New CSP Awards Reveal the Lay of the CharterLand and the Three Things We Have to Do Now

Good day, CharterFolk.

It was so great to share Terry Ryan’s Contributor Column on Friday. As Terry writes, we often find that resistance to charter school expansion can be just as pronounced from Republicans wanting to protect their status quo schools as from Democrats wanting to protect theirs. And, of course, any state that relies on school districts only to authorize schools, as Idaho did during its early days, is certain to see anemic, if not nonexistent, charter school growth. At a critical juncture in Idaho, key policy makers showed courage and allowed for the creation of an independent authorizer at a state level that is now making decisions based upon the quality of applications, not upon local political concerns. That, along with the other policy breakthroughs Terry describes, has made a huge difference, and now Idaho has as vibrant a sector of growing, high quality charter schools as any state in the nation.

Thank you once again, Terry, for all the extraordinary work you are doing in Idaho, and for offering such a thoughtful Contributor Column.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

New CSP Awards Reveal the Lay of the CharterLand

Well, after all the drama this spring …

… and amid a lawsuit that’s been going on since late summer …

… the department finally posted the latest round of CSP awardees on their website this week.

The site doesn’t make it easy to get to the bottom line.

Here’s a summary of the states and/or state associations that were awarded new CSP growth grants.

It provides a lay of the land for charter schools nationally, especially when one factors in a few other red states that were eligible this cycle.

Two such states – Ohio and Louisiana – had their SEAs (as opposed to their state associations) submit applications, and they were denied.

A third – Missouri – didn’t even bother to apply. The thought was that the state’s last application was denied because Missouri’s geographic restrictions are too prohibitive – no growth allowed outside Kansas City and St. Louis – and nothing has changed relative to geographic restriction since then, so why go through the hassle?

It underscores why the Ohio denial smarts in particular.

One of the most under-appreciated breakthroughs that has happened in national charter school advocacy in recent years was a change in Ohio law allowing charter schools to operate, not just in major urban areas which had previously been the case, but everywhere in the state.

So it’s tempting to think about what new momentum we might have been able to generate in Ohio now that charter schools are free to operate where they want.

Just as it’s tempting for some of us CharterFolk, myself included, to ruminate on the degree to which these CSP decisions were all political, all part of some larger effort to stymie charter school growth in the short term and to secure the demise of the entire CSP in the long term.

With an administration that has been all politics on education matters since early in the campaign …

… and with the educational NIMBY clique …

… keeping up …

… their never-ending assault on CSP …

… in the echo chamber …

… it’s all the more tempting to ruminate on how it’s all political.

(Really? The OIG just happened to finish its report in the same week that CSP awardees were announced?)

But the federal story is not the part of the lay of the land I recommend keeping front and center right now.

We know what the other side is trying to do.

Concurrent with their attacks at the national level, they’re trying to make growth so difficult at the local level that charter schools can’t generate enough growth to draw down the CSP funds that their states have been awarded, thereby building the argument for defunding, and eventually …

… abolishing altogether, the CSP.

It’s why the part of the lay of the charterland I find most important right now is what’s going on at the local level.

Mississippi is instructive.

At the same time that it was announced that Mississippi had been awarded enough funding to open dozens of schools over the next five years, we saw the state authorizer deny all but one new charter school application.

It’s a problem that has been going on for years.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of challenges to growth we find in many local contexts.

Connecticut was awarded over $24 million this week and hasn’t seen a new charter school open in years due to the double-approval gauntlet charter schools must navigate at the state board and the state legislature. It’s a process that equates, as I wrote in June, to …

It bears mentioning that at the same time that Connecticut was imposing its de facto moratorium on charter schools, the New Yorker identified Connecticut’s public schools to be among the most unfair in the country.

And the charter schools that have been denied the opportunity to grow in Connecticut are broadly understood to be the highest performing public schools in the state. It’s a fact that was well-demonstrated seven years ago …

“Public charter schools alone showed statistically meaningful gains at or above Proficient and Goal levels on the CMT.”

… and it’s a fact that has been confirmed to be just as true today.

“To us, [the 2020 data] confirms the findings from [the 2015 study], that students in Choice programs are higher achieving and, in general, we’re seeing that growth in charters [charter schools] is stronger than some of the other Choice programs as well,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for state Department of Education.

“It’s interesting to me that we did this with our old assessment, we did this with our new assessments, and we’re seeing kind of confirming evidence,” Gopalakrishnan said.

Meanwhile, next door in Massachusetts, there’s been a cap on charter school growth in Boston going back even further than Connecticut’s …

,,, despite the fact that Boston’s charter schools have long been shown to be among the highest performing in the nation …

.. and despite the fact that the district is widely perceived to be failing many of its students.

