Go West, VillageFolk! Why It’s So Important We Protect the Idea of Frontier in Public Education.

Good day, CharterFolk.

I hope you’re in the middle of a great week.

I’d like to focus today on the column that Dan offered a couple weeks back …

… about the momentum we see in Colorado’s charter school movement.

It builds on similar stories we have heard in recent months from Starlee in Texas …

… and Terry in Idaho …

… about the striking progress charter schools are making in their respective states.

Their columns align with a thesis I have, which is that in many ways, western states have become the engine of the national charter school movement.

Indeed, if you rank states based upon the percentage of public school students that are served by charter schools, and then color-code by geography …

… you find western states over-represented at the top.

2 out of the top 3, 5 out of the top 10, and 7 out of the top 14 states are western.

And of the states near the top of the list that are not in the West, both DC and Louisiana have very unique circumstances that contributed to their rise, and Oklahoma’s appearance so high on the list was momentary resulting from a spike in online enrollment during the pandemic.

So without those states in the mix, the predominance of the West would be even more pronounced.

Here’s how the NCES presented charter presence graphically using data from a couple years back.

It begs us to ask what might account for such variation by geography.

A simple lens would be looking at the correlation between overall public education enrollment growth and the percentage of students served by charter schools.

Indeed this graph from EdWeek depicting public school enrollment trends over the last year shows a decent level of overlap with the NCES map.

But intuitively, the percentage of students in charter schools is not really a reflection of what conditions have been like over the past year. It’s more a reflection of what things have been like over many decades.

So it’s no surprise that, when we look at long-term trends regarding overall population growth, we see even more overlap with the NCES map.

Let me put them side-by-side for you.

Pretty striking, isn’t it?

Aside from some disconnect in the rust belt (a higher level of charter school presence than expected given slower population growth), the maps seem nearly interchangeable.

Florida, Texas, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Nevada have all had among the highest levels of long-term population growth and the largest percentages of students served in charter schools.

Seen in this light, we understand better how the EdWeek map breaks down in terms of its predictiveness of the presence of charter schools.

Here is it again.

Seen in this light, the map looks more like a portrait of what’s changed, or is changing, in political dynamics for charter schools.

California and New York are depicted as red due to their recent pronounced public school enrollment declines, which goes a long way toward explaining why all this AB1505 nonsense in Sacramento …

… and all this charter cap nonsense in Albany …

… is happening.

They’re reflections of an inevitable phenomenon:

Policy makers reacting to enrollment decline by pivoting to protect faltering public education establishments.

In terms of looking to the future, here’s a projection of student enrollment growth and decline by state through 2028 from the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s like a political heat map for the charter school movement, isn’t it?

Favorable conditions in growing states like the Carolinas, Florida and many western states, and utter toxicity in places like Illinois and Massachusetts and Michigan, where not a day goes by without …

… a new article appearing about blowback against charter schools coming from protectors of the status quo.

We tend to think about political dynamics in terms of “red/blue.”

My sense is that, over time, we will come to think of them more in terms of “population growing/not growing.”

And a part of the charter school story we are simply going to have to come to grips with is the fact that charter schools have tended to thrive where population and student enrollment have been growing, but now we are going into a period nationally that is trending in the opposite direction.

It’s important that we reckon with these issues for our own sake, of course, but more broadly, it’s important we think of new ways to help absolutely all kids and all families in all contexts because we know what’s going to happen to public education as enrollment decline further unfolds.

Many parts of the traditional system, especially the parts serving the most vulnerable, have mortgaged themselves presuming they would forever serve the same number of kids, if not more kids. It was a way of sucking money out of the system to educate the kids of the past, and as the consequences of those decisions come home to roost, we know the traditional system will do what it always does at moments of scarcity, even those of its own making. It will direct whatever resources remain toward kids and families with means and away from those without. In essence, as I was writing about last weekend, many parts of our barely public education system will choose to become even less public. And so thousands upon thousands of kids, probably many millions when all is said and done, will be even more poorly served than they are today.

This, CharterFolk, is the challenge we have to be preparing ourselves to take on.

Not All States Fit the Paradigm, But All Underscore the Importance of Advocacy

Returning to variation by geography, it bears mentioning that not all states fit the paradigm.

We see some western states like Montana that have growing student populations and literally no charter school law after all these years.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has entered a period of population decline but has a thriving charter school sector.

