The Angle of Repose in Utah – A Lay of the Land Inclined Toward Public Education Greatness

Good day, CharterFolk

Last week was a great week.

How do I define a great week?

Having a chance to visit four great charter schools, of course.

What I didn’t know was that one of the four would be named for one of my favorite authors …

… whose masterpiece …

… takes its title from the geologic term …

… describing the talus slopes you will find at the base of rock formations, like this one in Moab.

I found it fitting that a school named after such an esteemed writer, would itself be a kind of masterpiece.

Wallace Stegner Academy is the creation of two extraordinary …

… educators …

… who, after demonstrating unprecedented levels of success in their 6th grade classrooms within district public schools, went on to found a charter school organization that is now generating some of the highest academic outcomes in all of Salt Lake City …

… and is preparing to open its third campus in the fall.

And with no impediments in sight to charter school growth in the Utah landscape, Wallace Stegner seems on a trajectory for opening up even more great schools soon.

Earlier in the day we had been at another charter school that takes inspiration from a legend.

Riffing off Mr. Rogers famous 1-4-3 adage “I love you,” Roots Charter School

… has created its 2-4-3 approach, “We love you,” designed to support the school’s unique population of kids who have not experienced success in other educational settings.

Program Director Larissa Little and graduating senior Estrella Armendariz Alba …

… walked us around the fully functioning farm that is another of the school’s hallmarks …

… and discussed one of the great conundrums confronting the school community.

How do they keep the small intimate feel they know is making a profound difference in many students’ lives, while also knowing that many communities across Utah have expressed the desire to have a Roots school in their area as well?

Managing the challenges of high demand for growth is something that Beehive Science and Technology Academy

… is grappling with as well.

Long-time Executive Director, Hanifi Oguz explained to me …

… how the school’s focus on STEM education …

… is resonating with parents and policy makers alike.

Having been identified by U.S News and World Report to be the top public high school in Utah for three years in a row …

… Beehive recently completed the development of a new facility that allowed it to add an elementary school.

Not surprisingly, the organization is now considering its next campus and features prominently …

… in discussions about how Utah’s charter schools have grown to serve 12% of students statewide and see no end in sight to further growth in the years to come.

In between school visits, Royce Van Tassel, Executive Director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools

… and I had the opportunity to meet with state legislators who have advanced charter-supportive policies, including a one-of-a-kind statute that deems charter school facilities an approved use in every zoning district in the state.

It’s the kind bold and imaginative policy making that now poises Utah’s charter school movement to make as much progress in the years ahead as any state in the nation.

We wrapped up our whirlwind tour stopping by Early Light Academy

… where Executive Director Stephanie Schmidt …

… walked us around one of the most spectacular campuses I have ever visited …

… as she described leading a school that all five of her own kids have attended.

Making schools for other people’s kids every bit as exceptional as we would expect for our own.


CharterFolk, we live in a time, when many other parts of the country seem bent on doing pointless damage …

… to the lay of the charter school land.

In Utah, meanwhile, they are finding the proper angle of repose.

One inclined toward public education greatness.

Running in Packs | The Establishment Goes Scorched Earth | How We Open Ourselves Up for Attack | A New North Star Would Provide Our Frame

Good day, CharterFolk.

I said in last weekend’s post that I would return to 50th anniversary things happening in Boston as we prepare to host our national conference there. But a few things came up last week, and some of the most interesting 50-year milestones will be passed in the days ahead. Plus, my weekend ended up jam packed this week. So I’ll take a stutter step on that other column and get this one out to you a day late. Thanks for your understanding.

Running in Packs

I start by offering thanks to Emilio for his great Contributor Column last week …

… and for his nearly four years of serving as the inaugural Board Chair for CharterFolk.

As I have said about Emilio since my first days of knowing him, including in posts here at CharterFolk …

… Emilio is an amazingly well-named human being.

For, in all my days in Charterland, never have I encountered another leader who better enables CharterFolk to come together into unified packs than does Emilio Pack.

Be that the tightly knit community of students …

… and educators …

… you see any time you set foot on a STEM Prep campus, or be it the tightly knit group of charter school leaders Emilio helped coalesce when he served as the Inaugural Co-Chair of the Los Angeles Advocacy Council …

… or be it the work he did as the inaugural Chair of the CharterFolk Board of Directors.

Befitting the spirit he brings to everything he does in CharterLand, how did Emilio choose to focus his comments in his going-away column?

Celebrating the contributions of another charter school leader, Casey Taylor, Superintendent of Achieve Charter School …

… who, like Emilio, helps CharterFolk come together in packs, like the entire Paradise community Casey helped draw together to overcome the devastating fires of 2018 …

… or the pack of leaders Casey convenes as the Chair of CCSA’s Member Council to take collective action in support of shared advocacy priorities, like the lawsuit CCSA is taking on to stop LA Unified’s patently absurd efforts to claw back facilities from charter schools.

In the end, nearly every charter school advocacy win, like the recent big one in South Florida …

… is traceable back to the spirit that Emilio and Casey bring to all they do in Charterland.

Unity. Courage. And collective action.

In other words, running as a Pack.

