Newspapers Lament But Offer No Suggestions for Better Education Leadership; Lewis Center Shows Us All How to Celebrate the 30th; Don’t Assume Simple Smiles in Red States

Good morning, CharterFolk.

It’s been a big week for CharterFolk of the Year voting. Thanks to all who have already gotten in your ballot. Remember, voting ends tonight at midnight pacific time. So get your vote in now. It only takes 30 seconds. We’ll announce our four finalists on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I would like to give another special thanks to Naomi Shelton for sharing yesterday’s column about how to support the next generation of diverse leadership coming to the charter school movement. Her post prodded me again to recognize the historical resonance between the charter school movement and the Second Awakening, the time in American history when there was an explosion of new churches formed. This is a theme I will return to in future writing. Thanks again to Naomi for challenging me to think of that again as well as to offer a range of other smart observations in her post.

Newspapers Lament But Offer No Suggestions for Better Education Leadership

I also wanted to highlight a few articles from major publications that have come out in the last couple of days related to a topic we cover regularly here at CharterFolk. The New York Times became the latest to write about Superintendents Who Walk Away.

The LA Times piled on as well, begging for stability in leadership so that there can finally be a focus on “learning, learning, learning.”

It’s a nice sentiment.

I went back and looked at the number of superintendencies there have been in Los Angeles Unified since I started teaching there in the summer of 1993. But studying the list, I recognized that the most interesting timeframe is looking back to when I graduated from college. Since then, as of July 1, there will have been fourteen superintendencies in LAUSD (with Ramon Cortines having served three times).

Those 14 leaders have lasted 34 years in total. That’s an average length of service of 2.4 years. Meanwhile, if we look further back in LAUSD history, we see the prior 14 superintendencies …

… stretched back to the previous century. They served a combined total of 92 years, with an average length of service of 6.6 years, almost three times longer than the most recent 14 superintendents.

It’s nice for major publications to be waking up to the problem of unstable leadership in public education. What would be even nicer is for them to offer suggestions for structural changes that would begin to address the problem. Short of concrete recommendations, their pleas for stability equate to nothing but vacuous complaint.

Hint, hint, LA and NY Times. You might suggest that school districts begin to pattern their leadership structures after charter schools which, as this Washington Post writer pointed out, have fundamentally more stable leadership, allowing them to offer more effective educational programs.

Sadly, though, not even Jay Mathews can bring himself to suggest that we evolve the governance of our traditional public schools to create stable leadership.

The American system of elected school boards will hamper learning cultures. But I think most people, including me, prefer to stick with democracy, at least in traditional schools. That’s a feeling, not an argument, but it’s powerful. We will just have to work harder to ensure we make all of our schools better.

Sadly, even people who can put their finger on the problem can’t bring themselves to embrace common sense solutions, leaving at the bottom of our list of priorities, the thing that should be at the top: learning, learning, learning.

Lewis Center Shows Us All How to Celebrate the 30th

Secondly today, I wanted to highlight that I heard back from another party pushing back on my notion that we aren’t celebrating loudly enough our approaching 30th anniversary.

A couple days after having made that assertion, a mysterious box appeared on my doorstep. It turned out to be full of some of my favorite things.

Charter tchotchkes! (Or is that better spelled “tcharter tchotchkes”?)

But not just any old tchochkies, but ones from the Lewis Center, a hallowed organization which operates two charter schools in the Inland Empire/High Desert area of Southern California. The Center got its start a couple years before California’s charter law passed, meaning they are celebrating their 30th anniversary a little earlier than the rest of us. And if you head to their website, you see they’re celebrating it in style.

It’s exactly the kind of celebrating we should be doing more of.

Recognizing the crazy former kindergarten teacher Rick Piercy …

… who got the whole place going by thinking creatively about how to get kids of all ages excited about science. One crazy idea after another, suddenly they’re building their own observatory on campus.

It was an audacious way of thinking that earned them the admiration of their area congressman, who helped them build relationships with many important partners including NASA and JPL.

Next thing you know, the organization gets it own radio telescope …

… which it operates for NASA, involving tens of thousands of kids from across the United States in space exploration and study.

