If You Do Everything, You’ll Win – The Scope of Challenge Charter Schools Will Ultimately Take On

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I start today thanking Jack McCarthy for his Contributor Column from last week.

I certainly agree with Jack that charter schools redoubling effort to make the advocacy and programmatic breakthroughs needed to expand our early education offerings would be a great contribution, especially in this era of learning loss when we need to get more time with students.

As Jack noted in his piece, the origins of Head Start are instructive.

LBJ announced the first Head Start grants from the Rose Garden in the spring of 1965.

He was full of optimism about the potential to break the cycle of poverty by offering early education and wrap around services to kids and families.

Today we are able to announce that we will have open … some 2,000 child development centers serving as many as — possibly half a million children. This means that nearly half the preschool children of poverty will get a head start on their future. These children will receive preschool training to prepare them for regular school in September. They will get medical and dental attention that they badly need. And parents will receive counseling on improving the home environment. This is a most remarkable accomplishment …. I believe this response reflects a realistic and a wholesome awakening in America. It shows that we are recognizing that poverty perpetuates itself. Five- and six-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse, and not its creators. Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark. I believe that this is one of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible, and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken.  We’ve taken up the age-old challenge of poverty, and we don’t intend to lose generations of our children to this enemy of the human race.

50 years later, the assessment of Head Start’s effectiveness …

… in delivering on the goals laid out by LBJ …

… was not encouraging.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the challenge of intergenerational poverty is as difficult as any that we face as a society. But it is not impossible to address. The famous Perry Preschool Project, started in the same era that gave birth to Head Start, showed that high quality preschool programs could have significant long-term positive impact on the kids who participate.

The problem was not one of proof point. It was of execution.

Sadly, over the past 60 years, as Jack’s piece so rightly points out, the traditional system upon which the entire Head Start bet has been placed, has proven unable to execute at the level demanded. And so the program has not had nearly the impact that was hoped for.

Meanwhile, over the past 30 years, the charter school movement has demonstrated the potential to have positive impact across the entire public education system.

Much consternation greeted last week’s report that came out from REACH …

… claiming that the presence of charter schools is correlated with a smaller number of people seeking bachelor’s degrees in education.

The much more important study that REACH released this year was this one.

It used massive amounts of data from 1995 to 2016 to show that the presence of charter schools is correlated with all students in public education systems graduating at higher rates and performing better on state mandated tests.

Think of that.

A fledgling little movement growing to have the heft to positively shift the performance of all students in public education. Exactly the kind of system wide impact that Head Start has so far been unable to generate across its now nearly six decades of existence.

And if there is a sweet spot for charter schools, as study …

… after study …

… demonstrate, it is in the increased learning we are producing with historically underserved students, exactly the demographic of students for whom Head Start was made.

So yes, it makes a great deal of sense that charter schools would expand to become the primary provider of Head Start in this country.

The concerns, though, are bandwidth and focus.

Like all other public schools, charter schools have seen students experience massive learning loss during the pandemic, and we too struggle to find all the educators and other staff we need to attend to our existing programs, never mind to begin taking on something as massive as early education too.

It reminds me of one of LBJ’s most famous sayings, one documented in The Master of the Senate

… the third book of Robert Caro’s masterpiece biography of Johnson:

“If you do everything, you’ll win.”

Staff members from CCSA grew so sick of me talking about Caro’s books, but they’re among my favorites. They explain how a person who came from abject poverty and utter powerlessness in the Hill Country of Central Texas could go on to become the most powerful person on earth.

The way he got there, was by doing everything, absolutely everything, pushing himself through will and sheer exertion to get little thing after little thing done, until he could start doing bigger and bigger things over time, such that by the end he was doing everything, and that allowed him ultimately to win.

I found the books applicable to our situation because they illustrate how a fledgling little movement like our own could grow out of our figurative Hill Country to develop the advocacy strength we need to survive and thrive against all the forces that come against us.

To get there, we needed to start doing everything.

Now, of course, as Caro so methodically documents, some things that Johnson did were abhorrent and blatantly illegal. So my mantra to our team at CCSA was that we only wanted to do every honorable and legal thing.

Over time, across all the advocacy domains – state advocacy, regional advocacy, communications, legal advocacy, grassroots, ballot box – we took on a quest to begin doing everything.

And we made progress, just like we are seeing so many of our advocacy organizations across the country beginning to make progress. As our advocacy organizations are evolving into tandem 501c3/501c4 organizations that are legally set up to do “everything,” they are getting stronger at a pace today that is faster than we have ever seen before.

The same kind of thinking, in my mind, applies to the most important part of our shared work – the educational efforts we are making. The programmatic challenges we are taking on.

Over the decades, we have asked ourselves, what is the additional piece that we need to take on to allow the charter school movement to have the kind of systemwide impact we want it to have.

  • Do we start offering early college programs?
  • Do we take full control of the special education services we provide?
  • Do we start building our own school buildings?
  • Do we start offering vocational education programs?
  • Do we offer wrap around services?
  • Do we begin developing our own curriculum and technology solutions?
  • How about after school and summer school programs?
  • Do we start credentialing our own teachers?

Invariably across the years, our answer to all these questions, has become yes.

As we do these additional things, it often begins to shake up society-wide trends, like the ones that the less important REACH study showed this week about changing patterns related to people entering the teaching profession.

We want to take on all these additional challenges and shake things up because we have come to realize that every one of them is essential. It’s growing the capacity to take on additional things, and then getting incrementally better at each one of those things over time, that in the end translates into a cumulative impact allowing us to achieve the kind of systemwide impact that the more important REACH study shows:

More students succeeding.

Public education getting better.

Our definition of “winning.”

So, yes, as Jack encourages us, as quickly as we can, consistent with our capacities, we should take on Head Start too.

It’s the way we win.

By doing everything.