Navigating the Urban Education Doom Loop – The Renaissance of the American City Can Be Led By American City Schools

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I start today with a shout-out to the CharterFolk who took the time to host me for school visits during my time in Idaho last week where there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in Charterland.

In just a decade’s time, the state has seen charter school enrollment almost double to approximately 30,000 students, and with BLUUM, receiving a big new CSP grant to continue its support of high quality charter school growth, we could be seeing even more progress happening soon.

My first stop was at Elevate

… a school integrating career tech instruction into everything it does. School leaders C.J. Watson and Jessica Figueroa

… showed me around their campus with its signature purple slide in the commons area …

… meant to underscore a deeply held organizational belief at Elevate, which is that learning should always have an aspect of sheer fun about it.

It’s an approach to schooling that has clearly resonated in communities across Idaho, as the organization is now set to open its fifth school in just five years of operations.

Very impressive.

Later in the day I got to see Rick Hale …

… the Education Director at the newly opened Idaho Youth Ranch …

… which houses a highly innovative charter school with a residential component providing educational services to students from across the state needing emergency intervention to help overcome severe mental health trauma.

During our time together Rick explained how charter school flexibility was giving the Ranch the ability to create a program for some of the state’s highest need kids that simply wouldn’t have been possible within a traditional public school context.

Forge on, IdahoFolk.

Impressive indeed.

Navigating the Urban Education Doom Loop – The Renaissance of the American City Can Be Led By American City Schools

Long time CharterFolk readers will remember that in my first post of 2021 I wrote about what I called the Great Disconnect …

… an ever smaller percentage of public education providing the bare minimum that parents will accept, creating a fundamentally unstable situation.

I followed that up with my first post of 2022

… in which I predicted that the disconnect would result in a rough beast being visited upon large urban school districts, the part of public education least able to navigate the unfolding disconnect.

In my first two posts of 2023

… I shared that the presence of new instructional supports available to parents through AI will improve their educational BATNAs such that millions more will likely decide to keep their kids out of schools that don’t meet their minimum expectations.

All these threads have come together in recent weeks in ways that point to a new reality.

It’s what I would call a “doom loop.”

Something bad happening, triggering a response that is worse, which in turn triggers something still worse.

The phrase got new currency when the San Francisco Chronicle wrote one of the most influential articles of the year wherein it posited that the entire city of San Francisco could be caught in a massive doom loop.

The article’s assertion was that San Francisco has seen businesses and residents leave in response to city problems, which results in the city having fewer resources to address those problems, leading to even more businesses and residents leaving, which continues the spiral down.

Since the article’s publication, many other papers have used the term to describe what is happening in their own home towns …

… and national publications have used it to explain what may be happening to many cities across the country.

I am no more knowledgeable about broader urban matters than the next guy. So I have no special insight into whether our cities are actually caught in doom loops, or whether it’s all just overblown.

But this much I do know.

Regardless whether our cities are caught in doom loops, our cities’ schools most definitely are.

Or, at least the ones operated by major urban school districts are.

Perhaps the leading indicator is the fact that voters are now trying to initiate course corrections in places like Denver …

… and Philadelphia, where the new incoming mayor is saying she’s utterly indifferent to where better schooling comes from, whether it’s from a charter or a traditional public school.

We want all of our children in a 21st century modern school building with the highest academic achievement. If anybody is interested in talking to me about public education and you are trying to pit traditional public against charters, again, don’t do it!  I’m not the person to have that conversation with.  We are going to find a way to move educational opportunities for our young people forward.  And I’m a certified secondary English teacher by profession.  But we’re going to do it for all of our children.

It’s encouraging.

But, ultimately, it’s just the very, very beginning, CharterFolk.

Because the sad truth is that the challenges confronting our nation’s urban school districts cannot be addressed with simple course corrections.

That’s what a doom loop is – a circumstance from which simple course corrections are not possible.

A chain of events has been started and now we will see the inevitable play out.

Part of the precipitating event that started the arc of urban education’s doom loop, of course, has been the failure of city public schools to serve kids well. But it’s not the entirety of the precipitating event.  Otherwise a simple course correction (just making the schools better) would in fact be possible.

The other critical part initiating the downward arc has been the catastrophic fiscal mismanagement that has been visited on our urban schools such that they are now structurally prevented from getting better. In fact, they are now fated to become even worse. Because the way that school districts react to parents’ seeking other options only exacerbates their own problems.

Take Philadelphia.

Of course, the district has failed to provide quality education to vast swaths of students for generations.

For many years, a part of the problem was society’s structural underfunding of urban school districts.  But as Jay Matthews wrote earlier this month …

… recent scholarship coming out of Fordham …

… shows that the country has made encouraging progress on this challenge over the past decade.

And Philadelphia is case and point. 

At the beginning of the century, the district was receiving less than $7,000 per student. This year it is receiving over $26,000.

But the problem is that the district chose to mortgage its own future. It didn’t pay for the pensions or retirement health benefits it had promised its employees of the past. So it has to take huge amounts of money out of its current operating budgets to pay for what it didn’t pay for in the past.

The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that the district’s payments for pension and retiree health care will have grown from being 5% of payroll in 2006 to something approaching 40% of payroll in the latter years of this decade.

And that doesn’t count the huge additional mortgage the district has taken out on its own school buildings, refusing to pay for basic maintenance and upkeep so that it could provide bigger compensation to its staff in the near term, leaving many of the district’s school buildings in a state of abject dilapidation.

So when a naive group of well-meaning people like the makers of the Abbott Elementary television show come along, they end up doing exactly what the new mayor says she wants no part of – pitting charter schools against district schools …

… by claiming that the district’s funding problems are the making of charter schools, when in fact the real culprit is the district’s own decades-long fiscal mismanagement.

