A New Vision for Charter Schools – Greatly More Public Education For All

Good morning, Charter Folk.

Thanks to many of who have responded to our subscriber match.  If you haven’t signed up already, I encourage you to do so here.  The match offer is capped out at 50 new subscribers.  Anything you can do to help us reach that number, I would very much appreciate.

Meanwhile, I wanted to return to the cliffhanger I left last week before getting sidetracked by the necessary Armegeddon post.

In the cliffhanger, I presented that I believe it is evident what our new vision for charter schools should be.  Today I will attempt to start laying out a framework for that vision.  But before I do, I want to be clear that I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one vision for charter schools that will work. All sorts of variations on a theme will suffice. Conditions are different from state to state. I also don’t think it’s up to shmuckheads like me pontificating on high. The only thing that really matters is what the movement decides.  And the movement can only make its decision in the context of representative advocacy organizations approving and advancing visions reflecting the views of CharterFolk.  If there is any value in offering ideas in a context like this, it is just to help the conversation along. My aim is sharing something that both holds together in terms of making broad strategic sense and has a decent shot of getting our base to coalesce around it. 

Generally, the best vision statements are ones that show effort in support of some commonly held ideal.  At CCSA during my time there, we decided to make our ideal “learning.”

It wasn’t bad.  Other ideals that make sense in our realm are opportunity, student success or preparedness. Over the years, though, I have become convinced that these aren’t the best ideals for us.

In my view, the best ideal for charter schools to be working in support of is public education itself.  Public education holds a special place in our country, more so than in many other countries.  It cuts right to what we are all about. It acknowledges the subtext to nearly any discussion we have about our national heritage, that in addition to some of the greatest achievements and breakthroughs ever to have happened, our country’s past is chock-full of some of the most appalling abuses in human history, and one of the ways we address our shortcomings is by supporting public education.

Our adversaries know, whether we have recognized it or not, that we are in a great struggle over the ideal of public education, and it knows that whoever’s vision prevails – whoever convinces the public that their ideal for public education is best – will ultimately succeed. This is why the opposition always tries to present us as “privatizers,” people who supposedly work in direct opposition to the ideal of public education.

This is not something that the Establishment chose randomly or without extensive, methodical analysis.  They have mountains of data supporting the idea that this is a winning approach for them, and they are all in behind it.   

Their constant effort to label us as privatizers makes it understandable that so many of us are doing all we can to remind people that charter schools are public schools. 

All of this is important, but we can never forget that we are not seeking to be “as public” as other schools.  We are by design and implementation way more public than other public schools.  And our vision must always be that we remain way more public and drag the rest of our schools to greater publicness over time.  That includes making sure that all public schools become simply better – offer higher quality educational service to everyone – and that all public schools become more equitable – more fairly allocate educational opportunity to everyone. In so doing, we demonstrate that public education can better serve the interests of the public all, rather than the private few.

By definition, a private school is a school that chooses to serve the interests of a private group.  Private schools create private benefit by putting up walls determining who may attend.  Those inside the walls get the benefit.  Those outside do not.  The walls consist of tuition requirements that are too high for many to scale.  Walls also consist of selective admissions which exclude kids along lines of race and class.  Other characteristics of private schools underscore their private-ness.  They are accountable to no one but their private clients.  No public entity licenses them or determines periodically whether their performance has been strong enough to warrant continued operations.  Lastly, private school operators may allocate funding as they see fit between sites and they can freely move funding from one campus to another if they so choose.

Our vision for public education begins by identifying the problem, which is that, unfortunately, our public education system has turned out to be just not that public.  In many ways it operates like private schooling.  It puts up walls determining who may attend.  Those walls include attendance boundaries which function like educational redlining. 

Other walls are the selective admissions that we see in thousands of magnets and other traditional public schools. 

