As an early-career teacher, there were people who made some real contributions to my classroom’s culture and instruction. Obviously, some were teacher coaches and mentors who I have written about previously. Others, were residents of the southwest Philadelphia community where I started my career.
State Senator Anthony H. Williams, who has been recognized as a 2017 Champions for Charters, was one of those community members. Every year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recognizes the local, state and federal elected officials who lead the charge to give parents and students better public schools and the freedom to choose the school that works best for them.
I remember as a fledgling teacher, Sen. Williams, whose mother was a public school teacher, would visit my class to speak with my students and encourage me. His support and encouragement was extremely beneficial. He shared his experiences as a Black student in the very neighborhood I was working in. He connected me with community leaders and engaged our students in a plethora of opportunities. He advocated for children, youth, and communities.
While today, people myopically view Sen. Williams as only a charter supporter, my direct experience has been that he supports all of Pennsylvania’s children. He supported Turner Middle School, which was a traditional public school and he supports charters that are doing right by kids and communities.
He supports what works for kids. Period.
And, while many politicians hypocritically take stances against school choice for Black families, they wholeheartedly exercise school choice for themselves. Sen. Williams remembered his own family exercising school choice and he is not wont to neglect his responsibility to other people’s children when he benefited from positive school experiences and options. It is always great to see when politicians don’t abuse their privilege by forgetting how desperate families are for school choice.
Sen. Williams’ passion for school choice is well-documented. His advocacy is for children and choice. But, he also calls out the hypocrisy of many of our politicians and policy makers.
I am exhausted by our time spent on beating up on a type of school. Why are we not focusing upon good schools? Maybe I missed the moment when, in the district, that before charters existed, before we were broke, that the schools were great. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand students were in existence in Philadelphia County before charter schools showed up, before we went broke. We need to be honest. These children are suffering. These families out here are suffering. And we’re pandering to one group versus the other, and I refuse to do that. Charters, publics, magnets, all of them should be a part of the public school experience, and we need to stop beating up on one type and face the facts: We need to fix them all and fund them all.
A third of the district is charter … that’s not born out of a desire to desert public education. It’s born out of a desire to find an experience for one’s child. And all of us have to confess publicly that if you don’t have a good school in your neighborhood, you have a right to find a good one. Charters are just one option. They’re not a silver bullet. Not every one’s excellent. But guess what? Not every neighborhood one is a great school, either. We need to judge the quality of a child’s experience, allow the money completely for a public experience, to drive what we in Philadelphia know is necessary. It will keep people in Center City and in my part of the neighborhood in Philadelphia.
This is the Sen. Williams I met as a classroom teacher. Twenty-two years later, when we wanted to launch The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, Sen. Williams was one of the first people we reached out to. His involvement, engagement, and commitment to public education made him an ideal community and civic leader for our group to engage.
Congratulations, Sen. Williams for being recognized as a 2017 Champions for Charters during National Charter Schools Week!
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.