College Town Blues (and Reds) – The Need For a Great Charter School Movement Has Never Been Greater

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I hope you’re all having a great Memorial Day Weekend.

We start with big news in California. 

The bill that has been labeled a “charter killer” …

… has been defeated …

… by a wide margin.

In the end, 1380 wound up 8 votes short of the 21 it needed for passage on the Senate floor.

It was legislation sparked by a school in Napa that insisted on life despite the new restrictions on charter school growth that were imposed in 2019.

The California School Boards Association and other status quo protectors want more:  school districts having fiat-level control over any charter schools existing in their areas.

It would be to turn California into Virginia, which technically has a charter school law but, because school districts have fiat-level control, essentially has no charter schools.

In the same way that Jerry Brown helped the Napa school in the particular to survive …

… so too he helped all charter schools in the general, getting personally involved in the lobbying efforts.

Amazingly, while testifying in support of his own bill, Senator Dodd claimed that his legislation wouldn’t harm charter schools in his district. 

Two days later, each of those schools courageously went on the record, publicly refuting his claims …

… providing key energy behind the effort to defeat the bill.

Senator Dodd is my state senator. He is termed out and will be replaced by one of the strongest Democratic charter school supporters the California Senate has ever seen.

The entire impetus behind his now failed legislation was protecting school districts …

… regardless whether parents are satisfied with the programs those districts provide.

My family lives in the heart of his district, Davis, California.  A college town.  We moved here when a nearby school district reneged on a deal, forcing the delayed opening of a long-planned charter high school in a suburb of Sacramento. That high school has since opened and is thriving. But it opened too late for our kids. 

So we faced a tough moment.

We didn’t consider our zoned school an option.  There was a selective admissions magnet within it, but as CharterFolk readers know, we’re PublicSchoolFolk in our household.  And we consider selective admissions antithetical to the idea of public education.  All the other options that we considered acceptable, private or so-called-public, similarly used selective admissions.  So we scanned the landscape for alternatives.

One was in Davis where they had a charter middle and charter high school that, by definition, use no selective admissions.  And if we didn’t get into the charter, the default would be the local high school which also uses no selective admissions. So we moved. As it so happened, one of the kids got into the charter middle school via lottery, which then tripped a sibling preference admitting the other. If I’d had my druthers, the kids would have stayed in the charter.  But they both wanted to go to the comprehensive high school when they got to 9th grade.  And believing in young people agency, we let them make their own decisions.

So we ended up in schools that don’t use selective admissions.

But Davis’s school district exists behind a selectivity created by some of the most restrictive housing policies found anywhere in California.

So, yeah, trying to live consistent with our values on selective admissions, we fell victim to inconsistency created by highly selective attendance boundaries.

It’s a sign of the times:

A public education system so messed up that you can’t get your kids a decent education without having to compromise your values.

Signs of the Times Schools

The charter schools that the district opened over two decades ago are themselves signs of the times.

They’re actually not true charter schools.  They are schools operated by the district.  They have no separate nonprofit board.

Decades ago, the district wanted to access federal Charter School Program money to create an innovative middle school and high school.  But CSP eligibility is restricted to charter schools that are operated by entities separate from school districts.  So the district made a nonprofit, got the two startup grants, bankrolled the money, closed the nonprofit, and brought the schools back into the district as “district-dependent” charter schools.

In response, the feds imposed new bureaucratic requirements on all CSP applicants to make sure that they’re applying from legitimate nonprofits that won’t close up shop as soon as applicants have gotten the money.  It’s additional compliance hassle that every CSP grantee deals with to this day.

As it turns out, the schools’ charter status has been very advantageous for a school district in a NIMBYist town experiencing declining enrollment.  California law prevents school districts from serving kids from outside their areas.  In order to switch, parents have to get inter-district transfers approved by their districts of residence, which those districts rarely if ever grant. The only kind of public school that doesn’t have such geographic restriction imposed on them, of course, are charter schools, which can serve kids from any part of the state.  So the charter status of the district’s charter schools allows it to serve kids coming from outside the district.  Over the years thousands of kids from surrounding areas, motivated by the belief that Davis has good schools, have come to the district’s charter schools.  And that has allowed the Davis school district to mitigate much of the damage that would have otherwise been done to its budget given how much the city’s restrictive nimbyist housing policies have reduced the number of kids residing within the district.

So the ironies abound:

A senator from the local area proposes a de facto charter school moratorium to prevent charter schools from siphoning money away from school districts, when the town that houses his district office delights in having found a work-around to do the very same thing.

And, topping off the irony, the Davis school district, which used to matter-of-factly, describe the schools as charter schools …

… has erased the word “charter” from their identities, which their websites …

…now clearly demonstrate.

In fact, just about the only public reference to the schools’ original charter status you can currently find is in their legacy urls …

www.davincicharteracademyhs.net.

www.davincicharteracademyjh.net.

So now, the schools operate legally as charter schools, allowing the district to keep drawing kids from outside the area. But from a public appearance standpoint …

… no one knows they’re anything different from the district’s other schools. 

And so, no one knows how their unique, hidden status allows this ultra-progressive, affluent town to draw kids and money away from its less affluent surrounding communities, thereby helping the school district avoid the painful cuts it would otherwise have to make.

Making the whole situation another sign of the times.

An example of the general public having no idea what’s really going on in public education. And an example of yet another behind the scenes education policy tussle revealing that it’s never about the principle of the thing, but about the money.

