Cardona Plows on Making the “Stewardship” Argument. It Opens Up a Moment of Huge Opportunity.

Good morning, CharterFolk.

The big news last week was that the Biden Administration, after giving itself a little time to deliberate, decided to proceed further down the path of attempting to gut the federal Charter Schools Program with their terrible proposed regulations.

I recognize how off the mark it may be to refer to something as “big news” when it’s a development that many of us have been expecting from the Administration for weeks now.

From the moment of Cardona’s announcement …

… it has been clear that he was chosen because he had fully bought into the NEA/AFT agenda to harm charter schools.

The only question has been how he would choose to pursue it.

His first approach was attempting to use the federal budget process.

When the legislative branch stopped him there, he turned to the regulation route where he and the rest of the executive branch have more control over the rule-making progress. It earned him …

… personal kudos from the NEA when he went in this direction.

Then came the backlash …

… and a couple weeks of quiet.

Now we see him plow on, focused on a desire to complete the rule-making process before the next round of funding decisions are made. It would allow him to enact a near immediate choke-off of startup funds to charter school developers across the country, putting a huge brake on charter school growth right when demand for new options is peaking.

He goes forward knowing that it will generate additional controversy and blowback from the charter school base and from our bi-partisan coalition of support. It’s apparently a level of pushback he thinks his world can weather.

We’ll see how well this works out for them.

It’s a calculation I can’t help but think may be informed by what he has seen play out in his home state of Connecticut where advocacy conditions for charter school startup are similar to the broader ones at play around the federal CSP program.

In the early going, Connecticut’s charter school movement generated high levels of success and momentum.

Charter school enrollment grew rapidly.

Charter schools excelled academically, with historically underserved students benefitting most.

Large numbers of students found themselves on waiting lists.

The sector prepared to further expand.

But then, in 2015, just as charter school enrollment was further spiking …

… despite the fact that 86% of charter elementary schools and 83% of charter high schools were outperforming their resident school districts …

… or more accurately because of that fact

… Connecticut decided to change its charter school law.

Establishment forces understood the level of threat they faced and convinced their beholden allies in the legislature to bring forward a charter school moratorium bill.

It engendered massive blowback and debate.

When they couldn’t get it through …

… they seized upon another way by which to choke off charter school growth, one that took advantage of a strange quirk in Connecticut’s charter school law.

Historically, Connecticut had an unusual two-step process for approving new charters. In order for a new school to open, the state board of education first had to approve the developer’s charter application and then the state legislature had to approve a new line item in the state budget to fund the school.

The process created a situation where parents and educators who had seen their schools’ charter applications get approved by the state board would exert intense pressure on legislators to make sure that the line items their schools needed to open were also approved.

Charter opponents’ stroke of genius in the spring of 2015 was recognizing that, if they could stop charter schools from building bases of support prior to opening, they could minimize the degree to which legislators would hear from parents – most often parents from historically underserved communities – desperate to get their kids into better public education options. And that shielding would be enough to make sure that legislators wouldn’t vote to approve the line items the new charter schools needed to open.

So they revised their bill …

… to make a subtle but important adjustment to the two-step process. Going forward, the state board would only be able to create an “initial certificate of approval” rather than a full approval. Meanwhile, developers in receipt of an initial certificate would be restricted from hiring staff and from beginning to recruit students and families. It was a change designed to block charter schools in development from building grassroots power. It was an idea that delighted status quo interests.

Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said the changes put charter schools on a “more level playing field” with other schools.

And it has proved to have had exactly the desired effect that charter school opponents were seeking.

A de facto charter school moratorium.

Over the past seven years, charter schools in Connecticut have seen only very minimal enrollment growth as school after school receiving initial certificates from the state board have failed to get the legislature to approve their needed line items in the state budget.

This spring, for the fourth year in a row, the legislature refused to approve funding for a charter that received its “initial certificate” from the state board in 2018.

Advocates are ramping up grassroots efforts to attempt to compensate for the fact that schools in development are legally prevented from building their own grassroots capacity …

… but thus far, it has not proven enough. Legislators shielded from the true force of parents and other grassroots power have stuck by status quo interests.

It creates an advocacy circumstance for charter school growth in Connecticut that bears a striking resemblance to the advocacy conditions surrounding the CSP challenge playing out in DC right now, ones that Establishment-aligned policy makers like Cardona think they can play to their advantage:

  • A bifurcated process where schools in development need not just an authorizing decision from a single entity but also a startup funding decision from a completely different entity.
  • A bet that the amount of grassroots strength that will emerge in support of charter schools that don’t exist yet won’t be anything in comparison to what the charter school movement is building around its existing schools.
  • A belief that a shielding of Establishment-aligned allies from the true force of parents can be achieved such that charter-hostile policies may be maintained for years to come.

