CHINOs vs. CABINs – Does it Even Matter if We Call Ourselves Charter Schools?

Good day, CharterFolk.

We pick up from where we left off on Tuesday, with the comment that Virginia Governor Youngkin shared during his first address to the state legislature about his desire to secure the passage of a new charter school bill.

“Whether they’re called charter schools, lab schools or schools of innovation, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care what we call it; I just care that we do it.”

It begs the question:

Does it matter at all what we call ourselves? Should we even care whether we get called charter schools? Or is there some trade-off whose merits we should consider?

I thought about this recently when I was writing about the enrollment numbers that had come out in the National Alliance’s latest report about growth. It showed that there are 50,000 students in charter schools in Wisconsin.

I said to myself, really? There are more kids in charter schools in Wisconsin than in Tennessee and Massachusetts, states where we see so much effort and focus on charter schools?

Then people closer to the situation explained to me the nuance.

Wisconsin has three different kinds of charter schools. Here’s a graphic:

Two kinds feature independent nonprofit organizations holding the charter and operating the school. This is a form of charterness with a level of autonomy comparable to what we find in most states. The third kind of charter school in Wisconsin is a so-called “instrumentality charter school” where the school district holds the charter and where all the staff remain employees of the school district under the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

As those closer to the situation said it:

“Instrumentality schools are ‘CHINOs’– charters in name only.”

As it turns out, the vast majority of the charter schools in Wisconsin are the instrumentality type, meaning that approximately 35-40,000 of the students attending charter schools in Wisconsin are enrolled in CHINOs and only 10-15,000 are enrolled in what we would call “true charter schools.” This explains why Wisconsin has not been on my radar screen to the same degree as other states.

But it took some digging for me to come to understand this.

Over the years, those of us in charterland have grown accustomed to this word “CHINO.” I first heard it during my initial introduction to charter schools at a training hosted by Eric Premack at the Charter School Development Center. In California, legislators embedded within the state’s charter law a mechanism by which school districts could operate their own charter schools. In the early going, we saw a lot of school districts using that mechanism. There were all sorts of reasons why they did it. Many school district leaders wanted the ability to access money in a big flexible funding block like charter schools did, rather than live with all the incoherence and constraint of dozens of state-imposed, program-specific funding streams. Other school districts wanted to create a perception that some of their schools had a special status that would help market them to parents. A group of schools in LA converted to charter status to help LAUSD temporarily claim more Title I funds through a compliance trick they had found. Some school districts established charter schools to create a legal way to enroll kids from neighboring school districts without having to go through the unworkable inter-district transfer process. School districts, it turns out, really object to entities siphoning money away school districts unless, of course, they are the ones doing the siphoning.

So at one point in time we ended up having a relatively large number of “district-dependent charter schools” as we refer to them in California. Eric preferred the term “CHINOs.” But he was careful in his use of the term because he also knew that, while it may be generally descriptive of a broad category of schools, it wasn’t always applicable to individual schools. Some district-dependent schools operated with a degree of autonomy comparable to other charter schools, and they didn’t like being described otherwise. That was a mistake I made one time at a member meeting in Northern California where the leader of a district-dependent school came up to me afterwards and let me have it. It was a mistake I never made again.

This is a phenomenon we see in other states as well. In Maryland for example all charter school staff are required to be employees of the district and to be unionized, compromising autonomy to such a degree that many in charterworld wonder whether every school in the state should be considered a CHINO. These limitations have resulted in Maryland’s charter school law consistently being described as one of the worst in the nation. Indeed this article …

… asserts that:

“Maryland’s law is so out of the ordinary it’s not even funny,” he said. It’s “a pretend charter school law. It’s a charter school law in name only.”

Despite that, there are clearly many charter schools in Maryland that have gotten the autonomy needed to become great schools.

Indeed, a key indicator of perceived autonomy from school districts is charter schools’ willingness to be part of charter school advocacy efforts, and the fact that the Maryland association has a high membership rate with a dues level that is higher than many other states, speaks to the fact that, one way or another, Maryland’s charter schools feel like they’ve achieved true measures of charterness.

