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Don’t Be Distracted by Politics

• Sam Duell and Erin Lockett


A few weeks ago during National Charter Schools Week, Governor Jeb Bush encouraged policymakers “to not be distracted by politics.” Today, we take that to heart as we consider a recent report from the Journey for Justice Alliance, Failing Brown v. Board: A Continuous Struggle Against Inequity in Public Education.

Reviews of the report have called it a “direct attack on public charter schools.” If you read the foreword and the introduction, then this perception is understandable since there are several rhetorical and pejorative references to public charter schools.

That’s a shame—and a distraction. Upon closer examination of the paper’s contents, one quickly discovers that the report is not really about public charter schools or school choice at all. It’s about a lack of access to quality courses in public schools across the country.

Failing Brown v. Board deftly illustrates how too many students lack access to diverse, rigorous courses needed for long-term success. The most recent U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Data Collection shows that students may not even have access to the basic courses they would need to graduate from high school and meet college entrance requirements, including 20 percent of all high schools nationally not offering Algebra II. The report also correctly notes that access is even more limited in high schools with high populations of minority students (26 percent with no access to Algebra II).

But access to high-quality coursework is also a problem in small schools. And rural schools. And charter schools. It’s a problem faced in every type of school, by every state.

One option to ensure that every school has the same set of courses is to hire teachers for those courses in every school. However, schools all face the challenges of tight budgets and recruiting and retaining qualified instructors.

A more scalable option is a statewide Course Access policy that provides students with expanded course offerings across learning environments from diverse, accountable providers, both public and private. Courses can be selected by students across content areas and delivered online, face-to-face, or in blended format. Districts can pool resources and become providers of engaging coursework statewide. States can identify gaps across schools and create a targeted marketplace of providers that meets statewide needs and priorities, while ensuring quality through provider vetting, monitoring and public reporting of outcomes.

This is not just an idea. Eighteen states across the country see a Course Access policy as a viable option for addressing course gaps and ensuring that students can access the courses they need to be successful in college and career.

The rhetoric in the report distracts from a potentially unifying call to action—that students all over the country lack access to quality education, including rigorous courses.

Families are smart. They know that access to better, high-quality courses affords their children with opportunities they might not have otherwise. (They also know which schooling options will best serve the needs of their children.) If we want to empower our students and families to make the best decisions possible, then it’s time to see through political facades. It’s time to identify policy solutions that will make a practical, immediate difference.

We encourage policymakers to not be distracted by rhetoric or politics. Recognize that opportunity gaps exist and that we can address them sensibly, whether that is with good course access policy or with sound public charter school policy. It’s time to expand access to excellent education wherever we can find it.

For more on Course Access, visit ExcelinEd’s Course Access policy page.

About the authors

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.

Erin Lockett

Erin Lockett is a Senior Policy Analyst at ExcelinEd, focusing on Course Access in the Innovation Policy set. Her work includes Innovation sessions and annual Pre-Summit workshops at the National Summit on Education Reform, convenings, thought leadership, and white papers on Course Access and Personalized Learning. She graduated from George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School for Public Policy and Public Administration with a Master’s in Public Administration, focusing on nonprofit management.