These admissions practices result in our public schools allocating better educational opportunity to those with advantage and giving worse to those without, essentially mirroring what private schools do.  Like private schools, our traditional public schools are accountable to no one, having been provided the authority to be both licensor and licensee.  With no separation of powers at play in their accountability scheme, school districts regularly deem their own performance satisfactory and grant themselves authority to keep serving students no matter how dreadful their track record of results has been.  Finally, our public schools allocate resources disproportionately to more affluent kids and families, depriving resources to those kids and families who need them most.

In sum, rather than fulfilling its central mission of helping our country overcome its historical shortcomings, sadly, public education has become one of the strongest forces perpetuating and deepening the very same unfairness it was supposed to root out. In fact, a massive Establishment has built up working to keep things the way they are so that, perversely, public education never achieves its purpose.

The role of charter schools is to make sure that public education finally becomes what it was always intended to be – something greatly more public. There are many hallmarks of greatly more public schools.  Over the months ahead, I will roll out a framework elaborating on the full range of those hallmarks. 

Today I will focus on just three:

  1. Greatly more public schools serve all kids like charter schools already do and like Establishment schools, sadly, don’t.
  2. Greatly more public schools are accountable like charter schools already are and like Establishment schools, sadly, aren’t.
  3. Greatly more public schools allocate resources fairly like charter schools already do and like Establishment schools, sadly, don’t.

Under each of these hallmarks, our argument is that it is in the best interest of all students and communities that schools have these characteristics, but it is particularly damaging to our most vulnerable students when schools don’t.

For example, under “public schools serve all kids,” our argument is that all students would be better supported if they attended schools like charter schools where attendance is not determined by a family’s place of residence or by selective admissions criteria.  But it is particularly damaging to our historically underserved students when they are prevented access to schools based upon their place of residence or how they perform on a test.

Or under “public schools are accountable,” we think that all students would be better served if they attended schools that were truly accountable like charter schools are – had third party authorizers who determined every five years whether the schools had generated results strong enough to merit continued operations.  But when schools aren’t truly accountable, it is our historically underserved students who suffer most.

Or under “public schools allocate resources fairly,” we think it would be better for all students that public schools have to approve their budgets down to the school level.  But when they don’t, it is invariably the highest need kids who suffer most.

And our vision for public education, the North Star that we are driving toward is not that some public schools function this way, but that all do.

This is what has changed over the first three decades in the charter school story.  In the beginning our task was simply to show that some public schools, any public schools, could be made which embody the characteristics of greater publicness.  And that’s what we did to a stunning degree, opening up thousands of charter schools across the country.  But now, having made that progress, we recognize that we have developed a credibility on these issues that positions us uniquely in the landscape to push the Establishment to rid itself of the practices that so wantonly benefit the private few rather than the public all.  

Toward that broader end, a big part of what we do, of course, is grow new charter schools in order to get as many kids as possible, as quickly as possible, into schools already featuring these hallmarks of greater publicness.  This is our historical bread and butter, helping charter schools grow, and we should not be anything but full-throated about our desire to accelerate growth as much as possible going forward. 

But that can’t be the only thing we do!

In order to demonstrate our care for all kids and all communities, we also push the Establishment to adopt hallmarks of greater publicness as quickly and as fully as possible. In fact, we grow and activate our entire movement behind policy proposals to make the entire public school system greatly more public.  As we grow, not only do we see more kids being served in schools that are greatly more public, but we also see ourselves building the advocacy strength needed to accomplish what has never been done before – an overcoming of Establishment protection and a freeing of public education to finally become what it was always intended to be.

It is a vision that passes the Question 2 test I referred to last week by showing how the entire public education system gets better as charter schools grow.  That’s an important step forward, but ultimately, it is still not sufficient. Growing schools and pushing the system to evolve is ultimately a two-legged stool.  The vision we need requires a third leg. Without it, the whole thing tips over.

What is it?

It grows out of what was my absolute worst failing during my years at CCSA. In my opinion it is probably the biggest mistake we have made in the history of the charter school movement. Something that, if corrected, would bring all the pieces together and create a vision that would poise charter schools for another era of unprecedented momentum and impact.

What was that failing? What’s the missing third leg?

Can’t wait to see you here Thursday, CharterFolk.