CharterFolk Contributor Jacqueline Elliot – Charter Schools Need to Speak Up: Here’s How We Find Our Voice

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Jacqueline Elliot, Ed.D., President & CEO of  PUC National and Co-Founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC Schools) in Los Angeles, CA.

Jacqueline Elliot, Ed.D., President & CEO of  Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC) National and Co-Founder of PUC Schools in Los Angeles, CA

I provide Jacqueline’s bio below.

Dr. Jacqueline Elliot, who currently serves as President and CEO of PUC National, emigrated to Los Angeles from Scotland at the age of 13 and attended LAUSD schools through 12th grade. She has been dedicated to public school reform since 1986 when she first became a teacher in Pacoima, California. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology, a Multiple Subjects Teaching Credential, and a Master’s degree in Educational Administration earned at CA State University, Northridge. She also holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Change earned at Fielding Graduate University. She is a fellow of the Pahara-Aspen Institute’s Entrepreneurial Leaders for Public Education and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Dr. Elliot also served on the 501c4 board of the California Charter Schools Association and on the Los Angeles Advocacy Council. In addition, she was an adjunct professor in graduate studies for the Institute of School Leadership and Administration at Loyola Marymount University and has been a recipient of the Hart Vision Award from the California Charter Schools Association, as Leader of the Year. She is also the author of Passionate Warrior: My Charter School Journey.

Dr. Jacqueline Elliot was driven by an intense desire to improve the state of public education for the children and community of Pacoima, which she had grown to love. She founded Community Charter Middle School (CCMS) in 1999 with four teachers and 100 families who desperately sought a better middle school option for their children. It was the first charter middle school in Los Angeles County and was developed in accordance with the research-based principles of the small school model. The school became extremely popular very quickly and in response to community demand, she subsequently founded several more schools to serve the same geographic area. Dr. Elliot began collaborating with Dr. Ref Rodriguez when the two realized that they had identical visions for two communities to which each of them was respectively dedicated: the NE San Fernando Valley and NE Los Angeles. They embarked upon parallel journeys, founding schools in the two communities. They co-founded Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC Schools) in 2003 as one umbrella non-profit organization for the schools and subsequently co-founded PUC National in 2013 to promote and support Partnerships to Uplift Communities schools and also promote, support, and provide leadership education and professional development to the greater public charter school community and beyond. Combined, they founded 14 highly successful PUC public charter schools located in NE Los Angeles and the NE San Fernando Valley. Dr. Elliott has served in the public-school sector since 1986 and in the public charter school movement since 1995. Her work remains rooted in her belief that every child is entitled to an excellent public education.

For many years, charter schools have been blamed for all kinds of problems in our education system. Maybe they’re the cause of school budget problems. Maybe they’re responsible for school segregation. Maybe, as in the sitcom Abbott Elementary, they’re a nefarious, well-funded force trying to destroy public education.

Despite the “blame game,” that narrative is completely out of step with public opinion. For example, polling from Democrats for Education Reform this past year found that 70% of both Democratic and Republican voters have a favorable opinion of public charter schools – and Black and Hispanic voters have even higher levels of support. Furthermore, the same poll found that voters preferred public school choice over private vouchers by a 62% to 38% margin. This support has also carried over to school enrollment. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, while district enrollment has dropped by 3.5% since 2019, charter enrollment has increased by 9%, or 300,000 students.

Yet the narrative persists, finding its way into charter authorization votes, anti-charter legislation, and politician stump speeches. Why is that? It’s because there is still so much ambiguity, mystery, and misinformation that surrounds charter schools – making them an easy target for public officials, union leaders, and others who are looking for a bogeyman.

Yes, it’s unfair but the reality is we as charter school advocates and leaders have not done enough collectively to share the truth about charter schools. For three decades, charter opponents have executed a widespread, intentional misinformation campaign – and we haven’t pushed back hard enough.

