Why No One Calls Out the Dorsal Fins in Waters Where Kids Swim Everyday

Good day, CharterFolk.

Last week I was in Missouri.

That “one person’s pattern recognition is another person’s confirmation bias” phenomenon I wrote about a couple weeks ago

… has me convinced that public education’s sharks have made it up the Mississippi.

All the signs of shark-infested waters are clear to see.

A city whose historical public education effort has been among the most abjectly unacceptable of any in the nation.

A school district that at one time served more than 115,000 students now serving less than 20,000.

A charter school sector growing in response to the local district’s failure to serve kids well.

With some of those charter schools generating results as strong as those produced by any public schools in Missouri.

Feeling that it can’t otherwise compete, the district does all it can to grow selective admissions magnets, spurring inevitable questions:

The conclusion of the article from Prime Center says it all:

Today, Missouri’s urban magnet schools provide city districts with a competitive edge in a school choice environment and may no longer have a primary focus on racial integration.

Meanwhile a new open enrollment bill is making its way through the legislature …

… which explicitly allows school districts to use selective admissions to determine what students might be permitted to cross district lines.

A student seeking to transfer to a magnet school, academically selective school, or school with a competitive entrance process shall submit proof that the student meets all admission requirements. A student may be denied transfer if, in the most recent school year, he or she has been suspended from school two or more times, was suspended for an act of school violence, or expelled for acts school administrators are required to report to law enforcement under current law. 

Long-time readers of CharterFolk may remember that a couple years back I wrote about the idea that we have little equity to lose in most of our major urban school districts.

It was an article where I essentially argued that public education’s …

… sharks …

… occupy waters at the convergence of the Sacramento and American Rivers.

In a follow up article

… I posited that the equity issues confronting Sacramento Unified are ultimately not fixable and I advanced a thought experiment about how the optimal path forward involves charter schools and all surrounding school districts taking students from Sacramento Unified such that the district would end up serving literally zero students going forward.

It was an argument that charter school growth and open enrollment into other districts is the optimal path forward for achieving new levels of excellence and equity in our public education system, but in a key distinction from what is being proposed in Missouri, rather than high needs students being the least advantaged group for accessing high quality school choice options, high needs students would be given the absolute right, and indeed the most-preferenced status to choose a school outside their failed urban school district.

It’s not a proposal that would allow school districts to accept students across district lines if they wanted to, and would allow them to impose redlining admissions criteria on the students they accept, but one that would require districts to set aside slots at every school they operate for students residing outside their attendance boundaries and would require statistical advantages in lotteries to be provided to high need students.

We’ve known, of course, for generations that school district boundaries and school attendance zones are educational redlining. It’s plain for everyone to see. Often these educational redlines …

… are drawn right on top of the historical housing redlines created by the federal government back in the 1930s.

But the educational redlines created by magnet schools’ selective admissions criteria aren’t so visible. They’re rarely seen all year round. They pop up from below the surface during application windows and then disappear again into the deep where they’re forgotten about for the rest of the year.

Call them the dorsal fins …

… on the sharks that lurk in the public education deep.

They only break above the surface occasionally, revealing what’s really below the surface.

But when they do appear, rather than calling out the threat …

… our society remains mum, though we know that many kids are in the waters where the dorsal fins appear.

And because we do, things like this occur.

A respected pair of researchers, one of them the Chair of the California State Board of Education no less, issues a big new report advertising magnet schools to be some great lever by which to strive for greater equity in our public school system.

In the authors’ opinion, magnet schools COULD achieve this noble end, and COULD achieve that noble end, but nowhere does the report interrogate what magnet schools actually do.

The latest research I can find suggests that, as of the turn of the century, about a third of magnet schools were using selective admissions, and anecdotal evidence would suggest that greater numbers use selective admissions today than ever before.

What’s just so puzzling, and frankly, blatantly inconsistent, is that this report comes out from a researcher who has previously blasted the small number of charter schools that use selective admissions.

In fact, her whole report on New Orleans …

… attempted to essentially discredit the entire charter school experience there based upon the fact that a small number of charter schools (currently less than 5) use selective admissions.

And look, I agree that absolutely no charter schools should be able to use selective admissions anywhere.

But the fact is that very, very few do. And to cast the entire charter school movement as inequitable because a handful of schools engage in practices that vast numbers of magnet schools engage in every day, and then to not say a thing about the scope of that problem within that sector of schools she actively seeks to grow?

This is what we’re up against, CharterFolk.

  • Teacher unions and other status quo interests attempting to protect their turfs at any cost.
  • Many privileged communities wanting public education to keep allocating better opportunity to those with means and worse opportunity to those without.
  • And a phalanx of policy makers who purport to care deeply about issues of equity and excellence who are utterly co-opted and inconsistent, if not downright duplicitous, in their views.

Such that no one wants to say anything for fear of being the one that the shark turns its teeth on first.

From coastal cities …

… to river towns …

… to the Great Lakes …

… to every land-shark-infested place in between …

… dorsal fins appear across the land and waterscapes of our country.

We tend to start out naive about what we’re up against …

… but once we see the teeth up close …

… and the blood in the water that educational redlining leaves behind …

… we ultimately come to recognize …

… we’re going to need a bigger boat.

The good news today is that in many places across the United States we are in fact building such boats.

But in other places we’re not.

And there’s another pattern to recognize, or another bias to confirm, about where strengthening is happening, and where it’s not.

We turn to that part of the story in my next post.

Hope to see you here.