"Oh! You're the charter school candidate." I'm not.

"Oh! You're the charter school candidate."

That was my greeting at a door in Ward 6 this weekend. That’s how my opponent has characterized me, but it’s not accurate, and I was glad that this voter was interested in asking me about my vision for DC education, my policy positions, and my charter school experience. Because I’m not driven by education doctrine—I’m driven by helping students succeed. I think that’s why the Washington Post endorsed me for the State Board of Education.

I first set foot in a charter school in 2003. I had completed my teaching certification and two years of teaching in a Chicago Catholic school serving mostly low-income, immigrant students. I was living in Los Angeles and training teachers all over the country in civic education curriculum. I worked with urban and rural schools, conducting professional development on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, in Catholic schools in DC, and in public schools in Baltimore City.

I heard from a friend about a new “start-up school” that was looking for teachers in East LA. I was honored to be selected as a 5th grade “founding teacher,” and spent the next three years helping build KIPP: LA Prep with a fantastic, energetic and talented group of educator colleagues. Alycen had grown up in the school’s neighborhood; Michelle was a talented reading teacher; Carolyn was a veteran teacher; Rita was a native Spanish speaker and helped build powerful parent relationships with our school team. I loved learning how to improve my craft from this great group of colleagues, and meeting with other KIPP teachers from across the country to build my professional skills.

In 2006, I got a call from my friend David  who had an opening for an 8th grade social studies teacher at KIPP DC: KEY Academy. I eagerly accepted the role and the chance to move closer to my family in Maryland. I had only a vague notion at this time that charter schools like KIPP were changing the education landscape in cities all across America and did not see myself as an education reformer. I was a teacher, serving kids whose neighborhood schools led their families to seek out something better, something safer, something they hoped would provide their child with the kind of education that would prepare them for a bright future.

When I headed to graduate school in 2008, DC had undergone a sea change: Mayoral control was implemented, schools had been closed, more charter schools were opening and I dug in on the topic of ed reform in both my classes and in my own DC community. As I learned more about philosophies of reform and their implementation, I decided to focus my own PhD research and writing on charter schools as a public policy tool that can give every parent the ability to choose a school that is right for their child, not just parents who can pay for choice. I would ultimately write my doctoral dissertation on charter school closures in Washington, DC.

Some residents with money have a variety of education choices: they can move to a DC neighborhood where the boundary schools are considered desirable; they can apply to a charter school; they can pay tuition at a private school; or they can relocate to a neighboring jurisdiction. Low-income families and those who rely on public housing or public shelters have far fewer choices—and always have. In a city like DC, where housing costs continue to soar and neighborhood segregation by both race and socioeconomic status is a persistent reality, too many families are left without the choices that others have.

As a teacher, researcher, and on issues of policy, here’s what I believe:

  • Families make many choices about their own child’s education—and they always have. I don’t think that people who can’t afford shouldn’t have choices.

  • With public school enrollment District-wide split nearly 50/50 between DCPS and charter schools (and more than a third of students in Ward 6 attending charter schools) we need more collaboration between the sectors. There is much to learn from great schools all across the District and we owe it to our students and families to do that.

  • What got us here will not get us to the next iteration of success for our school system. We need to look at how our policies on choice, funding, data and facilities are serving our citizens. And where policy isn’t serving us well, we need to change it and update it to move us forward as a District.

All of this boils down to my favorite pillar of leadership used at KIPP: If there is a better way, we find it. We as a District must keep seeking better ways forward in public education that will serve all of our students and families. Better ways are not sector-specific. We’ve got a great deal to learn from all of our schools and I support a robust, equitably-resourced system of public education that meets the needs of all our students—no matter where they live.

Jessica Sutter