Enchanted in New Mexico | Breaking It and Owning It In Chicago and Los Angeles | A Movement With Shoulders Far Bigger Than We’ve Ever Even Dreamed

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

Quite a week.

I heard from many of you about WonkyFolk.

And I was delighted to see that so many of you actually gave the podcast a listen. Thank you! And for any of you wanting to spin through the content quickly, we’ve posted a transcript on the site as well. This will be our regular routine: post the recording as soon as it is ready and then follow up with the transcript a day or so later.

Enchanted in New Mexico

I found myself in the Land of Enchantment this week, which gave me a chance to make a couple school visits that left me nothing short of enchanted.

Seeing Jade Rivera ….

…. the founder and Executive Director at Albuquerque Collegiate Charter School

… a school founded through the BES Fellowship, made me begin to grok the size of the opportunity that lies before us in New Mexico.

I came away from my visit (which featured the opportunity to witness the school’s rocking K-2 values assembly and dance party no less) immensely impressed and inspired by the plans Jade and her team are making to construct a new facility that will allow the school to serve even more kids soon.

Oh, and did I mention that Jade somehow also finds the time to serve on the New Mexico Association’s Board of Directors as well?

The enchantment continued at Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School

… one of the most respected public schools in all of Albuquerque …

… with over 700 students on the waiting list.

Executive Director, John Binnert

… was gracious enough to walk me around the campus at a moment when the school has almost completed a big facilities expansion. As we visited classrooms, we talked about the challenge of “growing schools in oak” (growing steadily and manageably so as to maintain quality) when the organization is having community after community in Albuquerque request that the organization open new sites in their areas.

How exactly John and the Cottonwood team will take on growth waits to be seen, but it’s abundantly clear that, one way or another, even more students in Albuquerque will soon have the opportunity to receive their educations from Cottonwood Classical.

Enchanting indeed.

Breaking It and Owning It in Chicago and Los Angeles

Last year I wrote a lot about how rough beasts are slouching toward school district headquarters to be born in major cities across the United States.

This week in Chicago we saw the slouch lean further.

It’s a development very similar to the one we saw emerge in Los Angeles a few months ago.

Long time CharterFolk readers may remember a post I wrote two years ago …

… wherein I asserted that, contrary to the notions of many …

… who were convinced that teacher unions were overplaying their hands during Covid …

… my sense was exactly the opposite. I thought that teacher unions weren’t acting like they’d overplayed anything and were, in fact, doubling down on their age-old priorities.

In literally the same week that both the Chicago Tribune …

… and the LA Times …

… brought their criticism of CTU and UTLA to a crescendo, leaders from those very organizations published this co-authored piece …

… calling for teacher unions in their cities and indeed across the entire country to become even more “militant.”

In this essay, we look at two case studies: the 2019 UTLA and CTU strikes. We hope that by detailing the methods we used to prepare and launch our largely successful contract campaigns, we can help revive a labor movement that has remained largely dormant, even in the midst of historic teacher strikes. Now is the time to build on the grassroots organizing of teachers unions and grow a more militant labor movement across the country. 

This week we’ve seen the electoral fruits of their militant labor:

A new mayor who hasn’t ever managed anything larger than a classroom now being responsible for managing all of CPS.

You got that, CharterFolk?

CTU now is the management of CPS.

Just like UTLA now is the management of LAUSD.

It surfaces a natural next question:

Now that they “own it,” what do they plan to do with it?

What’s really their plan for making things better?

Because the challenges are mounting.

To wit:

This week the State of California released the latest information about profound enrollment decline continuing to happen across the state. Los Angeles, of course, leads the way.

It’s a story very similar to the data that Illinois released a few months ago showing the sobering extent of statewide enrollment decline, with Chicago leading the way.

Last summer, Chalkbeat wrote a great article about the challenge of declining enrollment from a more global perspective.

Chicago and Los Angeles were two of the cities the authors presented to be emblematic of trends happening more broadly.

Both have large numbers of schools that are becoming tiny.

And now, as they are doing in so many other realms, the cities’ teacher unions are leading other unions across the country in responding to the challenges brought on by enrollment loss.

In Los Angeles, UTLA has made “student centered” funding their great boogeyman.

Their argument has been that attempting to ensure that funding follows the students for whom it is intended all the way to the school level is actually some kind of Betsy DeVos-led plot to undermine public education …

… and that it is on the side of social justice and virtue for central school district administrators to be empowered to allocate public school funding however they see fit.

Now in Brandon Johnson’s campaign platform, we have seen CTU adopt the UTLA playbook.

