CharterFolk Contributor Jim Blew – The Charter School Movement: More Fragile Now Than in the Pioneer Days

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am delighted to share with you a contributor column from Jim Blew.

I provide a brief bio for Jim below.

Jim has actively advocated for charter schools and education reform for more than 25 years in a variety of organizations, including 50CAN and StudentsFirst. For nearly a decade through 2014, he managed the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 reform investments. From 2017-2020, he worked under former U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos, serving as Assistant Secretary. He is currently splitting his time between a federal education policy institute, which he co-founded, and as an advisor to groups that are moving decision-making power into the hands of parents and teachers.  

A special thanks to Jim for offering such a thoughtful piece. Let’s get straight to it.

The Charter School Movement – More Fragile Now Than In the Pioneer Days

In 1997, I began meeting weekly around a table with an amazing collection of people in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Together, we brainstormed and formulated a public charter school for local elementary students. Our dreams became the Watts Learning Center.

WLC solidified my commitment to the charter-school movement. When it opened, California had fewer than 10 charter schools serving low-income, urban communities. With its success, I could envision thousands of concerned people meeting around tables to create new and better schools for their communities. In the process, these new schools would disrupt and transform a system filled with well-intentioned adults who, to me, seemed not to understand that their system was failing students and their communities, not the other way around.

Back then, WLC and the charter-school movement seemed fragile. Many of us began to band together around a few key principles to move beyond fragility. The consensus was charter schools would ultimately thrive if we insisted on quality, diversity of models, and advocacy.

Nearly 25 years later, some might argue that the charter school movement is stronger than ever. After all, charters are serving about 3.3 million students in 7,500 schools. Not every charter school is a wonder, and a few have hurt the movement’s reputation. But overall, public charter schools have created better futures for millions of students. In a handful of places, including New Orleans, Newark, and Washington DC, charter schools helped change entire communities for the better.

Yet, in many ways, the charter-school movement is more fragile today than it was in the pioneer days. Back when the number of charter schools was small and less threatening to traditional school districts, the labor unions that represent district teachers largely tolerated their growth. But late in the Obama Administration, union leaders changed their tone and tactics. They openly called to block new charter schools, close existing ones, or reinstitute charters to look and behave exactly like traditional public schools.

Because those unions also represent teachers in elections (almost exclusively on behalf of Democrats), we soon saw ambitious Democrats parroting the calls for moratoriums, authorizer denials, and unionization. Before COVID struck the country, the unions’ anti-charter efforts had already slowed or stopped the growth of charter-school enrollment in many states and districts. During the pandemic, the charter movement rebounded somewhat, apparently because they were an alternative to shuttered schools in many parts of the country.

It remains to be seen if the charter-school movement can survive, much less thrive, in a world where the labor unions and their Democratic allies return fully to the warpath. The only hope I see is that the movement again doubles down on quality, diversity of options, and advocacy.

First, we have to insist on school quality and continuously improving results for our students. Of course, having a high-quality program does not provide full protection against attacks. It’s not impossible to shut down an excellent charter school, but it’s certainly more difficult. In fact, it’s so hard that the union is often compelled to move to other tactics to neutralize the charter school threat, including charter-school unionization drives.

As part of the school-quality campaign, we need to be ruthless with inadequate charter schools. This step is especially hard, because their counterparts in traditional districts are tolerated, sometimes for generations. But that’s exactly the point: charter schools are not like district schools. They should truly be held accountable for performance, and they should truly be student-centered.

I’m aware of the critique that this ruthless approach ultimately subordinates the judgments of families to those of a government entity. It’s a valid point, and I’m grateful to the people who make it, because parent empowerment is central to the education reform movement. But the political pragmatist in me knows that we are a long way from the consumer-based accountability we have in other sectors (and in affluent neighborhoods). Charter schools won’t survive the coming political battles if they get branded as low or even mixed quality. They need to be viewed as consistently better than traditional public schools for many, if not all, students.

Second, the movement needs to accelerate the incubation and scaling of a variety of new school models under the charter school banner. Today’s K-12 system is still dominated by an industrial model that demonstrably fails to teach at least one quarter of our children to read or do math at a basic grade-level. To reach those children and millions of others who become stunted while moving down the assembly line, we need new models of schools—models designed to serve the reality of unique students, not the illusion of an average one.

It is no longer enough for charters to simply be industrial-model schools that are managed and operated better than those of the traditional district. Even the best industrial-model CMOs will invariably fail many of their students. We need a system of diverse “schools,” where families can find options that meet the unique needs of their children, so that each child can reach his or her full potential. Ultimately, that’s not possible if you’re committed to the industrial model and treat your teachers and students like widgets. It’s only possible if we continue to innovate, experiment, and scale promising “schools” to serve a wide variety of students.

Finally, we must advocate for the continued growth of charter schools, and we must do so brazenly with all of the tools currently used against the charter movement. That means following the advice of Jed Wallace and others who encourage the establishment and strengthening of C4 advocacy organizations. It means engaging in the unsavory world of politics. Our elected officials need to appreciate that they have constituents who adamantly disagree with labor leaders about charter schools, and they must understand that those voters will hold them accountable if they pander to union leaders and disregard the interest of children.

While we’re at it, we need more policymakers to understand that being a charter school is more than being allowed to adopt the name. It means having autonomy to make decisions that will benefit students without regard to bureaucratic constraints. Without substantial autonomy, the death of charter schools is inevitable.

The next few years will likely determine if charter schools remain a successful reform effort or become another failed attempt to transform our broken status quo. My hope is that education-reform and charter-school leaders will start pushing quality, diversity of options, and political engagement as if the movement’s existence and success depends on it, because, I believe, it does.