In earlier days we eagerly told more stories about our shared successes but as the system has punched down on us, many have opted to just burrow down into the work out of fear and stay under the radar so as not to attract attention. As we all know, in public relations and messaging if you’re not proactive, you’re reactive – and  you lose.

Those of us who are charter school supporters understand what a difference charter schools have made, particularly with historically underserved populations. In fact, public “charter school students experience 32% higher test scores and a 19% higher college attendance than traditional public school graduates.” Charter schools were created to help ignite innovation in the traditional public school system and push them to find new ways to educate. We know it’s working. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) finds “that when a charter school enters a district, students in neighboring public schools experience a 32% increase in math test scores and a 48% increase in reading test scores.” It’s clear that charters are one of the heroes of this story. So why are they constantly cast as the villains?

Yet, the answer is clear. It’s vital for charter schools to continue to be a public school option.  We have the results, and we have a lot of public support, but we have not yet crossed the line to make us recognized by society at large, including politicians and school boards, as an irrefutably essential “here to stay” part of the public education landscape.

At PUC Schools (Partnerships to Uplift Communities), a charter school network that I co-founded in 1999,  our students have truly thrived. We’ve had thousands of students graduate from high school, sent the vast majority of them to college – many of those among the first in their families to do so – and employ over 300 educators, including a significant number who have been teaching for a decade or more. With regards to uplifting the communities we serve, in total PUC employs well over 700  educators and staff members, many of whom are alumni and community members.

While many of us have done our best to tell our stories publicly from time to time, those who would like to see us go away have done a better job because their messaging is more consistent and unified. They never stop beating their drum. Never. Opponents have  successfully villainized charters, particularly in the party that should be championing us the most. Myths – and sometimes flat-out lies – persist.

This isn’t just a matter of fairness or truthful reporting. The negative perception of charters emboldens our opponents to take radical, unprecedented steps that threaten our very existence. Take the recent proposed changes to the federal Charter School Program, which would have made it nearly impossible for new charters to open in many cities. Or just this school year in California, where the Los Angeles Unified school board is trying to take away charters’ legal right to facilities. Charters are performing well, and families love them. But because that reality isn’t in the public narrative, we are constantly under threat.

We can’t sit idly by while our opponents spread falsehoods about charter schools. We don’t have a television show, but we do have a platform. We have a voice. We know our story. In fact, we’re living our story daily as we witness the transformations in our students and their futures.

I recommend a few things we – as charter school leaders and advocates – need to do to stop the bleeding:

1. Go before your authorizer during their regular board meetings; share the benefits of your school and how you’re serving the community.  Bring teachers and students regularly, so they cannot dehumanize those we are serving. Tout your success stories and be your own – vocal! – champion.

2. Don’t be afraid to engage. We all need to become active with political charter organizations that vociferously push back against every piece of legislation seen as anti-charter, and every elected official at every level – local, state, and federal – needs to be a charter proponent to get your vote. Be a single-issue voter and hold them accountable to learn about our issues.

3. Champion another charter school. You know many colleagues who are doing excellent work. Call them out in your newsletter, go before their authorizer and champion their successes. We must be a fierce, united political force to have any weight.

4. We must push back against this divisive mentality with everybody we encounter who does not understand who we are. It is not us-versus-them. We are public schools. We serve district students. We are a part of the public education system. We cannot allow this most insidious messaging point to remain.

5. While we undergo our outreach and lobbying efforts, we need our north star to be striving for a positive relationship with our authorizers. Engaging in an ongoing dialogue and reminding the districts that we are all public schools is paramount. We need to reiterate that we share the same goals of ensuring an excellent public education for all students, so they have the opportunity to achieve their potential and dreams. We must never give up on trying to have that healthy, human relationship which will result in charter leaders having more time and energy to focus on what we’re really about – student success. 

We must be proactive in telling our stories and when charter schools are villainized we must push back right away. We know our students, teachers, and parents are heroes. We owe it to them, the students who will come after, and the communities we serve – to tell their stories. Let’s shout them from the rooftops. Their futures depend on it – and so does the future of charter schools.