Good day, CharterFolk.
With everything going on in recent months related to CSP, there have been several matters that have warranted attention that I just couldn’t get to. This week, I would like to circle back to some of those matters. I get started today.
It requires, though, a little context first.
Context: A Vision for Greatly More Public Schools
I recognize that, for some of you, some of this will be a repeat. But I ask for your patience as we remember that we have over 3000 new readers here at CharterFolk this year, many of whom have yet to come across some of the foundational concepts we have shared in the past.
As I wrote in last week’s post, CharterFolk was born of me having a chance to visit 30 states immediately after leaving CCSA and hearing charter school leader after leader in state after state struggle to articulate a vision for the next chapter of the charter school movement. So I came to the conclusion that we needed an updated vision, and part of what we could work on here together at CharterFolk was trying to articulate one.
In the process, I have put one out myself. I don’t mean to suggest that it is the best possible vision. Nor do I even think that we need just one. There could be many good ones that might work together well.
But the one I surfaced, I know from firsthand experience, is at least decently good because it’s battle-tested. It was born of getting knocked around during my first seven or eight years on the job at CCSA when we didn’t yet have a good vision I could stand on firmly in every setting – on live radio or television, in a community meeting, in front of charter school stakeholders, with policy makers, accosted by opponents in the supermarket, with funders, canvassing with voters, etc.
But once I came to one that worked, I’ve never really been knocked off balance again, regardless the setting I have found myself in.
In a nutshell, that vision comes down to the following:
- We are deeply, deeply committed to the importance of public education.
- Unfortunately, public education in our country has turned out to be not that public.
- The role of the charter school movement is to make sure that public education in our country becomes greatly more public.
- When we say that public education is not that public, we mean that it:
- Is simply not good enough. Schools simply don’t provide services to students and families as well as is within its potential if it were simply better designed.
- And it’s just not fair enough. It allocates better opportunity to students and families with means and worse opportunity to those without, meaning that rather than public education helping our country overcome historical unfairness, it has become, sadly, one of the biggest perpetuators of that unfairness.
- When we talk about unfairness within public education that prevents it from becoming greatly more public, we mean:
- Enrollment practices which are dependent upon redlining attendance boundaries and selective admissions criteria, and which therefore allocate better educational opportunity to kids with means and worse opportunity to those without.
- Budgeting practices that allow school districts to siphon money away from high needs schools to subsidize lower need schools and central bureaucracies.
- And governance practices which result in school districts holding themselves accountable rather than having empowered third parties that do so, resulting in traditional public schools being essentially accountability-less in ways that harm our highest need kids most.
- We ensure public education becomes greatly more public by:
- Opening as many new public schools as possible that are greatly more public.
- Helping as many traditional public schools as possible convert to charter school status so that they too may become greatly more public.
- And pushing the remaining traditional system to purge itself of its design failings which prevent it from becoming greatly more public.
- We do not seek to grow more charter schools for the sake of charter schools. We are growing to ensure that all public schools in our country become greatly more public. As soon as all schools become greatly more public, we will stop. Sadly, we aren’t anywhere near having a society where all public schools are greatly more public. With that being the case, for the foreseeable future, we will keep growing as quickly as we possibly can.
It’s a Vision for the Long Term
I do not present this vision as one that will delight everyone in the public sphere in the near term. In fact, it’s likely to make things worse in the short term in many places as people profess their righteous indignation in response to us being plain about the fact that we seek an end state where all schools have evolved to operate as charter schools, or very much like charter schools. And yes, things are scary enough in some contexts that it’s perfectly legitimate for CharterFolk in those places to say we can’t afford to make anything worse in the near term.
I get all that.
But my proposed vision is not one designed for the short term. It’s one designed to give us a position we can stand on firmly for decades.
An editorial from the LA Times last month reveals why it is so important we maintain such a time horizon.
CharterFolk readers may recall that I have not been that big a fan of writing coming out of the LA Times editorial board.
My gripe in October was the blatant inconsistency of the editorial board, endorsing Tony Thurmond for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018 …
… and then calling him out for his poor performance just a couple years later …
… without disclosing in the second editorial that they’d ever written the first.
It’s an example of short-term thinking. Short-term accountability. All you’re accountable for is what your readers like right now. So project out virtuous thinking that resonates today. Readers won’t even bother to check what you wrote just a few years ago. So feel unfettered to write whatever the heck you want to today, no matter how inconsistent your ideas might be.
I feel similarly about the Times’s latest piece.
Here they are in April of 2022 lamenting how bad it would be for a shrinking school district to have to close campuses, when just six months ago they were saying that it could be a good thing that LA Unified lost 27,000 students over the past year.
So, what is the editorial board saying? That it’s a good thing or a bad thing that LA Unified is shrinking?
They sure are bold in their criticism of other cities in California messing up the declining enrollment challenge.
And just what are their great ideas for how Oakland could have handled the situation better?
Districts could also consider using staff differently rather than moving students around when enrollment falls. For example, why couldn’t a principal and secretary be assigned to cover two schools with drastically reduced populations?
This would require training and empowering teachers to run some aspects of their schools on days when the principal isn’t there. This shift in responsibility could actually lead to some interesting experimentation and smart administrative thinking ….
Meanwhile, the state, in coordination with affected school districts, must work to understand better why so many students are disappearing and when it makes sense to try to stem the flow. Would bolstering academic and extracurricular offerings bring students back? What is happening at schools where enrollment isn’t declining and is it possible to replicate that?