It seems clear to me that Cardona is making a fundamental miscalculation right now. Conditions across the entire country in 2022 are fundamentally different from the conditions that were in place in Connecticut in 2015. On Friday I will go deeper into these differences and why the Administration attempting to take the Connecticut play national are certain to encounter massive challenge.

For now, I will end pointing out one thing. It’s the actual biggest news from last week:

Cardona’s new central framing.

His supposed desire to wisely steward CSP resources. His professed concern for the fact that some portion of CSP dollars has gone toward schools that didn’t end up succeeding.

He has essentially retreated from any broad scale criticism of charter schools.

CharterFolk, this is significant.

If this is the direction he is going to pursue, it presents all sorts of new opportunities for us.

You want to talk wise stewardship? You want to talk overall return on investment that has come from the CSP program?

Without doubt, without any close second, by orders of magnitude, there has never been a higher impact investment of federal dollars to improve public education than the CSP.

Even if we accept their inflated numbers.

$174 million in losses? Over 20 years? For a department whose budget is now $79 billion per year?

An investment that has played a vital role in the creation of a new generation of schools that has served tens of millions of students and families? Schools that have proven to be of vital importance to our country during the covid crisis when parents desperately needed an alternative? And now seem poised for even greater impact in the years ahead?

Cardona has chosen a new anchor to cling to – the small number of charter schools that haven’t succeeded

Every time he does, we should be prepared to pounce with our immensely more effective re-anchor – the enormous number of charter schools that have.

An Establishment That Remains Sound Asleep

Weekend’s greetings, Charterfolk.

Quite another eventful week in charterland. Let me see if I can draw a few threads together.

A Wake Up Call

Late this week we saw this op-ed come out from Michael Bloomberg.

It’s something of a companion piece to his announcement in December.

Like I wrote about his earlier piece, this one also gets the major points right about the sad state of public education in our country right now.

Immense losses in enrollment happening nationwide.

Stunning levels of funding being thrown at schools.

Historic learning loss happening.

On top of a collapse in learning that happened even before the pandemic.

Large numbers of parents enrolling their kids in charter schools.

The Biden Administration attempting to shut off access to those schools.

Infuriated parents pushing back.

It should be, as Bloomberg rightly points out, a “wake up call” for the public education Establishment.

Sadly, though, the Establishment remains fast asleep.

California Sleeps

As it does in so many areas of public education dysfunction, California leads the way into slumberland.

Tony Thurmond, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, talked up his priorities this week as he campaigns for his all-but-certain second term. They include rejecting any point of view on reading instruction.

It’s an argument that the Atlantic points out is not just old.

It was old 25 years ago.

We dealt with it during my credentialing class in the early 90’s when the LAUSD central administration insisted that whole language was the way to teach kids to read. Though many renowned experts in the field have clung to the district’s point of view for decades …

… most of the people I got my credential with saw within a couple weeks of trying it in the classroom that the district didn’t have a clue So we ignored them and did the common sense things we knew our kids needed to learn to read.

Thurmond’s bold leadership on this topic is “making it a high priority” that the California Department of Education get a line item in the state budget to hire reading experts whose charge will be to help school districts interpret research about literacy instruction.

Without taking any position on whether any of it actually works.

Maybe he should request a point of view from one of the eight task forces he has created during his first term.

Or get this one. When asked how schools should be held accountable for achieving third grade literacy goals, this was Thurmond’s response.

Districts need to be provided with steady resources to increase student proficiency in reading. In addition, schools need to have more support, so classroom teachers have time to work with students in small groupings according to their needs to help them make gains in literacy.

I am in the process of asking every local education agency in our state to commit to reaching literacy by third grade. Hundreds of LEAs have signed a pledge and committed to achieving literacy by third grade. Currently, we are in the process of identifying the technical assistance that LEAs will need to reach these goals.

Huh?

Accountability is more money? Accountability is asking school districts to make a pledge?

zzzzzz ….

Believe me, CharterFolk. Don’t spend any time trying to figure this out. It’s utter vacuousness, emblematic of the fact that the entire public education Establishment in our nation’s most populous state has fallen completely and utterly asleep.

New York Sleeps

Sadly, it’s also representative of the slumber that has taken hold elsewhere.

Like in Bloomberg’s backyard. Here’s the news from over the weekend.

The New York state legislature just approved a class size reduction bill. Talk about an argument that’s 25 years old!

A big wave of CSR proposals were enacted in the 90’s, and they’ve become a perennial favorite of the teacher unions ever since. Ravitch couldn’t be happier about the news.