So we always have to be careful about our use of the term “CHINO.” It certainly describes a lot of charter schools in states with restrictive laws. But it doesn’t describe them all.

In California, for a time we were so concerned about the number of CHINO schools that we considered expending political capital to attempt to change the law in order to curtail them. That way, we reasoned, we would make it clear to policy makers and the general public what a charter school really is. But then the problem began to take care of itself. Part of it was that California’s new Local Control Funding Formula did away with most of the program-specific funding streams that were previously constraining school districts. Perhaps more importantly, though, the attack against charter schools ramped up. Lines were drawn. Teacher unions, school districts and other aspects of the Establishment closed ranks against charter schools. And so it simply fell out of fashion for school districts to propose operating new charter schools. Over time, relative to the number of fully independent charter schools, district-operated charter schools began to drop, so we in charter school advocacy were able to turn our attention to bigger fish to fry.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we find “CABINs.” These are “Charter All But In Name” schools. They’re usually formed because the charter brand is perceived to have been so damaged by attack and scandal that is it deemed politically less toxic to go under some other moniker.

In Indianapolis, they call them “Innovation Schools.”

They’re called “Renaissance Schools” in Camden.

And “Mayoral Academies” in Providence.

To name but three examples from across the country.

While they are not referred to as “charter schools,” for most intents and purposes they operate the same way charter schools do. They are governed by separate nonprofit boards. They control their own staff and budgets. They are held accountable for outcomes in ways that traditional public schools are not. And they are schools of choice.

In some places, CABINs have been provided perks that charter schools have not. Innovation Schools in Indianapolis have not suffered from funding inequity to the same degree that charter schools have, and Renaissance Schools in Camden have been provided school buildings in ways that regular charter schools have not. These special resources provided to CABINs can cause tensions with charter school leaders who feel as though their schools are not getting a fair shake.

Setting aside for a moment those tensions, from a substance perspective, it seems clear that we really shouldn’t care what we call the schools that we are all collectively driving toward. Whether a school is a charter school or a CABIN or anything else, what matters is not what we call them but whether they have the essential characteristics of charterness that allow them to succeed with students while not recreating the systemic unfairness we find in traditional public schools. All the CABIN schools in Indiana, New Jersey and Rhode Island are clearly way over that bar and are serving thousands of students very well.

And parents clearly love them.

We should be ecstatic about all that.

From an advocacy perspective, though, it’s much less clear to me whether we should be indifferent to what our schools are called.

Our retracing of charter school history and the way we have chosen to label our schools at different moments makes clear: what we call our schools has always been a function of politics.

In the early going, charter schools had a massive amount of political momentum and many charter school opponents could see that some kind of charter school bill was destined to pass in their states. So in places like Maryland and Wisconsin they pivoted to support laws that would create CHINOs. That way they would be able to say that they had passed a charter school law while ensuring that school districts retained as much control as possible over public education in their states.

Later, the opposite political dynamic emerged. The blowback against charter schools made it difficult to pass new charter school laws. So reformers pivoted to support laws that would create CABINs. That way we would be able to say that we had NOT passed a charter school law while allowing many new great schools to become managed by nonprofit organizations.

Looking forward, it seems certain that politics will continue to determine what we call our schools. And the political environment keeps changing.

The way I see it, outside the places where CABINs are already thriving and growing, it doesn’t seem that there remains that much political value in calling our schools something other than charters right now. Maybe the CABIN terminology will be more palatable with some red state audiences as Youngkin suggests. But more broadly, teacher unions and other protectors of the Establishment seem hellbent on stopping any new schools forming that are not completely controlled by school districts regardless what they’re called. This was demonstrated in Boston last week where the “innovation” moniker proved of limited political value.

A unanimous defeat, despite the fact that some of the most respected mainstream voices in the landscape …

… supported the creation of the innovation school.