Emilio and Casey, I extend a special thanks to you both once again.

On we go.

The Establishment Goes Scorched Earth

I appreciated all the outreach from readers about last week’s Amelia Bedelia article …

… wherein I decried the tendency of many to blame every woe in public education on NCLB and Common Core.

In particular, it was great to have one reader send me this old article …

… that talked about people blaming the spread of lice on NCLB.

I also appreciated a reader updating me about an issue I covered in posts late last year about school districts having facilities to burn.

In this case, the reader sent along a story about a school district in Michigan that would rather dismantle a school facility than risk it falling into the hands of a charter school.

As I depict lower in this column, Michigan is going positively “scorched earth” on charter schools these days. So it makes sense that in just the past few weeks, we would find multiple incidents …

… of school districts in Michigan …

… having school buildings to burn.

It underscores the sad sense so many have these days, not just that public school facilities are on fire, but that, in fact, all of public education is.

How We Open Ourselves Up For Attack

Meanwhile, the biggest story in CharterLand last week was victory in Colorado.

The Establishment’s brazen attack on charter schools was decisively defeated in the Colorado House Education Committee.

Credit the victory to CharterFolk running together as a pack.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools worked together with its members to create over 56,000 points of contact between CharterFolk and legislators in the days leading up to the vote. Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that most coverage of the bill’s defeat characterized the proposal to be an attack on charter schools or an attempt to impose stricter regulation on charter schools …

… rather than an attempt to strengthen charter school “accountability” as many earlier press accounts had done.

Because, though we prevailed last week by a decent margin, multiple legislators who voted against the current bill stated that they would welcome it coming back in amended form. That and other developments across the country reveal that this fight is far from over, but in fact is just ramping up.

Like the attack the Establishment launched on charter schools at Michigan’s State Board of Education last week.

It is essentially a carbon copy of the attack bill in Colorado, advanced by a board member who is on on the record publicly for wanting to do away with charter schools altogether.

But rather than being described as a mortal threat to charter schools as it actually is, the resolution was presented as a call for “transparency” in Chalkbeat’s headline …

… and as a call for “accountability” in the caption underneath the photo of that very same article.

It’s this kind of framing that puts us, as Fordham described it a few weeks back, “on the back foot.”

Fighting within the frame that has been drawn by our adversary, which, as I have repeatedly stressed here at CharterFolk …

… violates the first rule of prevailing in a debate on charter school matters.

A New North Star Would Provide Our Frame

Our problem is that it is very difficult to create a frame of our own without having a North Star.

For what is a North Star anyway other than an ability to direct people’s attention to the portion of sky we want them headed toward?

Unfortunately, the charter school sky has no brightly burning North Star. It’s one of the things I have been writing about since the very first weeks of CharterFolk:

Boneheads like me …

… in advocacy leadership failing to help our world coalesce behind a new North Star reflecting the fact that we have grown to a level of enrollment and system-wide impact that is beyond the “laboratories of innovation” North Star we had in the early days of the charter school movement.

Not being able to state crisply what our current North Star is, we leave ourselves open.

Look at the language the sponsor of the resolution at the Michigan State Board used to justify his attack.

“While the original notion of charter schools as laboratories of innovation came from teachers unions, that purpose has now largely been lost to predatory for-profit charter management organizations,” said Robinson, an associate professor of music education at Michigan State University. “I’ve studied the effects of the unfettered proliferation of charter schools in Michigan over the last 10 plus years. I see no evidence of innovation in the charter sector, and I believe it’s time for much stricter oversight and accountability measures for the existing charter schools in our state.”

You see what I’m saying, CharterFolk?

It’s a perfect, three-sentence summary of the advocacy dilemma confronting the charter school movement in many places across the country now.

Our inability to articulate a new North Star leaves us vulnerable to our adversaries using our original outdated one against us, which, in turn, tees up perfectly their full frontal assault, one that invariably attempts to describe their extreme attack on all things charter as a simple, reasonable quest for greater accountability.

We know, CharterFolk, how this plays out.

The California experience speaks loud.

We too had our data supposedly confirming that the public would never be convinced that a category of schools that are shut down if they don’t perform well are somehow less accountable than district public schools. We too had public polling suggesting that byzantine school district finances would never be seen as transparent in comparison to our own.

And yet, over years and years of running resolutions and bills …

… like the ones we see in Colorado and Michigan and so many other places right now …

… ultimately they prevailed …

… on a strategy they hope to now replicate across the entire country.

Because really CharterFolk.

Did the Establishment think they had any chance in hell of passing their bill in Colorado this year over a certain veto from Governor Polis?

Of course not.

But that’s not what their attack this year was all about.

Just like the resolution at the Michigan State Board isn’t designed for an immediate win but sets up future efforts in the legislature.

They’re playing the long-game, CharterFolk.

Within a frame they believe they can hold the public’s attention over many years.

And if we intend to prevail over that time horizon, we have got to start doing our work differently.

Coming out of our shell.

Articulating a new North Star and a new policy agenda that will get us there.

One that, among other things, clearly defines what “transparent” and “accountable” public school really are.

Such that we fight within the frame we will ultimately need to succeed over the long term.

One of our own making.