Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.
Readers here at CharterFolk know that my father’s influence informs much of what I work for in education.
When I first got started working in charter schools, he was skeptical. But then he went on some school visits with me one day when I was serving as an authorizer. And he saw the freedom that chartering afforded educators, and he recognized how much more progress he would have been able to make in his career as a school principal if he had had the chance to work within a charter school.
Heading into this year’s Father’s Day, I have found myself thinking about him even more than usual.
He’s hit that time in life when he isn’t driving much any more. So I ended up inheriting his beloved 2001 BMW convertible. I am not much of a car guy. For years my kids have been ridiculing me for continuing to drive my 2005 Toyota Sienna minivan with nearly 300,000 miles on it. After years of hearing them plead with me to get a new car, or at least a newer one, I did what any good contrarian dad would do.
I got an even older one.
The new acquisition meant that I would need to make space in the garage to park another car. Dismantling a row of shelves, I came across an artifact I had forgotten I had stored on an uppermost one.
It’s something that CCSA had made for an event they held for Brian Bennett sometime after he was diagnosed with ALS.
Somehow it ended up in a CCSA storage area and when we cleaned it out one year, staff thought it should come to me, given my connection to Brian. So it became another of my various inheritances.
This week, I had been thinking more about Brian anyway.
Some CharterFolk readers may remember that in my first post I described a promise that I made to Brian near the end of his life, a promise that has powered much of my work in charter schools ever since, and ultimately resulted in me making CharterFolk. In that post, I told the story of visiting Brian in his final months when he was no longer able to speak. He would communicate by typing out words letter by letter. After checking in about friends and family, he would start asking the news about charter schools. And without fail, the first school he would ask about was Gompers.
Gompers, as many of you know, made the news this week.
After a few years experiencing the reality of being a unionized school, the teachers of Gompers voted to decertify.
It’s a very typical cycle.
The teachers of a charter school are promised things by teacher unions they simply can’t deliver on. The reality is that charter schools are already spending every dollar they have to compensate their people as best they can. So there simply aren’t big new raises and improvements in benefits to negotiate. And unions will promise teachers that they won’t force the school to use the same one-size-fits-all contract that all other schools use, but then the unions refuse to negotiate anything customized to the school’s unique needs.
So then the teachers feel lied to.
Then factor in the thousands of dollars that the unions take from the teachers without offering anything of value in return. So for many teachers it becomes natural that they would decertify.
It is true that we have been seeing a slightly higher rate of schools unionize in recent years. I am sure that many of them will end up having the same experience that Gompers teachers have had and will decertify.
While it’s a fairly common experience, it’s not a well-known one because there is an information asymmetry in the landscape.
Every time a charter school unionizes, the teacher unions trumpet it broadly.
Every time a school decertifies, the school wants to remain as quiet as possible to avoid disrupting the positive development that is playing out.
What makes the Gompers case unique is that it has ended up being covered by the press as the process has unfolded.
And it features themes that I believe to be much more important than some in our movement believe to be the case.
For many years, it has been my belief that the worst mistake we have made as a movement is to de-emphasize the importance of conversion charter schools, of which Gompers is one. When we do not prioritize conversions, we present the charter school movement as solely being about the creation of new schools. And when we do that, we imply that the movement is one huge replacement strategy, and so it’s understandable how people in the traditional system would dig in their heels to oppose us.
But when we say that we are both about the creation of great new charter schools and about helping existing traditional public schools get even better, we have a completely different posture from which to communicate what our movement is all about.
I have identified my failure to convince the charter school movement in California to re-establish a priority on conversions to be my single worst mistake during my time at CCSA. And I stand by that assessment.
It was particularly egregious for me personally to fail at this. My entry point to charterness was through the conversion experience. I taught at a school that nearly converted. If I hadn’t made a terrible miscalculation in the process – committing publicly to only converting if we got 75% of teachers to sign the charter petition when the law only required 50% (we ended up getting 66%) – I might still be at that school to this very day. I saw how the power of conversion resonated with our teachers and with our school community more broadly, all who bristled at how much we were being disrespected and undermined by our school district’s central administration.
President Clinton, who had possibly the best political intuition about how to position the charter school movement broadly, at least among Democrats, knew the importance of conversions.
