Good morning, CharterFolk.
Today it’s my pleasure to present an insightful and timely Contributor Column from Greg Richmond.
Greg is well-known to CharterFolk. He has certainly taught me a great deal over the years. I provide a thumbnail biography below.
Greg Richmond founded the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and served as its President and CEO from 2005 through 2019. He chaired the Illinois State Charter School Commission from 2011 to 2015. He currently serves as a Strategic Advisor to Bluum, an Idaho school incubator, and consults with other education clients.
Special thanks to Greg for offering these great comments. They highlight many key themes CharterFolk should be keeping front and center as we enter the Biden era.
Let’s get on to Greg’s post.
On a warm spring evening in 2015, in a gymnasium crowded with proud parents, siblings and helium balloons, I made a short speech congratulating the first class of Horizon Science Academy 8th graders on their completion of elementary school and the commencement of their high school journey.
After the ceremony, as proud family members swarmed their students, a father in an auto mechanic’s shirt worked his way through the crowd to speak with me. He told me he was active in the Democratic Party in the neighborhood and he knew there were powerful forces that tried to stop the opening of Horizon, a charter school, a year earlier. He wanted to thank me, the Chairman of the Illinois State Charter School Commission that approved the school, for making the politically difficult vote to approve it.
Horizon, on the Southwest Side of Chicago in the shadow of the old stockyards, serves a predominantly Mexican immigrant community. In 2014, when the proposal for the school came before the Commission, the number of school age children in the community had been growing rapidly for years leading to extremely overcrowded neighborhood schools.
Horizon had proposed to spend millions to renovate and remediate a vacant commercial building directly across the street from a large city park. Other schools in the Horizon network were demonstrating strong results and the proposed Horizon Science Academy would relieve overcrowding in the surrounding neighborhood schools.
But their charter application to the Chicago Public Schools had been denied. Horizon staff had uploaded an incorrect and incomplete draft of their application on the day of the deadline. No one noticed the mistake until after the deadline had passed and the school district’s law department determined that CPS could not allow Horizon to submit the correct version. Proposal denied.
Horizon appealed its denial to our Commission and we approved it. The Commission had been created only a few years earlier and this was the first time we had overturned a CPS denial. CPS is a multi-billion enterprise with wide and deep relationships with city council members and legislators. They were not happy.
Why? Not because Horizon was relieving overcrowding. Not because Horizon was bringing a multi-million dollar facility investment to public education. Not because hundreds of children would be getting a good education. CPS was unhappy – and argued against the approval of the school – because it believed that CPS should have sole control over the public schools that exist in the city. Overcrowding and academics be damned. The first and last consideration was the question of who holds power.
CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union started a legislative effort to eliminate the Commission. Four years later, Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly succeeded in enacting legislation to kill it.
Ironically, the Commission was created in 2011 with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. The bill sponsors were Democrats, and it was signed into law by Democratic Governor Patrick Quinn. As a longtime Democrat myself, I was appointed to chair the Commission by Governor Quinn.
What changed? In 2014, Quinn lost his election campaign to Republican Bruce Rauner, in 2016 Donald Trump was elected President, and in 2017, Betsy DeVos became the U.S. Secretary of Education. Charter schools, which had enjoyed decades of support from Democrats like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and John King, were portrayed by teachers’ unions and school districts as a Republican scheme to destroy public education. Rank-and-file Democrats believed they needed to oppose anything and everything that Trump and DeVos supported, even though charter schools have been the most successful strategy for improving educational outcomes for urban and low-income students for the past 30 years.
Now the Biden administration is in danger of committing the same sin as Illinois Democrats: cutting off funding for any charter school not authorized by a school district. Not only does this fly in the face of what we know about improved educational outcomes for students in charter schools, it flies in the face of what we know about charter school authorizing.
For the fifteen years, I led the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. We consistently saw that, while there have been a handful of excellent school district authorizers in the country, non-district authorizers are more likely to devote adequate staff to the function of authorizing schools and are more likely to implement professional authorizing practices. Entities like the State University of New York, Massachusetts Department of Education, Georgia Charter School Commission, Grand Valley State University, and the Colorado Charter School Institute – too name just a few of many – are more likely to thoughtfully evaluate charter school applications, appropriately monitor schools while respecting autonomy, and make smart renewal decisions. Without professional authorizing staff and practices, school district authorizers are more likely to make charter school decisions based on political influence.
Making decisions politically rather than professionally means school districts sometimes approve and renew weak schools (because they are well-connected politically) while denying good schools (because they are not). I once spent a day in the offices of one of the largest school districts in California where the one charter school staff person readily acknowledged that their school board has repeatedly renewed academically failing charter schools, against staff recommendations, because of political influence on school board members.
The Biden administration should be investing more time, attention, and resources in understanding and supporting excellent charter schools and professional authorizing, not pulling out the rug from under them. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from that father, the auto mechanic, and millions of other parents whose children need a good school, regardless of who authorized it.