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Education Advocacy Isn't Optional; It's Essential

Note: This week we have Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D, guest-blogging. He is the CEO and founder of 50CAN, a nonprofit organization that works at the local level to advocate for a high-quality education for all kids.

Over the next week I'm going to be writing about some of the key education policy issues bubbling up in the states in 2016, with examples drawn from the local advocacy work our 50CAN network engages in every day across the country.

In this first post, I want to spotlight a recurring issue in one state that makes a larger point about the education world: When it comes to ensuring all kids receive a high-quality education, advocacy isn't optional. Even when policies are having a real, positive impact on students and communities, educators face daily, fight-for-your-lives battles to simply continue their work serving students. Supporting these leaders and the families they serve takes committed advocates who never give up.

Nowhere has this come into sharper relief than in Rhode Island, where one of the most promising educational innovations of the past decade could be wiped away before the end of this year's legislative session.

To understand what's at stake, a little background is needed. For too long, Lil' Rhody has suffered from the worst overall student achievement rates in New England. It is also home to a deeply unequal system of education. An analysis by the Providence Journal found that "11 of the 15 lowest-performing elementary schools are intensely segregated" and declared, "Nearly 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional, the Rhode Island public schools are among the most segregated in the country."

In 2008, a group of Democratic and Republican mayors, parents, teachers and community members decided bold education changes were needed to get the Ocean State back on track. Their efforts resulted in a new law that made it possible to open regional, diverse public charter schools called Mayoral Academies.

But getting the law passed was just step one. In order to actually open a new school, educators had to be approved by the state Board of Regents, which led to heated battles with the well-entrenched status quo. In fact, the first Mayoral Academy to serve the students of Providence and its surrounding suburbs gained approval to open its doors only after an intense nine-month campaign involving hundreds of parent advocates that culminated in a razor-thin 5-to-4 vote in support of the school. 

The academic results that have emerged from these hard-fought victories have been nothing short of amazing. The first public school opened under the new law—Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP)—had the highest eighth-grade math scores in the state in 2014, just five years after opening their doors. What's more, 94 percent of BVP Latino eighth-grade students were proficient in math, which was 57 percentage points higher than the state average.

Perhaps even more impressive than its academic performance is the school's track record in reversing Rhode Island's troubling history of school segregation. When journalist and author Dana Goldstein visited Blackstone Valley Prep she wrote about how it was "extraordinary to sit-in on the school's classes ... and observe such a wide variety of children learning and playing together," declaring it "one of the most diverse schools of any type I have ever seen."

You might think that this track record of success in reversing racial segregation and dramatically raising student achievement would help secure the future of these innovative public charter schools. But it is exactly because of their success in breaking down the artificial barriers that separate Rhode Island communities by race and class that they are seen by powerful actors as a threat to the status quo. And that makes them a target for further attacks.

Last week the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed two bills that the Providence Journal reports "could have a devastating impact on the growth of new charter schools in Rhode Island." The National Association of Charter School Authorizers put it more bluntly: these bills "would, in practice, be equivalent to a possibly permanent charter school moratorium."

One of the bills specifically targets the kind of diverse, integration-focused public charter schools that the Mayoral Academies specialize in. It would require that public charter schools gain a separate vote from each city or town council where it might recruit even a single student before it can open its doors—that is on top of the approval from the statewide board that is already charged with authorizing the schools.

This unprecedented process would make it almost impossible for diverse public charter schools like Blackstone Valley Prep to carry out their vital mission of bringing students together from across urban and suburban communities in academically rigorous and racially and socioeconomically diverse learning environments. Exploring the motivation behind the bill, the Providence Journal reported that "Supporters of the bill seemed to have little problem with charter schools that serve students from struggling urban schools. But they cried foul when charters began pulling children away from suburban districts."

Rhode Island education advocates, led by RI-CAN's Christine Lopes Metcalfe, are rallying to defend these high-performing, diverse public charter schools. It's no exaggeration to say that the future of the Mayoral Academies and of the diverse charter movement in Rhode Island will rest on the success of their advocacy campaign in 2016. 

Yet this story from the Ocean State is just one of hundreds that unfold every day in local communities across the country. When done well, advocacy opens up amazing new avenues for change. But advocacy work, like the work of the innovative educators it defends, never has a simple and clearly defined conclusion. Its effectiveness comes from a commitment to bear the burden of a long struggle, year in and year out, to protect the gains that have been made while also standing up for the promising new innovations on the horizon. It's a challenging and essential part of the overall effort to ensure a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of their address.  

--Marc Porter Magee

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