I take from these counter-examples a clear lesson:

Advocacy matters.

Where status quo interests rear their ugly cowboy-hatted heads in places like Missoula …

… and where no good advocacy exists to counter them, charter schools are throttled.

Where effective charter school advocacy emerges amid the adobe of Democratic strongholds like Santa Fe, threats can be dispatched …

… and big policy wins secured.

Indeed, at the heart of the experience of charter schools in western states over the past three decades, what we find is that smart advocacy coupled with broad-based growth has really mattered.

On the policy front, look at the premium that all western states have placed on having strong state-based authorizers.

As the National Alliance’s report on authorizing showed in 2020, Texas has by far the largest state education agency (SEA) authorizer in the country.

And of the ten states that have set up independent charter board authorizers (ICBs), five of them are located in the west.

Meanwhile in terms of broad growth, no states in the West have had geographic restrictions on where charter schools are permitted to open, and all of them are known for having a mix of schools serving all communities and SES populations, whether that’s charter schools in mountain towns …

… or historically underserved communities …

… in urban settings …

… or schools in more SES mixed communities …

… or organizations set up to open schools in every community in between …

… in western states we have seen that a commitment to support a mix of charter school organizations serving absolutely all communities has proven the best way to build and sustain momentum for the movement over time.

Wrapping it Up Half “Heady,” Half “Hearty

I’ll end suggesting two ways to frame the western state experience in charter schools.

One heady, and one decidedly not.

But before I present either, let me be clear about my biases here.

I grew up in the West, and that can leave me susceptible to some romantic and ultimately inaccurate notions.

At the top of the cul-de-sac where my family lived in Arvada, a suburb of Denver, the original landowner had his home. His family had owned all of the land in the area for generations and they sold it off piece by piece to developers, who turned it into sub-divisions. But the original ranch house still stood at the top of the hill, and that is where Mr. Buerger, who I remember turning ninety while I was in elementary school, still resided. I remember him being a very kind man who literally still wore chaps and a ten-gallon hat and would drive his El Camino down the street in the late afternoons to go tend to his horses.

You can imagine my imaginations about what his life must have been like during the days of the Old West. Seeing him drive off into the sunset like that day after day. There was no end to the cowboy fantasies I entertained.

Years later, the truth was revealed to me.

Mr. Buerger may have had horses, but rustling and herding wasn’t the way his family had made their money. No, it turns out that two of his ancestors had founded Buerger Brothers Beauty Supply and Fixtures in the 1870’s. It was a company set up to sell products to barber shops and hair salons across the West, and they turned it into an empire including one of the most iconic early buildings in downtown Denver.

So, be on the lookout CharterFolk. Often all my romantic notions about the cowboy West fail to take into account …

… shampoo reality.

And I am certainly very aware of the many shortcomings of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous thesis from the 1890’s …

… about the significance of the frontier in the American psyche, how he discounted the experience of Native Americans and glossed over the experience of women, many of whom created the economic value needed to purchase the products that the Buergers sold to assemble their empire.

I get all that.

But I do think that the concept of frontier is, as Turner suggested, a particularly important one, the idea that we have something new to move into, something that is more open to change, something that allows us to try new things.

I would assert that the western states in the charter school experience have represented a kind of frontier for our movement, a place where we have discovered things we know that work – smart advocacy and a commitment to build great schools for all communities, to name but two.

But more important than that, what the charter school movement is trying to do across our entire country is to keep some semblance of frontier open within public education.

So much of power dynamics in public education is about shutting down anything new, about staying where we are, about denying in fundamental ways any sense of unbridled possibility.

And in my estimation, were those forces ever to win, were we ever to say that the frontier in public education has been ultimately closed, that would be a terrible thing for our country and for our kids and families who seek a future full of better opportunity.

That’s the “heady” way to say it.

The “hearty?”

Maybe the Village People articulate it best.

Come on CharterFolk.


Give yourself a three minute holiday and enjoy the video above where you will encounter disco wisdom at its finest.

(Together) We will love the beach
(Together) We will learn and teach
(Together) Change our pace of life
(Together) We will work and strive

I know you love me
(I want you) Happy and carefree
(So that’s why) I have no protest
(When you say) You want to go west

Life is peaceful there
(Go west) Lots of open air
(Go west) To begin life new
(Go west) This is what we’ll do

Go West, CharterFolk!

Go West!