Monopolies Don’t Build Democracies, People Do

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by Preston Smith
Co-Founder & CEO

It is time to take action. Our public schools have become unfocused, undisciplined and unimaginative. Around the country, public education has become too complex, stemming from a bureaucracy that crowds out innovation. It’s time to put the needs of kids, families and communities before the needs of adults. New ideas, new energy and a new commitment are necessary to reestablish American public schools as the best in the world. The future of our Republic depends on it.

Widespread education attainment is a prerequisite for the long-term survival of any truly free society. As a matter of principle, for America, every child should receive a quality education that prepares her for a successful future. America’s children deserve nothing less and the urgency to restore high confidence in public education couldn’t be more palpable.

This is why I was thrilled and humbled to join 350 “doers” this sumer at the Aspen Action Forum. The objective of the forum: to reflect on the critical issues of our time with leaders from around the world. But it’s not merely about reflection; it’s about making a pledge to take action. To me, there is no issue more critical than the future of American public schools. That’s why I pledge to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime and ensure that every child receives a quality education.

Being poor doesn’t mean students can’t achieve. It’s the organization of our public schools itself that impedes our ability to close the achievement gap. It’s not that our public school system is big (it is!). Instead, it’s that our public school systems act like classic monopolies, controlling the “means of production” of the education system.

That’s why the demand for charter schools continues to rise. People instinctively know that a student first approach to education is the best way to narrow the achievement gap and work towards an effective education for all. Why should schools that don’t deliver for students still have the privilege to teach those kids?

I hear all the time that public charter schools are taking students away from traditional schools. Why does any school have a right to a student? No. These are American kids and families. Families deserve the choices to do what is best for their children.

What do we do to make things better? We need to disrupt the status quo. We need to take a new turn in society and fight until every student regardless of race or income has the opportunity to succeed in school and beyond. We must stand up and ensure zip codes don’t dictate destiny. We have a responsibility to prepare our children for success and to provide an education that equips them to think critically and communicate effectively. Our kids deserve better education options —and our future depends on it.

The theory behind public charter schools was originally to create pockets of innovation that could help fuel progress within the traditional public school sector. Well, the public school system is far too large for pockets to be enough. We need a movement of innovation and rethinking public schools from the ground up. We can’t prevent the serious consequences of the achievement gap in a silo. We need to take these problems on at scale.

This work is hard and we know there are powerful forces at play. But the stakes are higher. Are we going to move away from big interests and back to what’s best for communities?

I say yes. I say public charter schools are not driven to privatize public education but rather to revitalize it. I never want to see the public taken away from our schools. But today, in too many of our public schools, we have incredible teachers fighting their administration and that administration fighting an entrenched system with powerful interests. This is a fight nobody wins, especially our kids.

When 1.1 million American high school students drop out every year, we know something is wrong. And when something is wrong, we can’t stand around and wait for the perfect solution. We need to innovate, make mistakes, learn and grow. Most of all, we need to stand up for our kids and support high quality public schools, district or charter, that ensure our kids are truly prepared for life.

“For it is important that awake people be awake,” noted the poet William Stafford. We’re awake to the problem. It’s time we act that way so together we can find ways to make our public schools work for all kids. The future of our democracy depends on it.

hffpoThis piece 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.

Follow Preston on Twitter: @prestondsmith 

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