The Work of Charter Schools – Harder than Issues of War and Peace

Good morning, CharterFolk. 

Huge thanks again for all the new paid subscribers! Yesterday was our biggest day for new subscriber sign-ups since CharterFolk began. At this pace we’ll make our match by Friday, so please keep it coming by signing up here.

Remember, everything is going to the nonprofit, and all subscriptions are tax deductible. 100% of funding is going back into the organization. I’m not taking a dime. The whole idea is just trying to get this baby off the ground. Anything you can do to help, all of us here at CharterFolk would so much appreciate.

On to the update:

Update Summary: The work of charter schools is incredibly hard. Its difficulty grows out of the fact that we are going up against gargantuan political forces that protect the Establishment. The Establishment is not just teacher unions. It’s a vast array of status quo interests that work collaboratively. In California, efforts are anchored by the California Teachers Association, which has unparalleled money and a willingness to use their power in unseemly ways. In Missouri we see the Superintendents Association and their primarily Republican allies oppose charter schools using many of the same tactics that CTA uses. In New York, status quo forces use their unique ability to control Board of Regent appointments to oppose charter schools. As hard as these challenges are, things have gotten even harder in recent years, but in upcoming posts we will explore why there is great reason for hope that charter schools will ultimately prevail.

Today, I would like to focus on a subject that has been a subtext to everything we have explored so far here at CharterFolk. I want to surface it because if we don’t acknowledge it explicitly, it can be difficult to make vision and strategy for the future. It basically boils down to this question:

Why is CharterFolk’s work so hard?

Why is it when we are all are so well-intentioned, having inarguably positive effect on so many people’s lives, that we get so vilified?  Why do we have people shaming us in the grocery store for our support of charter schools and proposing laws that would erase decades of our work? 

I will start my answer to this question with a quote from Tony Blair:

“There have grown up powerful interest groups that can stand in the way of substantial and necessary reform. Anyone who has ever tried to reform an education system, for example, knows how tough and bitter a struggle it is. The bureaucracy fights change. The teachers’ unions fight change. The public gets whipped up to defeat change even when it is in the public’s own interest. The nearest I came to losing my job as prime minister was not over policies of war and peace, but over education reforms.”

Think of that.  Tony Blair – one of the most adept politicians of his era.  The only time he nearly lost his job was when he tried to make changes in the sphere where charter schools are trying to make our contribution.

Folks, believe it or not, our work is harder than war and peace. And it’s that way because we are forced to take on one of the most formidable political forces in our society today: the education Establishment.

Notice, I did not say “teacher unions” because the Establishment is much larger than that. It is the school boards, administrators, business officials, school districts, county offices of education, school superintendents, state education bureaucrats, special education officials, parent teacher associations, representatives of state retirement systems, teacher credentialing entities, schools of education, textbook publishers, testing companies and many, many others.

Each has decent power in and of themselves, but brought together in their united protection of the Establishment, their power is huge. Maybe this puts it in proper perspective:

In California, we have the California School Boards Association (CSBA). 

A respected organization.  Capably led. What’s their budget?

In comparison to CCSA, they have about four times as much money coming to the organization in membership dues.  CCSA has made up for it with fundraising.  All in, during my time at the organization, CCSA’s overall operating budget grew to approximate CSBA’s.  And our 501c4 organization was able to raise annually about half as much as CCSA’s operating budget for political activity. So we basically equated to one and a half Establishment protectors against a phalanx of at least 15-20 such organizations.

And that’s before we get to the real heavyweights:

The California Teachers Association. The California Federation of Teachers. All the local teacher unions. Service Employees International Union. The California School Education Employees Association. The scale of these unions’ power relative to others is difficult to even comprehend.  CTA, of course, is the anchor, by far the most powerful single political force in California.

In terms of sheer money, CTA has somewhere in the neighborhood of $220M coming in annually.  There is no other entity in the state that has resources even remotely in this category. 

And this does not count the funding that comes to local teacher unions, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $100M/year in California.

Here is a way to look at their relative strength: after the JANUS decision, CTA made what was advertised as a very painful cut of 8% to its overall operating budget.

That cut was way larger than the entire annual budget of CCSA.

But it’s not just the volume of resources CTA has.  It’s the Machiavellian use of those funds, a willingness to do things that no one else is willing to do. Maybe this best illustrates:

At CCSA over the years we were able to develop enough political strength that we were able to win many races in the legislature to the point that we were on the cusp of having a majority of legislators express support on our issues. But getting close to majority support did not translate into a real balance of power in the capitol.

Why?

Because we didn’t have legislative leadership with us – the Speaker and the Pro Tem.  And these two people have the power to tip the whole legislative apparatus in the favor of their friends. And CTA gives such enormous amounts of money to entities they control – literally millions of dollars annually – there is simply no way to compete.

