Friday, February 29, 2008

Statement on Public and Public Charter Schools

I testified today at a DC City Commission hearing on education. A couple of people thanked me for my remarks and nobody pointed at me and yelled, "drug test that man." Overall, I'd say the whole thing went pretty well.

Here's my statement:

February 29, 2008

My name is Jeff Epton and I live in Brookland. I’m a product of Chicago public schools and my two older children went to conventional public schools in Michigan. My youngest goes to E.L. Haynes Public Charter School here in the District. I have also taught (poetry) for the last three years on a part-time basis in both Chicago and DC. From the standpoint of a parent, an enthusiastic advocate of public education and a part-time teacher, I’d like to rave a little bit about E.L. Haynes.

In my judgment the teachers and staff at Haynes are highly qualified. More than that, they are enthusiastic, caring and creative and, I think, successful under challenging circumstances. The Haynes curriculum focuses both on skill development for all and on precise and targeted responsiveness to individual children. On that basis alone, Haynes offers Chancellor Rhee and DC public schools one more opportunity to observe and evaluate successful innovation.

There’s three quick points I’d like to make here:

1. We should avoid lengthy debates that focus on distinctions between public schools and public charter schools. Everyone wants to be accountable here. Everyone wants to see the schools strengthened by innovative practices. And we all want to recruit, develop and retain skilled and dedicated teachers and staff. Public schools were once the best tool we had to build democracy and still have the potential to help us build a truly human and enriched society. Charter schools are not the enemy in that, they are a simply a means to achieve some of the revitalization we seek.

2. At times in the past, organized labor may have been an obstacle to improving the schools. But unions have also been a way to insure that the interests and skills of working people are represented in efforts to make change. Unions should be partners in whatever we do to improve the public schools. And not just teachers, either. Students at the schools know the people who work in the schools, the custodial staff, food service staff and others. And those workers know the children and have something to offer this effort, too. Their unions should be a part of these discussions.

3. It may be that if a distinction develops between charters and other public schools that we can’t resolve, it is because these schools are competing for a piece of a pie that is not sufficient to meet their needs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The American public school system has suffered sustained neglect over the last 30 years. We must make our schools as efficient as we can and we must demand accountability.

But we must also demand—in concert with school systems and city councils from around the country—that our federal government increase its investment in our children by increasing its investment in public schools of every description.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017
202 506-7470

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