Quality Public Education + Dialogue = Democracy

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by Preston Smith
Co-Founder & CEO

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” President Roosevelt told Americans in 1938. “The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

What if we can figure out this thing called public education? What if we can ensure that every child and family opts into public education and gets a great education? How amazing would the United States be if this dream was realized….

Take a moment, capture the idealism again…and dream…

It is that vision that drives me every day. It is that vision that drove me to co-found Rocketship Education. I deeply believe in the power and promise of public education. I’ve learned to ignore the anti-charter hype that accuses us (and others like us) of trying to privatize public education. C’mon… anyone who knows me knows that I cofounded a public charter school network because I wanted to explore the autonomies and possibilities necessary to further transform public education. I wanted to invigorate our collective work in public education so that one day, we can realize a vision where public education is defined by its quality and is the first and best choice for all students and parents.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a part of a traditional district school or a public charter school. As long as we get the job done for kids and are free and available to all students, we can create the democratic safeguard President Roosevelt talked about.

Now, have I made missteps in this vision? Yes.

Charter and reform leaders have taken our share of political shots over the years. Let me say as a former district principal, I know the dedication, talent, and commitment of teachers and leaders crosses sector lines. If you’re in this work for our kids, it doesn’t matter where you teach.

And on the same hand, the urgency and passion of families and communities is real. Moreover, the disruption and innovation of high quality public charters is necessary in our current public education system if we are going to be great again.

President Roosevelt reminded us that education can make this country great. Seventy-five years later, we’re still trying to fulfill the promise of great public education opportunities for all. To succeed, we must work together, but we must do so with an unyielding commitment to do better.

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Public education in the United States is currently not where most of us want it to be and the consequences are real. Last year in California alone, more than 92,000 students dropped out of high school. What happens to these kids?

Of those who graduate high school, less than two-thirds go directly to college. I personally dealt with this when I was denied from a public university because I attended a low-performing high school; in the eyes of UC system, my grades were inflated. I look back at my public education and often wish I had experienced something better. And I’m not alone.

Five million families across the country choose to pay for private school. Nearly two million families choose to home school their kids , 91 percent of whom say they’re concerned about the environment of other school options. Of those who don’t, many fake their addresses so their kids can have a better education than they would in their neighborhood school.

For each child and family that does not participate in public education, a piece of our democracy and unity within our community is lost.

Like many political issues in this country, powerful special interest groups often fund campaigns, putting fuel on the fire. Such messaging collectively shifts our focus to debate, manipulating data, and mudslinging, rather than engaging in a thoughtful dialogue that makes us each better. The bedrock of our democracy and great country — our kids, our communities, and our system of public education — deserve better.

So, can we get back to the foundations of a democracy and a productive dialogue?

Yes, many might think that I’m naïve, and in the course of things I will probably falter at times, but I will remain focused on this objective and encourage us all to do so as well. I believe collaboration is one of the most powerful ways to take on the many challenges and high tensions that come with change.

I remain hopeful that in the coming days, months, and years the vitriol, divisiveness, and ‘interests’ will move further towards dialogue and common ground. We can do this! It’s what all of our kids, families, and communities deserve. And frankly, if public education is going to once again thrive and serve everyone — if America is going to thrive — then we better figure it out together, and soon.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.


Preston co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose with John Danner in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Preston was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Preston began his career in education as a Teach for America Corps (TFA) member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named “Teacher of the Year” at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA’s Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow.

Before becoming CEO of Rocketship, Preston has had numerous roles including teacher, principal, director of schools, VP Bay Area and chief achievement officer. He has led Rocketship’s professional development, leadership development, integrated special education, and student and teacher recruitment work.

Follow Preston on Twitter: @prestondsmith

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