Unfortunately, Pew shows, this is not a dereliction of duty unique to Philadelphia, but is in fact one that many major urban school districts across the country have partaken in.

It’s the giant initial turn of the arc which gets the doom loop started in cities across America: self-inflicted budget harm forcing school districts to suck money out of their own classrooms to pay long-standing IOUs to past employees, making their present-day schools significantly worse than they would otherwise be.

It leads many more parents to head for the door, which arcs the doom loop further down.

And school districts can attempt to prevent parents from leaving by refusing to approve new charters, like Philadelphia has since 2018, including the four charter applications the district denied earlier this year …

… and districts can attempt to close as many currently operating charter schools as possible, like Philadelphia tried to do when it moved against three last year.

It’s a response to charter schools coming from school districts across the entire country right now.

St. Louis suing to stop the opening of a new charter this week.

The Denver superintendent trying to close a charter citing test scores even though he has been attempting to throw out the use of test scores for all other purposes.

Or the Los Angeles school district trying to take back district facilities from charter schools …

… making the astonishing assertion that the district, which not so long ago served 730,000 students, doesn’t have enough space to house charter schools when the district is now projected to soon be serving fewer than 400,000.

They’re all efforts that are doomed to fail, of course, because, regardless whether districts are actually able to choke off parent access to charter schools, they’re simply not going to get those parents back.

The world has changed.

Not so long ago, perhaps, school districts could think that parents living in cities would ultimately knuckle under and accept whatever substandard program the district would throw at them.

But not any more, as the Washington Post’s reporting so convincingly portrayed earlier this fall.

Homeschooling has become a part of the American mainstream in ways few could have predicted just a few years ago.

Given no other choice, parents are making their own …

… and it’s happening as much in cities today as anywhere else in the country.

Some states, including many with large urban populations like New York and DC have seen homeschooling rates more than double in just the last few years, and many other big-city states including California and Pennsylvania are not far behind.

It’s being powered, of course, by stunning new technology …

… that is resulting in the adoption of AI teaching tools happening at higher rates in American living rooms than in American classrooms.

Think of that.

Parents are adopting new teaching tools faster than teachers are!

Unable to stem the exodus of students out of their schools, and knowing that under-used or unused facilities are ones that charter schools tend to get access to, school districts go on to take the next step which turbocharges the doom loop.

They keep up the pretense up that all their facilities are being fully used.

In collaboration with teacher union partners who have made it a national policy to declare a moratorium on all school closures …

… during a period of unprecedented enrollment decline, districts across the country are consciously choosing to continue operating literally thousands of financially unviable schools, one of the most willfully self-destructive things school districts can do in terms of offering quality learning opportunities for the vast majority of their students.

Because invariably, districts spend more per pupil in their under enrolled schools than those students generate in revenue, requiring the districts to siphon money away from every other classroom in their districts. So, the schools that far larger numbers of parents want their kids to attend are forced to provide massive subsidies to schools that far fewer parents want their kids to attend.

In San Francisco, the district is keeping open a school that serves but 11 students and requires more than $40,000 per student to operate.

Across the Bay in Oakland, auditors are calling out the district for operating nine schools with fewer than 200 students when the district is already teetering on the brink of insolvency.

And in Chicago, the school district clings to its tiny high schools …

… with Hirsch High School serving only 100 kids, though its facility was designed for 1000, and where the district spends over $30,000/pupil, two and a half times more than it spends on its other high schools. The story is the same at Austin College and Career Academy which serves only 160 at a campus built to house 2000.

But maybe most debilitating of all is the program and staffing instability that happens across entire school districts as central administrations do all they can to keep unviable schools afloat.

This article …

… get is exactly right.

It’s starts with one parent who is absolutely furious with the district …

Parent Amanda Stevenson is livid.

This week — two months into the school year — she was told that her daughter’s kindergarten class would be split in half and parceled out to two different teachers, a district decision based largely on the budget as well as staffing needs at other schools.

… and it ends with another parent who is turning her attention toward charter schools.

“Please show us parents some common sense, and give us a reason to continue to grow with OUSD and entrust our kids in your care,” she said in her letter. “Show some flexibility and openness to feedback and give us parents a reason not to start researching charter schools for our kids from now on.”

CharterFolk, as we all know, many of the challenges that confront urban schools are ones that have impact on charter schools as well.

Some of our schools have seen decreases in enrollment. Some have even had to close. Many are having to make higher pension contributions like other public schools due to state decisions to underfund pensions in the past. And almost all in one form or another have had to contend with the staffing and student mental health challenges that have confronted all schools through the pandemic.

So we look at the situation with proper sobriety.

But we also understand that charter schools in the macro are different from traditional public schools in the macro because ours can course correct.

We don’t accrue our own unfunded liabilities forcing us to take money away from this generation of kids to pay for the educations of kids from the prior generation.

We don’t run economically unsustainable programs in facilities that are far larger than we need.

We sure as heck don’t take more per pupil money away from other schools in order to keep unsustainable schools afloat.

And perhaps most important of all, we have demonstrated that perhaps our greatest sweet spot as a movement is the improved learning we are generating with millions of young people who reside in urban settings.

In previous studies, CREDO and others have found that charter schools were most effective for students living in urban communities (Clark et al., 2015; Cremata et al., 2015; Cremata et al., 2013). This remains true in this latest study. Compared to their TPS peers, urban charter school students had an additional 29 days of growth per year in reading and 28 additional days in math, both of which were significant.

The country appears to be gearing up for a massive investment to help cities escape the clutches of an urban doom loop.

The experience of charter schools over the past thirty years offers reason for hope.

Should more voters and policy-makers unleash the course correction that is within our potential, the renaissance of the American city can be led by American city schools.