Brian Bennett certainly knew all this. When he was asked in 2003 to oversee a project that might lead to the conversion of Gompers, he first engaged the parents of the community. They overwhelmingly voted for the school to convert. Then the school board threw up new opposition to the conversion, requiring that Brian also get at least half of the school’s teachers to sign the petition. They figured that would put an end to it.
Instead, after engaging with Brian for several months, 58% signed.
And so, amid all the talk of NCLB forcing failing public schools to convert to charter school status as a punishment, Brian ensured that Gomper’s conversion was a voluntary one, with teachers having huge input from the very beginning. One of the first things they did was to rehire their highly respected former school principal, Vince Riveroll, who continues to serve at the school to this very day.
Like many conversions in the first decade or so of the charter school movement, Gompers didn’t transform overnight. And so many who wanted to see instant success became disenchanted and turned their focus to new startups exclusively. But what those people failed to see was how Gompers and many conversion schools like them steadily improved.
I remember going back to Gompers a few years into my service at CCSA. The data was stunning. The school’s college-going and college-completion rates were essentially identical to High Tech High’s, and yet no one was paying attention. We did what we could to begin changing perception about that.
And now we see in the latest CREDO report that conversion schools are performing as well as other charter schools. And we see how organizations taking on conversions don’t experience any performance drops at their other schools. We also see how the vast majority of strengthening that has happened in charter schools over the past decade has been existing schools getting better over time, following the trajectory of steady improvement that conversions have taken.
Though I don’t have any hard evidence on this, my intuition is that forced turnaround conversions are less successful than voluntary ones.
Just like I can’t know for sure all the dynamics that led Gompers teachers to decertify this week.
But my intuition is that the school’s origin story played a role. Yes, teacher unions may come in and try to say that teacher voice somehow isn’t respected at a charter school. Almost always, I find those arguments to be weak, if not completely specious. But in a school like Gompers where the fact that the school became a charter in the first place was a function of a majority of teachers supporting the conversion, it becomes even harder to recast history.
And it becomes easier for teachers to regain their bearings, to come to their senses, and to embrace again a relationship with the management of the school that is clearly more in the interests of students, the community, and of teachers themselves.
We are going through a period when the charter school movement is regaining a sense of momentum. In many places where this is happening, charter schools often already serve more than 30% of the students in the local area. For future growth to happen, a sizable portion of it, by necessity, will need to come from existing schools converting to charter school status.
Conversions played a major role in the final stages of New Orleans becoming an all-charter district. But the focus on conversions didn’t happen until charter schools served over 70% of students. Imagine how different the feel would have been had the charter school movement been actively reaching out to people within the traditional system earlier from an inclusive rather than from a replacing posture. So many of the problems that have bedeviled New Orleans ever since would have been avoided.
It’s another reason why I hope that this moment of renewed momentum for the charter school movement will be one where we regain our proper bearings on the importance of conversions.
Perhaps our best opportunity for doing so will be within the administration of Charter School Program funding, which I have written previously is now coming into the hands of CharterFolk.
And if there is anything I would request of the Folk who will be overseeing these funds, it would be to set aside a portion to encourage conversions, and it would be to dedicate funds to pay for communications and outreach efforts to educators within the traditional system.
The over-arching message would be:
We know that you’re not the problem within public education. You’re a vital part of the solution. We know that you want what is best for your students and your community, and you are being held back, and we are as much here for you as we are for anyone who wants to make a charter school.
It would be perhaps the greatest way to ensure that the voice of Brian Bennett would be forever heard. Indeed, in my view, it would ensuring that the voice of all CharterFolk would be so heard.
Because, as our movement heads into its fourth decade, if there is anything that we can agree upon, it’s that our mission is to release potential.
Yes, of course, potential within our nation’s young people.
But potential also within people working in traditional public schools, people like my father, who have it within themselves to be even more successful with kids if they’re simply freed up from the constraints that so ridiculously and needlessly hold them back.
Like the Folk at Gompers have.
It’s a potential we simply can’t afford to leave outside the garage any longer.
Because, in our fourth, fifth and sixth decades, if we’re going to cover all the ground that lies before us, we’re going to need a broader range of vehicles to get us there.
And the one that may take us further than any other is conversions.