And it’s not just Boston. The forces that oppose charter schools are now ramping up their efforts to take this kind of opposition to charter schools and CABINs nationwide.

So I’m not sure how much political value there really will be to seeking to create CABINs in the years ahead.

I also think we need to consider carefully how the creation of differently labeled schools complicates our over-arching advocacy strategy which is to amass the collective strength of our stakeholders so that we can become something of a counterweight to status quo interests. Generally, we find that CABINs and charter schools do not work closely together on advocacy matters so the collective amassing doesn’t happen as much. The reasons for that are rather straightforward. How does a group of schools that came into existence assuring policy makers and others that they were in some way distinct from charter schools then turn around and participate in charter school advocacy efforts? A hypothesis that we could test is whether it’s possible to build advocacy organizations that amass the strength of CABINs, and then have those organizations work in coalition with charter school associations, thereby exceeding the collective strength that would have been under one umbrella. But I confess to some skepticism. It seems to me that it is hard enough to make one good viable charter school advocacy organization in a region, much less two.

Over time, policy makers are leaving the landscape far faster than schools do. Indeed, the champion of Camden’s Renaissance Schools was defeated unexpectedly in November.

Without a champion on the landscape, with status quo protectors sharpening their knives in opposition to CABINs, and with New Jersey’s charter school association getting stronger, it only seems inevitable that the advocacy efforts of CABINs and charter schools in the Garden State are likely to come together in the years ahead. But in the meantime, the lack of cohesion between CABINs and charter schools isn’t costless as we work with all urgency to build collective strength.

Finally, there’s the question of the needs of our current charter school organizations. Yes, the charter school brand has been damaged. There is no doubt about that. Some of it comes from the ridiculous scandals we have had within our own movement, and continue to have …

… that make some people not want to associate themselves with charterness.

It’s enfuriating.

But the lion’s share, in my view, the overwhelming majority of the toxicity now associated with the charter brand comes from the relentless attack that has been directed against us by an incredibly powerful and well-resourced opposition. One understandable response many of us have taken to that attack is to downplay our charterness. Many of our operators don’t even refer to themselves as charter schools any more. And charter school advocacy organizations, hoping to turn down the decibel-level of us/them advocacy fights, tend not to talk about the problems in traditional public schools and how charter schools are an attempt to make something fairer and better for everyone. And when the going gets tough, if necessary, they will throw the charter name under the bus in order to get the additional CABIN schools we know will serve kids better in the near term.

But these decisions aren’t costless. They equate to us going silent on what charter schools are while the other side continues their relentless attacks, resulting in a circumstance where the vast majority of messages about charter schools in the public sphere are negative ones. The cost of that message imbalance is borne in many contexts, but the one I think about most acutely is the context where CharterFolk gather. Charter school staff. Charter school parents. Our alumni. Our supportive policy makers. People who fund charter schools or who are considering doing so.

Ultimately, in my view, the success of our movement hinges on whether these critical people feel part of a noble undertaking that is bigger than themselves.

So in the end, it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves as long as we call ourselves what we in fact are – something that is on the side of kids and families and the broader public good.

I suppose after three decades of work, it is theoretically possible that we could coalesce under some new brand to do that, but it seems incredibly complicated and likely to fail given that our opponents are destined to attack that new brand with the same vigor they attacked the old.

So, as far as I can see it, there’s no real practical option other than embracing our charterness. Each time we don’t, we pay a little tax. We are living now in a period when the cumulative cost of those little taxes is becoming more apparent. With that being the case, my sense is that we are likely moving into a new period when charter school organizations and advocacy organizations will more fully embrace our charterness again and will more full-throatedly make the moral argument for charter schools. And in so doing, it will bring more oxygen into rooms where CharterFolk gather. And that will contribute at least a little to our people reconnecting again to our shared purpose and becoming even more willing to keep doing the inspiring things that have always been necessary to keep our movement on stride toward ever-greater impact.

That alone will not be enough to overcome our various challenges. Far from it. But it will certainly help. And so, in my view, it will be a very good thing.