The Huge Opportunity to Make Progress on Red Lines in Blue States Now

Good day, CharterFolk.

Following up my post from Saturday wherein I lamented Sacramento Unified’s incompetence in creating a remote option for its families who seek one …

… two days later this story came out.

It’s actually a statewide phenomenon.

It’s like clockwork.

Policy makers try to defend Establishment schools by preventing parents from going to charter schools already offering what the parents want, only making matters worse. In the end, many more students end up suffering than needed to be the case.

There are many “like clockwork” developments happening in charterland these days.

For example:

Charter schools start to show increased momentum in Red States:

What happens next?

The “like clockwork” response …

… a pathetic attempt to recast the entire history of the school choice movement as a conservative plot to undermine Brown vs Board of Education and destroy public education altogether. (Really, Duke, if this is the quality of work your “distinguished” professors put out, I’d love to see what your undistinguished ones do.) But it’s the kind of clockwork we are going to have to get used to because there are many knee-jerk people in our country who are going to believe this stuff no matter how unhinged from reality it might be.

The question is: how do we put together a strategy for navigating this new reality?

Another new study reveals a path forward, this one from the Urban Institute.

It’s a study much like the recent one from Annenberg that I wrote about in April:

Like the Annenberg paper, the Urban Institute report ties modern day district boundaries and school attendance zones to the Home Owner Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlines that were drawn by the US Government in the 1930’s. It highlights how 2000 schools in the country that are adjacent to one another have sharply different racial compositions due to educational redlines. Some of the visuals are incredibly striking:

All this is good, but then, unfortunately, the study goes off the rails when it looks at “school choice systems.” While the authors say that the evidence is not conclusive and more research is necessary, they have enough confidence to assert that:

Districts with centralized school lotteries are demographically different and have higher rates of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segregation than others.”

In other words, “school choice systems” do not help overcome the redlining problems caused by HOLC all those decades ago, but may in fact make things worse.

To be fair, the study’s authors make efforts to be precise, and they do not say that “centralized school lotteries” are interchangeable with “broader school choice systems,” but their general co-mingling of the concepts is unmistakable and does a great disservice. The school choice that we all fight for in the charter school movement is antithetical to the centralized school lotteries run by school districts. The challenge is that, in order to expose the Urban Institute’s gross errors of thinking in the report, you have to go much deeper into what school districts’ centralized lotteries actually do. And that can be very time-intensive and can require a lot of local knowledge.

For example, one of the three schools highlighted in the study meant to be most illustrative of the broader dynamics playing out in the other 2000 schools across the country is Canfield Elementary School in west Los Angeles. I happen to know a lot about Canfield. I served as a T.A. there for a year before I started teaching. The study certainly gets right the systematic exclusion of students of color from Canfield’s attendance boundary that has happened over the decades.

And going deeper certainly reveals that the school district’s “centralized lottery system” makes things worse.

What I object to is the authors somehow calling the district’s centralized lottery a “school choice system.” It’s actually the exact opposite. The district’s lottery actually prevents historically underserved families from choosing Canfield.

At some point in the 80s or early 90’s, Canfield had seen a drop in enrollment. That led to the school letting some out-of-area students, primarily Black students from the other side of La Cienega Boulevard, to attend the school. I remember while I was there that a group of mostly-white parents went door to door in the neighborhood trying to recruit their mostly-white neighbors to bring their kids out of private schools so that they could get enough enrollment to make Canfield a 100% “community neighborhood school” again. Ultimately, that group became …

… Friends of Canfield.

Over the years, they changed their tactics. In order to get Canfield to serve only kids from the neighborhood, or kids very much like the kids who live in the neighborhood, they decided to create a “choice program.” You know, the kind of thing you see described on the district’s “Choices” website.

Because, while Canfield is billed as a “neighborhood community school” …

… it has actually become a “School for Advanced Studies” …

… meaning that if you live outside the attendance boundary, you have to be identified as gifted or do well on standardized tests or live up to other selected admissions criteria …

… in order to be eligible to attend Canfield.

And, of course, all these selective admissions criteria screen out kids by race.

So in the end, after the district performs its “centralized school lottery,” Canfield ends up with a demographic profile …

… that is 21% Black and Latino in a school district that is over 83% Black and Latino.

This is what “community neighborhood schools” are, perpetuators of educational redlines that consist both of attendance boundaries that were literally drawn during the Jim Crow era and selective admissions criteria that might as well have been.

