American Montessori Bilingual School or LAMB, which I believe Michelle Obama visited…

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: Yes, she did.

MARTIN: …earlier this year.

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: Very exciting day.

MARTIN: Why did you choose this school?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: For my husband and I, we're both Puerto Rican, and for us it was really important that our daughter have a bilingual education. And at the time, there was basically one bilingual emergent school in D.C., which we didn't think we were going to have a good shot at getting into because we didn't live in that particular neighborhood. So we considered, you know, other options and we looked at charter schools. And when we heard about LAMB, which hadn't opened yet - we were kind of the guinea pigs, in a sense. We thought, well, it's bilingual and it's Montessori. It's in our neighborhood. This sounds very promising.

We're going to try it for a year, because they took three-year-olds. And we thought, well, you know, if it doesn't work out, we always have the option of going to the - trying to get into the bilingual school in the regular public school system. But we did that first year there, loved it. Our daughter is thriving, and so we just kept her there.

MARTIN: I want to ask each of you, and I hope you don't take offense at my question: Is your decision primarily ideological or personal? Is it ideological in a sense that you feel you have a certain idea of what education should be and you want to meet that? Or is it personal? This is a decision that's what's best for your particular child. Iris?

Ms. TOYER: Mine is both. It is certainly ideological. I am a strong supporter of traditional public schools. I think that the community deserves good public schools, and I think that the government has an obligation to provide good public neighborhood schools that every child has a right to go to.

MARTIN: But, you know, charter schools are public schools. That doesn't…

Ms. TOYER: They are…

MARTIN: …cut it for you?

Ms. TOYER: They are, but certainly, they are application only, for the most part. You get in by lottery. If there's a high demand, you don't have an - you can live across the street from the school. That gives you absolutely no right to attend that school. Whereas the school down the street from me, because I live in it's attendance zone, my child has an absolutely right to attend that school.

And why shouldn't a school be the center of the community? I mean, that's what everybody talks about. And we will note that in Washington, these schools are only located in certain neighborhoods. But - and it's also very personal. My children have thrived attending D.C. public schools. I have three adult children. One is a police officer, one is an entrepreneur, and one is an FBI analyst. And they went all the way through D.C. public schools and on to college and did quite well.

MARTIN: Ariana, what about you? Is it ideological or personal?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: No, for our family it's been very personal. We actually have a son who graduated from the D.C. public schools, and that school was the right school for him. And this charter school is the right school for my daughter. So it's - I'm very pleased with the options that charter schools provide, and we're probably more likely to continue in the charter school, in a charter school as she moves on to middle school and high school. But it really is about looking at the schools, figuring out what they're offering and seeing if that's going to be a good match for our daughter.

MARTIN: And talk to me about - you were stepping out a little bit on faith with your daughter's school because it didn't exist yet. Tell me about your son's experience, your older child's experience. Was it a good experience?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: It was a great experience. The school that he went to, actually, my husband taught at. So it - you know, we had (unintelligible) there.

MARTIN: So they definitely knew his name?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: So, yeah, couldn't get away with much. I was on the restructuring team there. So we were very much a part of that particular school. We knew all the staff, and it was just - you know, the course offerings, the AP courses that they had, the sorts of things that were going on there were just - were a good fit for him. So he got a good experience out of it. He's now grown. He works for the D.C. government. So he did have a good experience.

MARTIN: Well, so two good experience - lots of good experiences. Nelson, how -the discussion that we're having here, how much is this replicated nationally, in your view?

Mr. SMITH: I think it's the same discussion in every city where they are charter schools. You know, our belief, our hope is that every parent has a high quality public education option that they can send their child to. And if it's in the neighborhood, that's great. But if there is nothing in the neighborhood that is suitable for your child, you know, we hope that we can create the kind of options through chartering that will give everybody a good opportunity.

The fact is that in a lot of major cities now, the - many, many parents - in effect, majority in some cities - already make choices that are outside their neighborhood, especially at the high school level. And so that is not so much a new phenomenon. The question is do you have an option within the system that is the right kind of school for your child?

