Teachers’ quarrel isn’t with charter schools

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I’ve been asked quite often lately about the teacher rally planned for today in Raleigh. Honestly, I feel conflicted.

As a former educator, my heart goes out to my brothers and sisters who are still in the district classrooms. They work tirelessly every day to give North Carolina’s students the tools they need to succeed in a global society. They are doing so with limited supplies, outdated textbooks, overcrowded classes and lack of administrative support — all with salaries well below what they deserve! Even though it’s been a while since I taught, just to write “former educator” is painful because being a teacher is a role with which I will always identify.

I understand teachers’ frustrations. There were times during my 17-year tenure when the thought crossed my mind of organizing some sort of protest in response to issues that my colleagues and I faced rather than just hashing them out in the teachers’ lounge. So, there is a part of me that says, “You go, guys! It’s about time.”

But there is another part of me that is disappointed. It’s that part of me that is fiercely loyal to the people I represent now in my role as executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools.

You see, in a way, I did protest in response to my frustrations with public district schools when I chose to co-found a public charter school. Rather than stay “in the system,” I opted for this speedier option because students’ futures can’t be held hostage by bureaucracy and red tape. Time is not on their side. Charter schools are designed to be nimble and flexible in response to students’ needs, an advantage ALL students deserve.

Herein lies the conflict. Instead of building bridges between district and charter schools, key rally organizers hope to further divide us. The North Carolina Justice Center’s resource page for the May 16 rally lists charter schools among the key issues teachers will be protesting at the rally. Their intentional misinformation about charter school funding and segregation only adds fuel to the proverbial fire.

Brothers and sisters, don’t drink their tainted Kool-Aid! Public charter schools do not take money away from district schools. The funding belongs to the student, so the funding should follow the child, whether it is to a district or a charter school. Because they do not receive funding for facilities, buses or food, charter schools operate on leaner budgets, requiring them to weigh every spending decision.

Also, charter schools are open to any child in North Carolina, regardless of the child’s address. Historically, a family’s zip code has been the single greatest factor in determining where a child goes to school. How unfair is it that the amount of money parents can afford to spend on a home decides the quality of a child’s education? Charter schools take socioeconomic status out of the equation.

Teacher friends, I hope that your voices are heard in the corridors of power, but I ask that you don’t use your voices to drown out those of the more than 100,000 students whose parents have chosen a different public option for them — a charter school. Remember, when everyone is yelling, no one is heard.

For me, I cannot support any effort that sets out to destroy the charter school movement, a cause I believe in so strongly that I’ve devoted my life to its success. My hope is that instead of district and charter school teachers remaining divided, we can find ways to collaborate and to support each other for not just your students or our students, but for the benefit of ALL students.

Rhonda Dillingham is executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools and a former public school teacher.