And who are the Friends of Canfield’s closest allies in helping to create a broader system of community neighborhood schools?

The party most responsible for the state of public education in Los Angeles today.

Its leadership works exhaustively to reinforce and strengthen the redlines embedded with the community neighborhood school concept all while working to present themselves as on the side of kids and families and racial justice.

It’s an agenda and a duplicitousness that Establishment protectors work to advance across the entire country …

… ultimately resulting in the thousands of redlined school situations that the Urban Institute writes about.

For many years, teacher unions and others have been able to wrap themselves in the apple-pie and motherhood-ness of the “neighborhood school” concept. But things are changing. It’s why these new reports like the Annenberg and Urban Institute studies are a good thing, even if they get fundamental things wrong, like conflating “school district lotteries” and “school choice.” They are a part of the important racial awakening that is happening in our society, and they are casting attention on problems we should have eradicated generations ago.

The new attention is certainly helping. Our country’s affinity for “community neighborhood schools” is waning. Recently, I was provided polling from the District of Columbia about likely voters’ opinions regarding attendance boundaries. I quote a couple of data points from that poll below.

  • 46% of voters agree with this statement: “Assigning students to schools based on their residence has made public education more segregated than it was 70 years ago. It’s time to make access to a great school more equitable by setting aside seats in DC’s best public schools for students who live outside the boundary zone.” Of those who agree with this statement, 71% strongly agree, 26% somewhat agree.
  • 31% of voters agree with this statement: “Assigning students to schools based on their residence is necessary to create true neighborhood schools. We should keep the school boundary zones we have, so families have certainty about where their children will attend school.” Of those agreeing with this statement, 51% strongly agree, 37% somewhat agree.

CharterFolk, this is quite a sea-change in the American psyche, an opportunity right now to push for a pulling down of educational redlines and to draw a new narrative for our movement showing that, rather than “school choice” being on the wrong side of history as the “distinguished” professor from Duke so lamely asserts, we are actually the movement with the commitment and the heft needed to help our society finally rid itself of this plain injustice.

It is why I was delighted to see this development occur in DC in recent days.

A group of 11 charter school principals, led to a significant degree by CharterFolk of the Year Finalist Daniela Anello, brought forward a proposal to allow charter schools to offer to historically underserved students a statistical advantage in the schools’ lotteries. In terms of driving a new narrative for our movement, this gesture does many things right:

  • It was done by a group of CharterFolk coming together. When we act in unison, we create a storyline that has to be paid attention to.
  • It grounded the effort in a tangible policy proposal – the charter school board approving a motion allowing the schools to create the admissions preferences – which creates the conflict and the cliffhanger that draws attention to the matter.
  • And finally, of course, it advances a great policy idea, one showing that charter schools make great efforts to serve the kids who need better educational opportunity most.

It’s essentially presenting our movement as the “anti-Canfields,” not making it harder for historically underserved students to access a great educational opportunity, but to make it easier.

Exactly what we want to see in community after community across the United States.

But the problem is that the initiative is missing the key thing we need if we are serious about forcing the discussion to go deeper:

The critique of the current system.

As we have written about several times here at CharterFolk, DC’s traditional public schools purport themselves to be the most unwalled schools you can find anywhere …

… when in actuality, like Canfield Elementary School, they feature redlining attendance boundaries that were literally made in the Jim Crow era and selective admissions criteria …

… that might as well have been.

But no one knows about this because no one has ever drawn their attention to it!

Now, CharterFolk, now is the moment to seize this mantle. We are the one form of public education in our society that doesn’t have historical redlining cooked into our very DNA. So it is incumbent upon us to lead.

We let the world know that charter schools do not seek to grow for the sake of having more charter schools. We seek to grow because our nation’s public schools have turned out to be sadly unpublic, and that until they rid themselves of educational redlines and other design-disasters that make them some of the greatest perpetuators of racial inequity in our society today, we will remain, as Donald Hense so aptly put it, “hellbent” on accelerating and intensifying our work.

That means our entire base coming together in communities across our country attempting to advance proposals that would force the system to give up its redlines and other inequities – basically what the 11 schools in DC are doing, only times 10 or 20 or 100 – over and over again, until the truth begins to sink in with the public and begins to register at Duke University and at the Urban Institute and in all the places where honest evaluations of charter school impact should be happening.

And of course, it begins the process of holding accountable teacher unions and other protectors of the Establishment whose uncontested ascendency in Blue contexts right now is leading their communities down a path that will only result in another generation of historically underserved students getting screwed out of the better educational opportunity they deserve.