MARTIN: But Iris made an interesting point, which is that schools traditionally have been tied to the community. The community - they are, in essence, community centers. They are places that everybody in the community is invested in.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Are people - is there any concern that when you decouple that neighborhood community model that there becomes less of a commitment to the school? That there's kind of less - in fact, it becomes kind of a consumerist model that everybody's kind of shopping based on - the same way you'd shop for a skirt, for example.

Mr. SMITH: Well, if the choice is between being able to shop for a good model which might be outside the immediate bounds of your neighborhood and being forced to go to a school that is not performing well in that neighborhood, I think most parents want the ability to look for something better. If there's a great neighborhood school, great. I mean, that's a wonderful situation for a lot of parents. But when you don't have that good neighborhood option, there needs to be some other way of expanding the possibilities for those kids.

MARTIN: Iris, I feel - I hope you don't mind my interpreting, but I'm feeling a little, like, hostility toward the charter school - am I reading that right in you? And I'm just curious, why is that? If other parents want other choices, what's so terrible?

Ms. TOYER: I don't begrudge parents making choices. But I think that there is a tremendous amount of energy now around charters and much less around - and people with the capacity to improve traditional offerings for every child, I mean, even to the national level. I get this eLetter from Department of Education, and it talks about innovations. And I challenge anybody to find any write-up on a traditional public school. And that just can't be that all of the innovation is coming out of the chartering movement. I mean, I think Nelson said it: You have a range of schools. So you have high-performing charters, those that are just like every other public school, and then you have those that need to go away.

So if we are creating a dual system, at some point in time, we are going to break the bank. And I think that has happened in the District of Columbia, that we have created dual systems, and not around the idea of innovation which was the bill of goods that we were sold. And I've been around, and so I was here and even thought that the notion of schools being created by communities and being run and, you know, fostering all new ideas was a great thing. But what I have seen it come down to is that we have created a dual system. These are not specialty schools. These are, in fact, general education schools, and we are duplicating what is already here.

MARTIN: But there are parents who would say, look, I'm paying taxes, and I'm paying taxes just like the parents who - and I just - and I should be able to have the same options that someone might have who can afford to send his or her child to private school. And if I can get those options within the public system, why shouldn't I?

Ms. TOYER: I am not sure that they are getting those options. I think that a multiplicity of choices does not mean that you're getting the good choice. It's the quality of the choice.

MARTIN: And Ariana, finally, how do you react to the data that we've been discussing here that suggested that perhaps the educational achievement is not as pronounced in the charter schools as has been described?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: Well, I think the test scores are one factor that's considered, and it's because it's a consistent factor across schools. It's easy to look at and compare, but it's certainly not the only factor that I or other parents consider when they're choosing a school for their child. So for me, as Nelson mentioned, a smaller school, a smaller learning environment is really important, the safety, the kind of camaraderie. And I will say that although not every child in my daughter's school comes from the particular neighborhood, it is certainly a community. We have very close ties there.

MARTIN: And finally, I asked Nelson this. I think it's fair to ask each of you this. As we proceed with these conversations over the summer, what other questions do you think we should take up? Ariana? Briefly?

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: Well, I think some of the challenges Iris raises about how do we create more neighborhood schools for the kids who perhaps live across the street and don't get into the lottery? I think that's one of the challenges of charter school growth.

MARTIN: Iris, what about you? What other questions should we take up?

Ms. TOYER: I think not only just charters. I'd like you to look at some of the same things that are going on in traditional public schools. We need some access to media, because, you know, we are about to go away.

MARTIN: Well, you're right here with me now, and we're happy about that. Iris Toyer is a founding member of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools. Ariana Quinones-Miranda is the director of Advocacy and Outreach at Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. We also heard from Nelson Smith, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. They were all here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Moms, ladies and dad, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. TOYER: Thank you. Our pleasure.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. QUINONES-MIRANDA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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