We’re proud of Durham Public Schools, and we want our schools to be every parent’s first choice. At a time when our state has essentially taken its foot off the brakes in encouraging charter school expansion, we know that we can’t take our families’ choices for granted. But the quality of our teachers, the breadth of our academic programs, our openness to all students, and our connections to the broader Durham community are all qualities that can’t be replicated.
There’s nothing to celebrate in the state’s decision (under appeal) to close Kestrel Heights Charter School’s high school program, nor the recently-announced year’s delay in opening Discovery Charter School in northern Durham County. The students and families who enrolled at Kestrel and Discovery had chosen a school community. They either had established or were looking forward to forging important relationships. This can happen at any school, public or non-public, whose educational model or calendar changes or is forced to close.
Still, if your family was affected by these changes we encourage you to visit your neighborhood traditional schools to see what DPS has to offer. Following the surprise delay at Discovery, we are beginning to plan a special welcome event at our northern Durham schools where you can learn more and meet teachers, students and staff.
Our nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, seems to believe that school choice is the silver bullet to improving educational outcomes for all students. She went so far last Wednesday to compare choosing a school to picking a ridesharing service like Lyft or Uber against a cab or public transit. That is a strained analogy — education for a lifetime is a very different thing from traveling from place to place — and the evidence that school choice benefits all students, public and private, is simply not there.
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Some charter schools have made the effort to support students with disabilities, provide transportation access, and recruit struggling or impoverished students. Others have not. One result has been increased stratification in our schools by race and income.
Another result, if we are not careful, could be a breakdown in the social contract between Durham County citizens and her schools. Public school districts are truly the public’s schools, the “great equalizer” that unites a community around its children with a shared purpose to help every child succeed. Today, that social contract is still strong. An overwhelming majority of Durham County voters approved a substantial bond referendum on behalf of Durham Public Schools. And even though a recent city-county survey suggested we have work to do in combating certain perceptions of Durham Public Schools, the same survey respondents suggested a willingness to further support DPS, even with increased tax revenue if necessary.
My message today isn’t about revenue, however. It’s an invitation: to learn more about and participate in Durham Public Schools. For the foreseeable future, local public school districts will remain the place where the largest number of children go to school and prepare for adulthood. As school leaders, we will not take that for granted. As a community, neither should we. Our schools are stronger when everyone has a stake in them, and when we share our commitment to improve them for every child.
Bert L’Homme is superintendent of Durham Public Schools.