Really? When declining enrollment challenges come to Los Angeles (and believe me CharterFolk, they are coming), this is all there is to it?
Splitting principles and secretarial staff across sites?
How imaginative! (My public school principal father and his secretary were assigned across two declining enrollment campuses in Denver all the way back to the early 70’s!)
Getting together with state officials to figure out what extracurriculars parents want?
You really don’t think Oakland Unified might have thought of that one before?
CharterFolk, these are vexing issues that respected publications …
…and community leaders …
… have been agonizing over for decades.
And here the Times editorial board comes along offering up milquetoast like it’s revolutionary!
It’s just yet another example of editorial board vacuousness.
Not having a clue. Not having anything meaningful to offer. Presenting things as much simpler than they actually are.
And look, I know that I’m pretty hard on editorial boards around here, and to some degree its unfair. I recognize that they’re overworked and their industry has been hollowed out and it’s unreasonable to think that they’re going to have a depth of understanding across the massive range of issues they cover these days.
I get it.
But, CharterFolk, please know this:
I am not hard on editorial boards because of their particular culpability.
I’m hard on them because they are a proxy.
They are a proxy for societal cluelessness. They are a proxy for the short-term thinking that our society brings to almost any discussion of public education matters these days.
When what we need, of course, is substantive, long-term thinking.
Or at least thinking that is long term enough that it can weather the short-term storm of surfacing the verboten idea. And then, when we stick with the thinking even longer thereafter, people can begin to see what they couldn’t see during their moment of knee-jerk, that there is actually great reason for hope that we can make our public schools greatly more public than they are today if we are just smart about how we go about the work.
Which brings us to the other essential characteristic of an effective new vision.
The Vision We Need is From the Ground Up
Maybe the most discouraging aspect of the Times latest editorial is not its milquetoast-ness, or its short-term-thinking-ness, but is its vain trust that somehow answers are going to come from on high.
Meanwhile, the state, in coordination with affected school districts, must work to understand better why …
The state and school districts are in fact the entities that are least likely to bring forward the truly revolutionary changes that we need.
Because they are directed by elected officials whose interests are short term. What they care about most is the next election. So if a solution needs to be surfaced that has a negative short-term political consequence, suppress it. To the extent an elected official has an interest, it’s to make sure that they keep enough control in the short term that they can keep divvying out near-term political goodies while being able to get out fast enough that the long-term collapse doesn’t happen on their watch.
It’s exactly this dynamic which explains why our vision must be focused on providing control to those who can build long-term solutions from the ground up – parents and teachers and school principals and community members who want to take control of their own destinies and make, or remake, their schools to become greatly more public than they are today.
And I’m not talking about virtue-projecting out statements of support but bringing concrete policy proposals to the public sphere. Things like:
- Requiring school districts to approve budgets down to the school level so that everyone in a school community can see how much money their students are generating and how much the school district is actually spending at that school.
- Empowering school communities – principals, teachers, parents and community members – to request analyses from objective third parties comparing the amount of funding that is being spent at their school site currently to how much they would receive if they converted to charter school status.
- Providing that community the legal authority to develop a charter petition and submit it to an authorizer other than the school district which will make an impartial decision about whether the petition should be approved.
- Guaranteeing that, should an existing public school community decide to convert to charter school status, it will be provided access to enough of its current school facility to effectively serve however many students attend.
- Entitling new conversion charter schools access to the same startup funding that comes to other charter schools through federal CSP and other sources of funding.
Because we know, CharterFolk, we know.
The communities that are facing school closures in Oakland right now, and the communities in Los Angeles and many other cities across America that will face school closures in the not too distant future, have had money sucked away from them, not by charter schools, but by their own school districts, for generations, to subsidize the more affluent schools in the hills and to pay for the districts’ financial sins of the past.
And so, when current district leaders, no matter how noble their intentions might be, present a supposed fiscal reality today, there’s simply no trust. Why should people trust the financial analysis of the district today when the financial practices of that very district got them into this mess in the first place!
And without trust, does anyone really think anything’s ever going to get any better anywhere?
And look, CharterFolk, I’m not naive. I know how various stakeholders in Oakland and LA and elsewhere are going to react when we surface these ideas. Of course they’re not going to be able to hear us, and, of course, they’re going to throw a fit and, of course, they’re going to oppose us and, of course, very few if any are going to come our way …
… right now.
Or next year.
Or maybe even the year after that.
But a few years down the road? Three or four? When their next moment of truth arises? When their district fundamentally mistreats them yet again?
When they’ve heard them from us, over and over again, genuinely, the two most revolutionary words that parents and teachers and community members can ever hear from the charter school movement:
Imagine if they had been hearing these words from us since the days of Randy Ward and Tony Smith.
We are as much here for you as we are for anyone in our movement because you too are a part of our movement.
And together, we will leave top-down, short-term, milquetoast thinking behind.
And from the ground up, over many years, we will build the greatly more public education that our kids and communities deserve.
Like I say CharterFolk. I don’t present this as the best vision for our movement, or the only one. But I do suggest that it has worked for me in a lot of different “tough-spot” places, and I’m pretty sure it will work for many of you, too.
Try it, and let me know how it goes.
Coda – A Thirty-One Year Old Movement
I was on a phone call earlier this week when a friend quoted the wise maxim:
“When’s the best time to have planted a tree?
Thirty years ago.
When’s the second best time?
This spring we ‘re about to turn 31 years old as a movement.
Let’s grab the second best moment to bring forward the long-term vision that we need.