Sarah Ellis’ four children go to schools in two different districts.
Ellis, of Fresno, enrolls two of her children at Manchester GATE – a magnet school for gifted and talented students in Fresno Unified – and the other two in Sanger Unified, at Sanger High and Washington Academic Middle School.
Since her children started school, Ellis has explored her options outside of traditional classrooms, previously enrolling them in Leavenworth Elementary – a bilingual immersion school – and one daughter at Hallmark Charter School, known for its focus on parent involvement.
“We just wanted a rigorous education for our kids, and so we looked into different ways to accomplish that,” Ellis said. “We started them off all the same, but as we saw them grow and evolve, we did things differently for each child, which is the great thing about school choice.”
The term “school choice” has been a hot topic across the country, with Betsy DeVos being confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education last week despite her controversial support for alternatives to public school.
DeVos has been criticized for advocating for charter schools and voucher programs, which put public money toward private and religious schools. On Friday, DeVos was blocked by protestors from entering a public school in Washington, D.C. after her contentious confirmation hearing where questions were raised about her knowledge of standardized testing, special education and other K-12 issues.
Critics worry that a push for school choice will segregate low-income students and perpetuate inequity in education, dismantling the goals of the public system.
People like Ellis understand that argument, but want the freedom to choose an education that best fits their child’s needs.
“I’m a public education proponent, but the thing is when it comes to your own child, you really, really have to believe in a bad school in order to send your child there,” she said. “It’s hard to leave your child there if they don’t have their needs met just because you believe in the macro picture.”
Charter schools in Fresno
There are nearly 40 charter schools in Fresno County, enrolling more than 11,000 students. Another 4,000 students in the county are on waiting lists to get into charters.
Fresno Unified – the state’s fourth-largest school district – authorizes eight charter schools, including University High, ranked as one of the best high schools in the country.
But last year, University High was in danger of having its charter revoked after concerns that the school, despite being required to be open to all students, was unfairly enrolling a disproportionate number of white and wealthy families. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Fresno Unified students come from low-income families, and only 10 percent of students are white.
In a 2016 report called “Unequal Access,” the American Civil Liberties Union voiced similar concerns, citing several Fresno-area charter schools for being exclusionary despite state law that requires them to be open to all students.
While charter schools in Fresno Unified mirror the district in that a majority of students are Latino, at charters 22 percent of students are white – more than double the proportion of white students in traditional schools in the district. FUSD charter schools also enroll fewer English learners and low-income students than the district as a whole.
Fresno Unified school board president Brooke Ashjian, who represents the Bullard High region, supports DeVos and school choice, and put the predicament about access bluntly.
“Life’s not fair. Let’s just get used to the fact … So you have to do the best with what you have, and not everybody’s going to get the same shake, but one thing has been proven: In this country, great people succeed against all odds,” Ashjian said. “We have got to stop playing political games with charter schools because they’re doing a good job. They’re not for everybody, but I think people should have a choice.”
Ashjian called Fresno Unified’s concerns with University High “a total disaster” and “embarrassing,” but he got emotional talking about the differences between a child’s education depending on what part of the city they live in.
“There should be no difference,” he said. “There’s no reason why some areas should succeed and why some areas shouldn’t, and if a mother can’t make it to University High, well, that’s too bad she can’t make it there. So where does she live? Let’s fix that (her neighborhood school). Let’s give her the same opportunities and same choices so there is equity and access.”
Jeff Sands, with the Central Valley chapter of the California Charter Schools Association, says that many charter schools in the area don’t look like University High, though, and that most concerns about charter schools come down to a misunderstanding about what they actually are.
“The biggest myths, misperceptions and misconceptions about charter schools are that they’re private and don’t serve all students,” Sands said. “The truth is they’re public and they’re serving all students regardless of racial and ethnic or socioeconomic background.”
Charter schools are required to enroll anyone who applies – if space permits – but have more autonomy than traditional schools, aiming to give teachers, parents and families more control over their education. Charter schools will be closed if they don’t meet academic standards, and face financial constraints, often not having access to school bond money or funds to provide transportation for students.
Sands believes concerns being voiced now about charter schools are used as a scare tactic, and are politically motivated.
“Opponents try to use the public-private false dichotomy as a way to further their agenda,” he said. “People want to convince the general public that charter schools are a way to privatize public education. They are fully public schools that are held to education code and are working from the same basic foundational set of rules, but trying new ways to get there.”
The California Charter Schools Association released a statement showing its support for DeVos, saying she is committed to “providing families with improved public school options.”
Products of public
Since DeVos’ confirmation, a social media campaign across the country urges people to show their support of traditional K-12 schools using the hashtag #productofpublic.
Sabina Gonzalez-Erana of Fresno is speaking out about her public education. A graduate of Edison High School and UC Santa Cruz, she says traditional schools provide more for children than the alternatives.
“Public schools are sometimes the only place where children interact and build relationships across culture, race, class and other identities. Many times private school, and even charters, don’t provide this type of experience,” she said.
Gonzalez-Erana, who works for the California Endowment, said her main concern is about segregation, something some Fresno leaders say already is a problem within the city and the school district.
Last year, a report labeled Fresno Unified as among the most economically segregated in the country, pointing to vast differences in income and demographics compared to nearby Clovis Unified and Golden Valley Unified.
In recent years, members of the Bullard High School community have advocated to break away from Fresno Unified and become a charter or its own district. Critics of that movement have pointed out that the Bullard High region is home to the city’s wealthiest students – also inciting fears of segregation.
“Public schools set a common denominator of our values as a country, as opposed to segregating kids into a bubble of people who think alike. This cripples them culturally and emotionally, and I believe it’s part of why we end up so divided like we are now,” Gonzalez-Erana said. “Unfortunately people always find ways to segregate themselves… but a strong public school system can be leveraged to temper that impulse.”
Andy Levine, executive director of Faith In Community, is a graduate of Edison High and UC Davis, and also is speaking out about the benefit of a public education. He says that while schools are supposed to promote equal opportunity, unequal funding has not allowed that to happen – and DeVos’ plans will only make those inequities worse.
“I do know that attempts to dismantle our public schools as the great equalizer – which is precisely what the Trump administration and the education secretary seem determined to do – not only risk harming our own collective future, but are also counter to the America we believe in,” Levine said.
Debra Odom, who oversees the charter school office at Fresno Unified, says that parents often call her seeking options other than charter schools – wanting to enroll their child in a specialty or magnet program, or simply to transfer to a school outside of their attendance zone.
“A majority of parents just want to know what their choices are. It’s like buying a car – you don’t want to have buyer’s remorse,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”
Odom says the district does its best to ensure that all students, regardless of background, know their options. But, she says school choice is tricky – and is outside the bounds of school leaders.
“The choices that someone at the top of the income level have and the choices that a low-income person has are the same, but they’re different. One family may not have the option of driving their child to a charter school or outside of their attendance boundary – that may be an obstacle for them,” Odom said.
“It’s a valid concern, but it’s a universal concern. It’s not a district issue, it’s a city issue. We need to ask how are we building this city, and is everyone getting the same amount of attention?”
Fresno County Charter Schools
36 charters in operation
11,085 students enrolled
4,090 students on charter waitlists