Years later, the organization still operates that telescope and, under its next generation of leadership headed up by CEO Lisa Lamb …

… has forged on through the pandemic to complete a new permanent campus for its dual-immersion campus in San Bernadino.

A warm thank you to everyone at the Lewis Center for the inspiration you always provide. I officially stand corrected:

Some of us are celebrating our 30th anniversaries exactly as we should!

Don’t Assume Simple Smiles in Red States

Finally today, I wanted to round out the week turning attention to dynamics at play for charter schools in red states.

On Wednesday, I shared a post arguing that we are entering a “Decade of Truth” when we will find out whether charter schools will be able to return to a posture of momentum and increased impact in our highly challenging blue states.

I realize that by focusing on the challenges in the blues, that people might think that we’re all smiles in the reds.

But aside from the construct itself not really being applicable (we haven’t, for example, seen a period of intense blowback and slowing momentum in red states, making the whole left side of the above graph inaccurate), the idea that advocacy conditions for charter schools in red states can be easily summarized as “a cheerful grin” is simply off the mark.

Yes, as many have noted, myself included, we have seen several legislative wins for charter schools in red states over the past six months. This week’s op-ed from the Wall Street Journal catalogs well some of the breakthroughs that have happened.

Indeed, just yesterday we saw the latest sign of progress, a long fought for bill in Iowa establishing an option for charter schools to bypass school districts and seek authorization directly from the state.

This is all positive.

But look at this clip from a Texas legislative hearing from just a couple days ago.

You heard that right. That’s a Republican Member of the House of Representatives referring to charter schools as “a virus!” Literally!

It reflects a dynamic we see in many places. Where Republicans represent the education status quo as is the case in many rural areas of red states, we can see opposition to charter schools that is nearly as pronounced as we see in urban areas of blue states.

Why else are we still waiting for charter schools to have the ability to operate statewide in Missouri?

Why else would see such huge funding inequity for charter schools in Indiana?

So it’s no simple story by any stretch of the imagination.

There are some red state governors who clearly are true believers. Governor Lee in Tennessee is certainly among them.

He and Tennessee Education Commissioner (and former California charter school leader and founder) Penny Schwinn …

… made a visit to a Memphis charter school together just this week.

The governor and his team have been incredibly supportive of charter schools. They have proposed $24M in new funding for charter school facilities this year, with half of it set up to be recurring funds. They have recently passed legislation making a new statewide authorizer allowing charter schools to expand into all areas of the state. And the Governor is making ambitious goals to more than double the number of students attending Tennessee charter schools before the end of his second term.

All this is great.

But here’s the thing:

What we are needing more than anything else in one of these red states is for a Republican governor to seize the mantle and drive home a new narrative for the charter school movement that will both greatly expand opportunity in his or her home state while also fundamentally resetting the public’s understanding of charter schools in the entire country, including in our bluest states where our ability to round out the smile hangs in the balance.

And what in my estimation would be the most game-changing policy agenda a red state governor could take on?

A conversion law on steroids.

Imagine Governor Lee and Penny championing a law stating that any group of public school educators who want to take control of their own destiny by converting their traditional public school to charter school status will be empowered to do so, no matter how much their central school district might want to hold them back.

More than that, if the teachers want an analysis showing how much money they would have to invest in their school if they were an autonomous charter school versus how much money their school district is choosing to spend at their site given that the centralized bureaucracy currently controls the school’s funding, the state is obligated to provide the teachers that analysis. And for any group that decides to move forward with a conversion effort, the state would ensure that ample startup funding and technical assistance are available to help the conversion be as successful as possible.

And then, knowing how frustrated many teachers and parents feel about school districts having held back local schools from doing what they wanted to do during the Covid crisis, the governor would go out on the road and sell it, actively encouraging as many groups of educators as possible to convert. In so doing, the governor would demonstrate that, not only is the charter school movement something that helps thousands of great new schools get started, it is also a movement that empowers absolutely all educators to make their existing traditional public schools even better. You know, a message showing that charter schools aren’t for just some people but are in fact a true movement meant to help absolutely everyone everywhere?

It’s the kind of agenda that would cast a smile across the face of the entire national charter school movement, and quite possibly across all of public education itself.