Meanwhile the idea itself has been shown to have only small impact while requiring immense levels of investment when implemented at statewide or district-wide levels.

What also gets little attention is the equity implication when large numbers of teachers shift away from working in schools serving low income students to working in more affluent areas as new positions are created due to the reduction in class size. I know that one well, having been a teacher at Hooper Avenue when CSR was implemented in California during my first years of teaching. (I can’t even estimate. Was half our entire faculty first or second-year teachers back then?)

Of course, what makes the idea an even worse one in the current context is the fact that New York, like most places in the country, is suffering from a severe teacher shortage.

So imagine the impact this is going to have on high need schools in New York right now. Yes, senior teachers are going to get the chance to shift to other schools as many of them want to do. But what’s supposed to happen to the kids and families served by the hardest to staff schools when they end up having even more disruptive teacher turnover? Even more subs? If any subs can be found at all?

zzzzz …

Again, don’t work too hard trying to find some underlying theory here, CharterFolk. There isn’t any. It’s just another manifestation of a public education Establishment where the lights are sadly out.

DC Sleeps

I’ll offer a last example of slumberland thinking coming out of Washington this week where US Education Secretary advocated for the “community school concept.”

In another context this spring Cardona described community schools as a way “to make schools different than they were before, to try things differently.”

Now obviously, schools having wrap-around services for kids and families and integrating various community resources into their offerings is great.

But something bold and new?

John Dewey was writing about this concept 120 years ago!

During my teaching days, groups of teachers and the administration did all sorts of cool things to get health services and legal services and other supports available on our campus.

It’s the fact that the Establishment tries to present this as something novel that I find so stunning. Not to mention the utter vacuousness with which the idea is advanced.

Check out the NEA’s primer on it …

A defining characteristic of a community school is that it recognizes kids come to school facing challenges that affect their ability to learn and grow?

Can someone find me a place on earth that calls itself a school that doesn’t understand that students face challenges?

Or CTA’s:

Again, can anyone find me a school on earth that says it doesn’t want family members and school staff and community members working well together to support students?

This is sound asleep thinking. Zs floating out of the collective mind of the Establishment.

But now they’ve got policy makers convinced that making community schools is actually doing something different. Cardona wants $468M in federal money going to the concept next year. California has already created a $3 billion program built around community schools.

And look, I get it. Charter schools are applying for these funds, and some of them are going to use these funds incredibly well. Charter schools are the ones that showed that community schools as conceived by Dewey all those years ago are in fact possible …

… sparking all sorts of conversations with incredible leaders from our movement about how to replicate such results.

But history shows again and again, that massive new resources blown through our existing broken public education structures come to naught.

Like when Annenberg made its decision to invest $500m in school communities using language very similar to the language being used today to describe community schools.

At the time, it was the largest philanthropic investment in public education ever to have been made in the United States. The announcement came during my sixth month in teaching. Like so many others I was excited. I volunteered to serve as our school’s coordinator for “LEARN,” as the Annenberg reform effort came to be known in Los Angeles.

But it was stunning how quickly we all came to see the whole thing to be a massive waste of time and precious resources.

This quote from perhaps the most respected education reformer of his generation sums it up well.

Veteran school reformer Theodore R. Sizer, who in 1996 quit as director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, admits problems with Annenberg’s approach: “If I had been king, I would have spent a lot less time negotiating through the system as it was and is and much more time in funding “different’ systems,” Sizer told Education Week. “I just don’t think that putting the control in the hands of the existing hierarchy is going to do it.”

CharterFolk, as Bloomberg properly points out, we are living through a critical moment, one where it is imperative that our public education system wakes up to the scale of the challenge that is before it and begins to enact reforms that will regain the confidence of parents and the general public that, in fact, public education can perform the base functions that our society expects it to do.

Sadly, the proposals that the Establishment is bringing forward in the current environment reveal that it is bereft of new ideas. And its only hope is to keep doing what it’s always done but to try to convince people that the old broken status quo is actually something new.

This is absolutely not going to work. While the Establishment may be asleep, parents and the broader public are wide awake to the fact that something substantively different needs to be made or they are ready turn to something else in ways they never have before.

I don’t suggest to any of us that we get too distracted by the particulars of the Establishment’s dysfunction. The point of this post was not to encourage any of us to contest what the Establishment is doing. They are going to do what they are going to do.

The point was to highlight the fact that the unravelling of the public system in our country is happening even faster than most of us expected, and the system itself has virtually no potential to self-correct.

With that being the case, our world must take on with even greater urgency and pace the challenge of building the new learning opportunities and new advocacy strength that will be needed for our country to navigate a period of change within public education more profound than any we have seen before.