School districts get all up in arms about charter schools supposedly siphoning away money.

But, really, school districts have no objection to siphoning.

As long as they’re the ones that get to do it.

The One Parenting Decision that Matters

This week, the Atlantic re-surfaced an article from a couple years ago.

It caused a bit of controversy at the time of its initial publication. It downplayed the importance of many parenting decisions, arguing that the one decision that really matters is where parents choose to live.

Parents situating their kids in places where they hang out with other kids on their way to success really matters.

While the article doesn’t specifically state it, the implication is clear:

Where you choose to live often determines where your kids go to school. So, yes, embedded in the one parenting decision the article posits really matters is another of equal importance:

The choice parents make about where their kids go to school.

College Town Blues (and Reds)

Some of the places that supposedly help kids most, as this decade-old article asserted …

… are places like our town.

College towns.

This week I had a call from an old friend who has ended up in a college town as well.

Gainesville.

It’s a place that, from an education policy standpoint, is about as polar-opposite as can be from Davis.

Here in California, policy makers are trying to create an education policy landscape of stultifying stasis.  It’s an effort to prevent any kind of change whatsoever in hopes of delaying the demise of a dying status quo.

In Florida, as this really good article from Politico this weekend describes, policy makers are working to accelerate seismic change in hopes of getting to whatever is on the other side as quickly as possible.

It’s an overall approach that seems to me generally commendable given how the current status quo is neither excellent nor equitable.

But it doesn’t mean that all the impulses driving the change are commendable ones.

Some make absolutely no sense.

Like this one.

The University of Florida – I talked about this on a recent WonkyFolk podcast – hosts a public school whose demographics match those of the broader community. It’s thought to be one of the best schools in the area.

But apparently that isn’t good enough.

A year ago, US News and World Report ranked it the 38th best high school in the state, and the University of Florida insists that its high school be in the top five. So now Penny Schwinn, the former Secretary of Ed for Tennessee and a charter school founder, who has been hired to oversee the university’s K-12 offerings, is proposing to change the school’s admissions to selective ones in order to get the school into the top five.

Because when you look at the list of 37 schools that were ranked higher on the US News and World Report list, two of them are schools in the wealthiest areas of the state.  The other 35 are all selective admissions magnets.

Think of that, CharterFolk. 

This is the way that our society determines which schools are best.

By looking at which most effectively admit only kids who are already high achieving. 

Whether a school is actually generating learning is immaterial.  The only thing that matters is the performance status of the kids who are admitted.

So if you want to get into the top five, don’t work to change or improve your academics.

Or don’t unapologetically defend the idea that your school, being the highest performing public school in the state not using selective admissions, may in fact already be the very best public school in the state!

No.

Focus instead on changing your admissions policies.

Can you imagine a more cynical way to think about school quality?

Gainesville is a hotbed of activity along these lines.

Last year, the governor wanted to create a new “competitive” public school. Normally, it would have been intuitive to think that a new innovative public school would become a charter school.  But the governor wanted the school to be able to use selective admissions, which charter schools can’t do. So, rather than opening the new “competitive school” as a charter, the governor got a whole new statute passed allowing for the creation of a specialty public school that would be allowed to use selective admissions.

The plans for the school were built around the idea that a legendary educator from the Gainesville area would lead the charge. But then that educator saw who the governor had appointed to the board of the school …

… and wanted nothing to do with them. So he left and made the new school a private one.

One that will be mostly funded by the state’s new universal voucher program.

Talk about ironies abounding.

The governor’s own plans to make a new supposedly public school undermined by that same governor’s universal voucher program.

So now my friend in Gainesville faces the same moral dilemma we faced not so long ago on the opposite coast.

He doesn’t agree with the University of Florida’s high school’s possible change in admissions policy.  Nor does he believe in voucher programs that aren’t means tested.  Nor do his values really align with enrolling his youngster in the leafy private school that has exorbitantly high tuition costs and doesn’t even accept the state’s new vouchers.

But all three of them are definitely on his family’s list of possibilities.

Because the sad fact is the district public schools that they have put up with for years are simply no longer an option. The years of dysfunction they have experienced are just beyond the pale. And their experience is by no means unique.

It’s led to some local schools trying to get out from under their dysfunctional school district to become charter schools so that they can take control of their own destinies.

Home schooling, meanwhile, is growing at unprecedented rates.

And the only new programs that are being offered in the local landscape that don’t screen out kids through either geography or selective admissions, of course …

… are charter schools, many of which, no surprise, end up serving demographics of students approximating those of the area …

… building on the success of local charter schools that have among the strongest track records of schools eliminating achievement gaps.

These are all signs of the times, CharterFolk.

Call them the “College Town Blues (and Reds).”

Whether we find policy environments of stultifying quagmire as is the case in California, or seismic revolution like we see in Florida …

… still we find many parents facing the same conundrum.

An inability to enroll their kids in great public schools without having to compromise their values.

Charter schools aren’t perfect, goodness knows. Nor can we solve every problem that public education faces today.

But we can be a beacon.

A shining example that greater excellence and equity can in fact be achieved simultaneously.

So this Memorial Day, I hope we all find enough respite to allow the recognition to seep in:

The need for a great charter school movement …

a quickly growing, values driven, unapologetic charter school movement

… has never been greater than it is right now.