Voices in Education

“We Are the Forgotten of the Forgottens”: The Effects of Charter School Reform on Public School Teachers
In 1997, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed legislature that paved the way for the charter school movement. The supporters of charter schools include current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has made millions from school privatization, as well as low-income Black and Latinx families, who are searching for better educational opportunities for their children. Charter schools are one of the few educational reforms that bring people together across class, politics, and race.

As a former public school graduate and teacher, I have always regarded the charter school movement with some trepidation and skepticism. I believe in robust, well-funded public schools and have fought for decades to make sure that all children have access to them. At the same time, as history and experience have shown me, I know that this is often an elusive goal and that public schools in the past and today often replicate and reproduce the inequalities that exist in our society.

I never had any intention of studying charter school reform. I’m a historian: I look to the past to help me shed light on current challenges. As anyone who really knows me could confirm, I also believe deeply in research that happens from the ground up, as well as the power of teacher and student voice to help us understand educational policy, practice, and reform. I spend a lot of time with students inside school classrooms, watching practitioners work, and reflecting on student perspectives.

In many ways, I was able to write this piece because I happened to be at the right school at the right time. For more than eight years and across three different Philadelphia public schools, I was fortunate to have a mentor whom I shadowed and learned from. Chris Morris, the principal in my Fall 2020 Harvard Educational Review article, was that mentor. And I can honestly say that I learned more from him than from any text I have ever read or any class I have ever taken. He opened Pine Ridge’s doors to me, and I cannot thank him enough for what he taught me.

But I needed more than Chris Morris to write this piece; I also depended on the Pine Ridge teachers who shared their feelings, perspectives, and ideas about the decision to close Pine Ridge and reopen it as a charter school.

We already know so much about the effects of charter school reform on families and students, and someday I will probably tell that story about Pine Ridge Middle School. But, when I sat down to write the first article on these data, I wanted to tell the story of charter school reform from the vantage point that I knew best—that of an urban public school teacher. I thank the teachers who trusted me with their ideas and hope that this piece conveys how much they love their city, this community, and their students. I also hope it conveys their deep frustrations, outrage, and anger when school officials handed over yet another public school to a private charter school organization.

About the Author: Erika M. Kitzmiller (https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3112-0518) is a term assistant professor of education at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she teaches courses in education foundation, social inequality, and education policy. A historian of inequality and education, she has published her work in the Hechinger Report, Radical Teacher, and Teachers College Record. Her first book, The Roots of Educational Inequality, which examines the history of education inequality in Philadelphia and Germantown High School, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Kitzmiller’s scholarship has been funded by Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

Erika M. Kitzmiller is the author of “We Are the Forgotten of the Forgottens” in the Fall 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.