It’s forcing the analysis to go deeper in a way designed to change the discussion everywhere so that we regain as much momentum in Blue States as we now have in Red.

Because the deeper the public can get into what has really happened at places like Canfield Elementary School, the more it will come to understand what we already know to be true, which is that the charter school movement is our greatest reason for hope that public education in our country ultimately can and will be redeemed.

The National Alliance’s Latest Report on Growth – Why It’s Imperative We Be Louder About the Fact that We Don’t Want More Charter Schools for the Sake of More Charter Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’m getting my last post for the week off to you on a Saturday morning. I find myself scrambling to stay atop my regular work while finding time to keep things going here at CharterFolk, a time pressure I know is nothing in comparison to the unbelievable lift that CharterFolk are contending with at the school level this fall. Thanks for all you’re doing, and thanks for your understanding as I get this out to you during a weekend when I hope you can at least catch a little breath.

As many of you have seen, on Tuesday, the National Alliance released their latest report on charter school enrollment growth.

It is mostly a trend-confirming study:

  • Parents with kids in traditional public schools have abandoned those schools in huge numbers during the pandemic (a reduction of 1.4M kids in traditional public schools).
  • Many parents (about 240,000) have moved their kids to charter schools.
  • There was a significant shift to virtual charter schools, but many brick and mortar schools saw growth as well.
  • In sum, charter schools saw enrollment growth of 7.1%, the highest rate we have seen in several years.

All intuitive.

Almost all of it aligns with the musings I shared in my first post back after Colombia that charter schools would be just short of serving 4 million students in 2021-22. If we were somewhere around 3.65M students in charter schools last year (including Tennessee which was left out of the data set), and if we have had another year of decent growth this year, we would currently be serving somewhere in the 3.9 million students range. That would equate to approximately 8% of all public school students in the country being served by charter schools right now.

My biggest error in thinking in my post-Colombia column was not about anything happening during Covid. It was about how bad things had gotten for charter school growth pre-Covid.

The Alliance’s data showed that we only had about 35,000 students growth in 2019-20.

If we add back in Tennessee’s 45,000 charter school students, we see a total national enrollment growth of about 80,000 kids in 2019-20. That equates to a 2.4% growth rate, the lowest that we have seen in the history of the national charter school movement.

CharterFolk, I can think of no better word to describe that growth rate than “sobering.”

Were we to have that level of growth for many more years, prospects for the movement stalling out altogether seem very tangible. And once we’re stalled out, it’s not hard to see what comes next – a focus on re-regulating and unionizing our schools that could erase all that we have worked for over the past three decades.

With all that acknowledged, I want to posit today that there are three great reasons for hope that we will in fact see far higher growth rates in the years ahead.

The first is temporary and very tangible:

The Covid-effect is likely to persist for several more years.

Yes, some families that have made the switch will return to their old schools once they feel that a sense of normal is returning. But the greatly increased awareness that parents and the broader public have about the alarmingly dysfunctional performance of our traditional public schools will result in many more kids ultimately moving to charter schools. This certainly proved to be the case during the fiscal crisis of 2009 when the charter school enrollment boom lasted for several years. No matter how much legislators attempt to protect the Establishment and give it time to build the new options that parents want in a crisis, the Establishment proves simply unable to build them. In California, legislators refused to fund the enrollment growth of non-classroom based charter schools in hopes of giving school districts a full year to build their own options. But now, districts are rolling out programs that are recognized to be a complete mess.

Meanwhile, non-classroom based charter schools are now receiving full funding for all the students they are serving, including new students. Add to the mix that California legislators enacted a “hold harmless” provision for school districts, meaning that districts will keep receiving the same funding no matter how many students they actually serve, and that hold harmless clause was not offered to charter schools. It sets up a situation where school districts have absolutely no incentive to retain students while charter schools are strongly motivated to keep serving as many students as they possibly can. What do you think the cumulative impact of that is going to be over the next several years?

It’s these kinds of inane policy decisions replicated across the country that only further ensure that charter school growth is likely to be robust for many years to come.

A second reason to believe that growth will be higher in the future is the fact that:

We are beginning to see charter school enrollment accelerate in Red States.

Data in the Alliance report that have not received much attention are numbers confirming what I have been calling “The National Crack Up” – a divergence in public policy goals and strategies between Red States and Blue States. The report speaks to the widening chasm in treatment charter schools are experiencing in different states.

In Red States (states where the governor and both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans), the charter school enrollment growth rate was 10.2%.