In legislative races, it was within our potential to compete.  We would recruit great candidates.  They excited our grassroots base.  They won over our funders.  And with smart campaigns we were able to win on most occasions. But in terms of influence with legislative leadership? Imagine going to funders and saying we want to do what CTA does – just give gobs of money to leadership and let them do whatever they want with it just so we will have entrée and influence in the legislature.  You think there’s any donor in the world that will give money like that? Of course not.  It’s unseemly.  It’s revolting. And yet, it’s what CTA has been doing every year for decades.

And what are the results?

The first legislative race CCSA Advocates ever got deeply involved in was Brian Johnson’s race in 2012.  We lost by 31 votes.  Still stings.

A few months later, a seat opened up on the Assembly Education Committee.  Of all the new legislators coming in, who would you guess was appointed?

That’s right.  They guy Brian was trying to beat.

By the next cycle we had gotten a lot stronger.  CCSA Advocates won nearly all the Assembly races that we were involved in.  There was a wave of new Assembly Members coming into the chamber.  A significant portion of them were outright charter school supporters, the vast majority of the rest were at least reasonably with us.

Only three incoming members were outright hostile toward us.

A few weeks after the election, there were three open seats filled on the Assembly Education Committee.  Of all the new incoming class of legislators that the Speaker could have chosen from, what three would you guess were appointed?

That’s right.  The only three that were hostile to our interests.  Of those three, two remain there to this day.  The third has become California’ Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In 2016, it happened all over again.  We had won almost all races in the prior election.  In fact, there was only one race where we had spent heavily and lost.

Who was the person who filled that year’s open seat?  You guessed it.  The one person who we had spent heavily against and lost to.

Notice a pattern here?

So, when you’re reading that bills are passing various committees, remember that it is no true expression of democracy.  It’s the expression of raw political power which the education Establishment has in the capitol, anchored by CTA, the most powerful entity in the state, willing to engage in a degree of unseemly behavior that virtually no one else in the state is able or willing to match.

When you are in other states, remember that you similarly have to dig under the surface to find the Establishment’s strangleholds.  And remember, it’s not just the teacher unions that have this power.  In Missouri, for example, it’s the Superintendents Association, often Republicans from more rural areas, who will do everything they can to undermine charter schools.  In Missouri, charter schools are allowed to operate in St. Louis and Kansas City, but they are not permitted elsewhere.  For many years, the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association and other advocates have tried to pass legislation that would allow charter schools to expand into other parts of the state. The idea has broad support. But every year it has been stopped by one man …

… the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, appointed there by the Republican President Pro Tem of the Senate. Every year for several years when the charter expansion bill would pass the Assembly, the Senate Ed Chair would kill it using his prerogative as chair to make sure that the bill wouldn’t even be brought up for consideration.

As this story identified when he recently decided to retire …

… the Chair had become recognized to be “a firewall in the legislature” supporting the education Establishment. And while charter school advocates see his departure as a moment of opportunity, we also see who has the inside track to replace him in the Senate …

… a Republican Establishment protector every bit as rabid as the prior Chair.

One last example …

Many of us across the country watched closely the appalling decision by the New York Board of Regents to vote to close one of the highest performing schools in Buffalo.

Thankfully, due to effective recent advocacy efforts, that decision has been reversed, but what has gotten scant attention is how such an appallingly bad initial decision could have been made in the first place. This wasn’t some rogue local school board. This was the Board of Regents, the most powerful policy making body overseeing public education in the State of New York.

How did it ever come to pass that the Board of Regents would be comprised of public officials who are so wantonly willing to close one of the best schools in the state, depriving hundreds of kids and families an educational option clearly much superior to anything else available to them?

It’s because there is a quirk in New York law. The Board of Regents are appointed by the New York Assembly, not the whole legislature where historically charter schools have received more favorable treatment. The Assembly has been under control of the state’s Democratic Party since the 1970’s. And because they have an unimpeded ability to appoint Regents who are straightforward protectors of the Establishment, they focus there. Over the decades they have peopled the Board of Regents with individuals like this:

She was appointed to the Board is 2015 explicitly to appease teacher unions who effectively ran her predecessor out of office for not toeing the union line.

Should we be surprised at all that the Regent would end up saying such abjectly abhorrent things as she did when she voted against BuffSci?

As bad as those comments are, there are many others on Board of Regents who have shared other comments at least as appalling. And the way things are set up in the Assembly, it looks likely that even more people like them are going to be appointed in the years ahead.

It all provides even greater evidence that Tony Blair was right. We are up against something of absolutely gargantuan power, something more challenging than issues of war and peace.

But, CharterFolk, hear me.

There is actually great reason for hope. There is something about charter schools that gives us a potential to overcome things that not even Tony Blair could overcome.

And I will get to it soon, but I can’t do so yet.

Because the truth is that as hard as it’s always been for charter schools, it’s gotten even harder in recent years. Our adversaries have gotten even smarter in their opposition to us, and in order for us to get to a strategy that will sustain us, we need to understand more deeply what exactly is coming at us.

It’s something I’ll take a run at here on Thursday.

But remember, there’s light on the other side.

I promise.

Hope to see you here.