Just like UTLA famously claimed …

… “that there is no such thing as learning loss,” Johnson’s overarching education priorities …

… make no mention of learning loss, as though there were no such thing, and make no mention of the need to engender increased student learning of any kind. In fact, the primary historical frame that Johnson chooses to portray makes no reference to the pandemic at all but instead zeroes in on school closures that happened a decade ago as the source of all the district’s woes.

It sets CTU up, then, to embrace the rest of the UTLA agenda:

… making student based funding the great boogeyman, so that Johnson’s administration will also be freed up to allocate public education funding however it sees fit.

What is so striking, though, is that Johnson makes the claim that student-based budgeting is having “devastating impact on our schools” when the Chalkbeat article showed that CPS is already sending hugely higher per pupil funding to small schools than it is to large schools.

Apparently, for CTU and UTLA, spending approximately 50% more per pupil on some schools than others, regardless students’ level of need, just isn’t enough. So they stake out new policy in order to have the freedom to siphon away even more.

Of course, the true reason that CTU and UTLA are so desperate to be able to move money around with impunity is so they can obfuscate the fact that they are diverting massive funding to pay for stunning levels …

… of unfunded liabilities …

… which their prior advocacy efforts have created.

And in both Los Angeles and Chicago, it is evident that, though the voters may virtue-project support for teachers during candidate elections, when it comes to providing additional funding …

… to bail out past financial irresponsibility …

… voters have absolutely zero appetite for it.

As CTU and UTLA further restrict per pupil expenditures at other district schools in order to provide small-school subsidies and bridge the widening chasm of unfunded liabilities, the quality of instruction happening in schools from which they are siphoning money will only further degrade, and they will blame it all, of course, on the presence of charter schools.

Call their entire communications strategy one long episode of “Abbott Elementary.”

Meanwhile, the underlying state of learning happening in urban education remains abjectly unacceptable, with huge numbers of parents being completely unaware of how far their kids have fallen behind. A new billboard campaign released this week is raising awareness about the disparity between what most parents believe their kids’ skill levels to be and what they actually are.

And now the “Go Beyond Grades” campaign is going to many other major urban areas in the country …

… including Chicago, which has among the most appalling disparities of all.

And so the shadow of the beast slouching toward Beaudry and Madison Streets is seen across the landscape.

  • An Educational Industrial Complex siphoning money away from the schools that serve most students.
  • A growing awareness of the student learning that is not happening within those schools.
  • And parents becoming ever more inventive about how to access improved alternatives for their kids.

How exactly this vexing nightmare will play out none of us really knows, of course, but this much seems clear.

  • Now is not the time for our movement to be de-prioritizing places like Chicago and Los Angeles. They are the very places where, from the ruins, the future of urban education in America will be born.
  • Each has a strong charter school sector that stands ready to do even more in the years ahead as great swaths of public schools in their respective cities fall further into decay.
  • Both places have the beginnings of strong advocacy infrastructure, but both are going to need even more to navigate the storm that’s coming.
  • And both are uniquely positioned to help us articulate a new North Star for the charter school movement as it becomes even clearer that those who “broke it and now own it” have no vision for the future other than more protection of self interest at the expense of students.

Coda – A Movement With Shoulders Far Bigger Than We’ve Ever Even Dreamed

It is this last point where I would say that the election results in Chicago present something of an opportunity for us.

As David Axelrod wrote before the election in what I consider to be one of the most perceptive pieces about the two candidates vying to become Chicago Mayor …

… neither were ideal.

Had the election gone the other way, we would have avoided a period of those who broke it owning it, minimizing the negative impact that is now bound to be experienced by thousands of Chicago students and families in the short term.

But we as a movement would have been locked into an antiquated vision for chartering, one born of Katrina and other decades-ago experiences that no longer reflect the hopes and aspirations of the current generation of CharterFolk. And that could have delayed or at least complicated the charter school movement releasing its full positive long-term impact.

As it turns out, the time and the opportunity is upon us CharterFolk, one rightfully born out of the context of Chicago.

Many times I have thought that Sandburg’s legendary description of Chicago …

…fits as well our movement.

I recognize that it’s a daunting task to articulate a new aspirational vision in an environment that is as toxic and fraught and militant as the one we find ourselves in.

But I fully believe that, once we bring together the “stormy, husky, brawling” wings of all who proudly call themselves Folk, we will bring forward a next vision for impact demonstrating that the charter school movement’s shoulders are far bigger than we’ve ever even dreamed.