Outside Boston, though the state’s cap isn’t operative in every community, whenever a new charter is proposed, the state teachers union goes apoplectic …

… sending local communities into chaos …

… until such time as charter school supporters are made to heel.

From a timing standpoint, CSP couldn’t have been better news in Illinois. The award was announced the same week that traditional public schools were shown not only to be failing, but to be consciously attempting to conceal their failure.

Meanwhile, charter schools in Illinois are beating the odds

… creating many of the best opportunities available to historically underserved students and families.

Despite that progress, protectors of the failing, concealing status quo have blocked one of the most important pathways by which charter schools grow.

In the last two states awarded CSP grants this week, the lay of the land shows a more receptive bent.

In Tennessee, all eyes of late have been focused on the Hillsdale controversy.

What’s garnered less attention is that the state’s new commission …

… has been approving new charter schools …

… including two new KIPP schools which the commission approved just this week.

And in Georgia, which was awarded the largest of all the CSP grants this cycle, recent policy wins …

… including funding equity progress and the creation of a new facilities fund, poise charter schools for aggressive growth.

The Three Things We Have to Do Now

This, CharterFolk, is the lay of Charterland as we live it in the fall of 2022.

  • In context after context, our nation’s public schools are shown to be struggling and to be rife with unfairness.
  • In many of those contexts, large numbers of charter schools are doing far better than other public schools, especially for students coming from historically underserved backgrounds.
  • Many of those schools are poised to grow if they are permitted to.
  • At a federal level, an administration that should be on the side of historically underserved kids, has been co-opted by status quo interests to do whatever it can to slow down the growth of charter schools.
  • The administration has been able to do some harm to the Charter Schools Program, but thus far, our parents have helped us parry the most damaging attacks.
  • Meanwhile at a state level:
    • In many blue states, status quo interests have pushed through policy changes making it particularly difficult for charter schools to expand.
    • In some red states, conditions are more favorable, but in others, status quo protectors can oppose charter schools as forcefully as we see in blue states.

It puts in repose, what I believe to be three important imperatives we have to keep front and center as we work to ensure that CSP growth funds can be fully used at a state level and the long-term politically sustainability of the program can be protected at a federal level.

First, we have to bring the voice of parents aggressively and strategically into advocacy, encouraging them to focus their attention on the forces that actually hold back charter school growth.

This is the lesson we learned in DC this year. Enough of not wanting to offend anyone. Enough of not wanting to say anything negative about traditional public schools. Enough of letting those who are actually impeding charter school growth off the hook. What we have learned is that, when put on the hot seat by charter school parents, status quo protecting policy makers simply cannot stay there. The time is now to make those seats as hot as possible, including the seats that will ultimately determine whether charter school growth is permitted at a local level.

Second, charter school operators have got to project an unequivocal, unapologetic intent to grow in response to the demand that parents are demonstrating.

One of the most pernicious things about caps, or de facto caps, is that they de-motivate CharterFolk from even putting together new charter school applications. And so new charter petitions – the most tangible evidence that parents desperately want, and educators are deeply committed to make new charter schools – are erased from the landscape. As intent to grow disappears from the lay of the land, so too disappears one of the most important forces we can use to reshape that landscape. It is why now more than ever, despite all the challenges that we face, despite the exhaustion that so many of us feel coming through the Covid crisis, we have got to keep submitting new applications. Those applications more than any other single thing will change the game. Not only will they provide even more moral authority to advocates in Connecticut pushing the legislature to finally fund the schools that the state board has approved, but they will help advocates in Massachusetts overcome MTA opposition to charter school growth by making them oppose many applications at once, rather than letting them contest each new charter one by one as they much prefer to do.

Third, we have got to get more creative about how we take on growth.

Finally, as I have been writing about a lot in recent months, we have to become much more imaginative as it relates to advocacy and growth. Part of it means simply submitting proposals for new charter schools that are more creative and innovative. But another part of it will be finding ways to fund charter school expansions that require fewer formal approvals from forces that want to slow us down. Maybe the most important part will be realizing that, in terms of stewarding growth resources, the time has come for us to depend less on state bureaucracies to put together compelling CSP applications. In places like Louisiana and Ohio and Missouri, the time has come to say good-bye to the Blanche Dubois mentality …

… depending upon the kindness of strangers – and taking on the work ourselves, so that we can bring the full creativity and conviction that will be needed to push through charter school growth regardless the obstacles we face.

It is perhaps the maxim related to the charter school lay of the land that is more true today than it has ever been.

When it comes to the hills that we have to ascend, no one’s going to climb them for us.

And the only way we reach the top is by CharterFolk forging on together.

These CSP decisions lay bare the path that lies before us.

On we go.