Cardona Plows on Making the “Stewardship” Argument. It Opens Up a Moment of Huge Opportunity.

Good morning, CharterFolk.

The big news last week was that the Biden Administration, after giving itself a little time to deliberate, decided to proceed further down the path of attempting to gut the federal Charter Schools Program with their terrible proposed regulations.

I recognize how off the mark it may be to refer to something as “big news” when it’s a development that many of us have been expecting from the Administration for weeks now.

From the moment of Cardona’s announcement …

… it has been clear that he was chosen because he had fully bought into the NEA/AFT agenda to harm charter schools.

The only question has been how he would choose to pursue it.

His first approach was attempting to use the federal budget process.

When the legislative branch stopped him there, he turned to the regulation route where he and the rest of the executive branch have more control over the rule-making progress. It earned him …

… personal kudos from the NEA when he went in this direction.

Then came the backlash …

… and a couple weeks of quiet.

Now we see him plow on, focused on a desire to complete the rule-making process before the next round of funding decisions are made. It would allow him to enact a near immediate choke-off of startup funds to charter school developers across the country, putting a huge brake on charter school growth right when demand for new options is peaking.

He goes forward knowing that it will generate additional controversy and blowback from the charter school base and from our bi-partisan coalition of support. It’s apparently a level of pushback he thinks his world can weather.

We’ll see how well this works out for them.

It’s a calculation I can’t help but think may be informed by what he has seen play out in his home state of Connecticut where advocacy conditions for charter school startup are similar to the broader ones at play around the federal CSP program.

In the early going, Connecticut’s charter school movement generated high levels of success and momentum.

Charter school enrollment grew rapidly.

Charter schools excelled academically, with historically underserved students benefitting most.

Large numbers of students found themselves on waiting lists.

The sector prepared to further expand.

But then, in 2015, just as charter school enrollment was further spiking …

… despite the fact that 86% of charter elementary schools and 83% of charter high schools were outperforming their resident school districts …

… or more accurately because of that fact

… Connecticut decided to change its charter school law.

Establishment forces understood the level of threat they faced and convinced their beholden allies in the legislature to bring forward a charter school moratorium bill.

It engendered massive blowback and debate.

When they couldn’t get it through …

… they seized upon another way by which to choke off charter school growth, one that took advantage of a strange quirk in Connecticut’s charter school law.

Historically, Connecticut had an unusual two-step process for approving new charters. In order for a new school to open, the state board of education first had to approve the developer’s charter application and then the state legislature had to approve a new line item in the state budget to fund the school.

The process created a situation where parents and educators who had seen their schools’ charter applications get approved by the state board would exert intense pressure on legislators to make sure that the line items their schools needed to open were also approved.

Charter opponents’ stroke of genius in the spring of 2015 was recognizing that, if they could stop charter schools from building bases of support prior to opening, they could minimize the degree to which legislators would hear from parents – most often parents from historically underserved communities – desperate to get their kids into better public education options. And that shielding would be enough to make sure that legislators wouldn’t vote to approve the line items the new charter schools needed to open.

So they revised their bill …

… to make a subtle but important adjustment to the two-step process. Going forward, the state board would only be able to create an “initial certificate of approval” rather than a full approval. Meanwhile, developers in receipt of an initial certificate would be restricted from hiring staff and from beginning to recruit students and families. It was a change designed to block charter schools in development from building grassroots power. It was an idea that delighted status quo interests.

Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said the changes put charter schools on a “more level playing field” with other schools.

And it has proved to have had exactly the desired effect that charter school opponents were seeking.

A de facto charter school moratorium.

Over the past seven years, charter schools in Connecticut have seen only very minimal enrollment growth as school after school receiving initial certificates from the state board have failed to get the legislature to approve their needed line items in the state budget.

This spring, for the fourth year in a row, the legislature refused to approve funding for a charter that received its “initial certificate” from the state board in 2018.

Advocates are ramping up grassroots efforts to attempt to compensate for the fact that schools in development are legally prevented from building their own grassroots capacity …

… but thus far, it has not proven enough. Legislators shielded from the true force of parents and other grassroots power have stuck by status quo interests.

It creates an advocacy circumstance for charter school growth in Connecticut that bears a striking resemblance to the advocacy conditions surrounding the CSP challenge playing out in DC right now, ones that Establishment-aligned policy makers like Cardona think they can play to their advantage:

  • A bifurcated process where schools in development need not just an authorizing decision from a single entity but also a startup funding decision from a completely different entity.
  • A bet that the amount of grassroots strength that will emerge in support of charter schools that don’t exist yet won’t be anything in comparison to what the charter school movement is building around its existing schools.
  • A belief that a shielding of Establishment-aligned allies from the true force of parents can be achieved such that charter-hostile policies may be maintained for years to come.

It seems clear to me that Cardona is making a fundamental miscalculation right now. Conditions across the entire country in 2022 are fundamentally different from the conditions that were in place in Connecticut in 2015. On Friday I will go deeper into these differences and why the Administration attempting to take the Connecticut play national are certain to encounter massive challenge.

For now, I will end pointing out one thing. It’s the actual biggest news from last week:

Cardona’s new central framing.

His supposed desire to wisely steward CSP resources. His professed concern for the fact that some portion of CSP dollars has gone toward schools that didn’t end up succeeding.

He has essentially retreated from any broad scale criticism of charter schools.

CharterFolk, this is significant.

If this is the direction he is going to pursue, it presents all sorts of new opportunities for us.

You want to talk wise stewardship? You want to talk overall return on investment that has come from the CSP program?

Without doubt, without any close second, by orders of magnitude, there has never been a higher impact investment of federal dollars to improve public education than the CSP.

Even if we accept their inflated numbers.

$174 million in losses? Over 20 years? For a department whose budget is now $79 billion per year?

An investment that has played a vital role in the creation of a new generation of schools that has served tens of millions of students and families? Schools that have proven to be of vital importance to our country during the covid crisis when parents desperately needed an alternative? And now seem poised for even greater impact in the years ahead?

Cardona has chosen a new anchor to cling to – the small number of charter schools that haven’t succeeded

Every time he does, we should be prepared to pounce with our immensely more effective re-anchor – the enormous number of charter schools that have.