Non-profit urges expansion of charter schools

Democrats for Education Reform have set up shop in Austin, Texas, and they are planning on adding to the educational dialogue across the state.

To begin with, it must be mentioned that there is a lot of difficult rhetoric and political language to wade through when discussing education reform. But Jennifer Koppel, the recently appointed director of DFER in Texas, said in a recent interview that she hoped DFER would be able to add to the conversation in a positive way. “Use of political language makes it difficult on parents,” Koppel noted, “Language really matters. It’s important that people know we support high-quality charters and school choice.”

In a vast state like Texas which has a myriad of educational problems not necessarily dealt with in other states, DFER will need to take its time determining what policy and coalition approaches it will need to get its messages across. And Koppel hopes that DFER can build a bipartisan approach when it comes to discussing charter schools in Texas, a state she sees as “a pretty friendly charter school environment.”

A lot of national discussion has taken place over the educational reform movement and its positives and negatives. Teachers unions, for one, have understandably been resistant to measures that would limit their ability to have sway, and the discussion has many times seemed as though children are not the priority in this debate. And while this is understandable, where is the happy medium where school reform, teachers, administrators, parents, and students all get ahead?

And more specifically, what would a friendly, balanced, and educationally sound system possibly look like in Texas? Koppel believes it’s all about choice, or what she called a “Portfolio of choices.” “No one can deny that we need to give every child a quality education,” she said, “and if something isn’t working as well as it should be, we need new approaches.”

Public schools in well-funded communities are not necessarily the issue, and neither are private schools or magnet schools. The issue is in low-income communities where students are not succeeding at the same rate as their counterparts. Some would argue the solution is revamping the “failing” school systems, and others, like Koppel, would argue we need to offer better solutions in the form of different approaches to education. But when people start talking about shutting down schools – which the DFER advocates – parents, teachers, administrators, and anyone interested and invested in K-12 education (that should be everyone), start to worry a bit.

Koppel got to DFER by way of IDEA Public Schools where she was the Vice President of Growth. IDEA’s 2011-2012 annual report shows 100% of their students in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin went on to 4-year colleges. So while shutting down schools worries some, there is no question that charter schools – and Koppel stressed “high-quality” charter schools – have worked in some areas. In a 2013 report released by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, the study found that students in high-performing charter schools are outperforming those in traditional public schools. But even Koppel admits the journey is just beginning for these students, as many of them will struggle – for various reasons – to stay in the colleges they are admitted to.

There are no magic bullets to make sure that every student succeeds, but as Koppel noted, we should be trying to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed. Currently far too few students are graduating from high school. And if they get to college, the tuition is exceptionally high. The number of student loan defaults is increasing, and the federal government has a major beef with for-profit colleges. Everyone is looking towards the politicians to either fix the problems or get out of the way so someone else will.

But we now have a new group in Texas adding to the conversation. Democrats for Education Reform are hoping charter schools will help low-income students succeed in the classroom, and the next year could prove to be a pivotal time in Texas’ educational history as state politicians debate what the best course of action is to lead our students on the path to future success.

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