In Blue States the rate was 3.7% …

… with Purple States (where no one party holds the governorship and two legislative houses) having a rate right in the middle – 6.7%.

I know it’s a somewhat crude measure, but the visual of states ranked by growth rate pretty much tells the story.

When it comes to where charter school growth is happening in our country, Red is definitely on top.

Meanwhile, even more favorable policy changes that were approved in Red States this year create the conditions for even more robust growth in the near future. With a base of enrollment in Red States that is now 325,000 students larger than in Blue States, it is clear that Red States have a momentum level and an overall heft that will bump up national charter school growth rates for many years to come.

Finally, we come to the third reason, and this one I admit is the most speculative but I also think it’s the one that could have the greatest overall impact:

There has never been a better time to articulate a new vision for growth.

It leads me to my only criticism of the National Alliance report.

No doubt, the report does a good job describing all the trends happening related to charter school growth at a particularly important moment, but it does not articulate a compelling vision for WHY we want charter school growth in the first place.

I know that in moments like this it seems like the why is self-explanatory.

The public school system is struggling and whatever you might think about public education, you support the idea that parents should be able to get their kids to the better options they desperately need right now.

So Covid provides us a kind of temporary hall pass for messaging related to growth, a reprieve from the dynamics that have been in place ever since the Question 2 setback in Massachusetts where our opposition finally figured out that the best way to fight charter school growth is to present it as one massive selfish gesture. It’s a message that boils down to the following:

It may be true that some kids and families get better education through the growth of charter schools, but it shouldn’t be allowed because it makes all other public schools worse.

It is a frame that basically sets aside any discussion about whether charter schools are any good or not, or are any better than the schools that students would have otherwise had to attend. From our adversaries’ point of view, it literally doesn’t matter whatever benefit might accrue to students who are able to attend new charter schools because they assert that the damage that is experienced by students who remain in traditional public schools is even greater. This is the frame at the heart of our opposition’s attack against National CSP funding: It doesn’t matter if the funding would make a bunch of great new charter schools because those new schools will only make all other schools worse. So cut it off.

Not having a compelling why for charter school growth, many in our world go silent. We pretend it isn’t happening. Or we pretend it isn’t something we really care about. All it does is provoke more backlash. So let’s just shut up about it.

Which seems like a good strategy until you have to justify why something like CSP funding should be continued. And one of the National Alliance’s top priorities, of course, is keeping that CSP funding. So they have to talk about growth. Thus they release the report, hoping that the presence of Covid provides an unmistakable why.

And maybe it does.

For today.

But for tomorrow? For the years and decades to come?

It’s just a matter of time, CharterFolk.

And the time is so ripe for us to step out with a new rationale for growth!

With huge Red swaths of the country doubling down on charter schools already, and many Blue areas exhibiting some of the most dysfunctional …

… broken …

… and simply unacceptable …

… behavior imaginable …

… there has never been a better time than right now to articulate anew our reason for growth.

We can assert things in the fall of 2021 that it would have been far harder to say just three years ago.

The kinds of things that we use to say all the time three decades ago when our movement first got started.

Hard truths about our public school system.

Like how our public school system has, sadly, turned out to be not that public, and we, as Donald Hense put it

are hellbent

… on growing new charter schools …

… NOT because we want more charter schools for the sake of more charter schools, but because the growth of charter schools coupled with an advocacy agenda coming from the charter school world seeking to push the traditional system to purge itself of the inequities that are cooked into its very DNA …

… will result NOT in public education being better for SOME kids …

… but for ALL kids.

And we salute the efforts of extraordinary CharterFolk who, despite the unimaginable challenge of providing their current students great services during the Covid crisis, and despite the absolutely ridiculous levels of blowback that are coming at them from protectors of the Establishment, have somehow found a way to keep opening new schools so that even more students can be served.

Like many of our CharterFolk X from last year who are opening new schools this fall despite all the incredible challenge.

Extraordinary leaders like Eduardo LaGuerre in Yonkers, New York …

… and Eddie Conger in Plum Grove, Texas …

… and Elaine Swafford in Chattanooga, Tennessee …

… and Jen Wickens in Tacoma, Washington …

… and so many more.

It is perhaps the single best argument we have for charter school growth:

The stunning CharterFolk who are driving it …

… bound by a common purpose to make public education in our country better for absolutely everyone.

A purpose that waits to be articulated anew for a world that is newly poised to embrace it.

Come on, CharterFolk!