Navigating the Urban Education Doom Loop – The Renaissance of the American City Can Be Led By American City Schools

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I start today with a shout-out to the CharterFolk who took the time to host me for school visits during my time in Idaho last week where there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in Charterland.

In just a decade’s time, the state has seen charter school enrollment almost double to approximately 30,000 students, and with BLUUM, receiving a big new CSP grant to continue its support of high quality charter school growth, we could be seeing even more progress happening soon.

My first stop was at Elevate

… a school integrating career tech instruction into everything it does. School leaders C.J. Watson and Jessica Figueroa

… showed me around their campus with its signature purple slide in the commons area …

… meant to underscore a deeply held organizational belief at Elevate, which is that learning should always have an aspect of sheer fun about it.

It’s an approach to schooling that has clearly resonated in communities across Idaho, as the organization is now set to open its fifth school in just five years of operations.

Very impressive.

Later in the day I got to see Rick Hale …

… the Education Director at the newly opened Idaho Youth Ranch …

… which houses a highly innovative charter school with a residential component providing educational services to students from across the state needing emergency intervention to help overcome severe mental health trauma.

During our time together Rick explained how charter school flexibility was giving the Ranch the ability to create a program for some of the state’s highest need kids that simply wouldn’t have been possible within a traditional public school context.

Forge on, IdahoFolk.

Impressive indeed.

Navigating the Urban Education Doom Loop – The Renaissance of the American City Can Be Led By American City Schools

Long time CharterFolk readers will remember that in my first post of 2021 I wrote about what I called the Great Disconnect …

… an ever smaller percentage of public education providing the bare minimum that parents will accept, creating a fundamentally unstable situation.

I followed that up with my first post of 2022

… in which I predicted that the disconnect would result in a rough beast being visited upon large urban school districts, the part of public education least able to navigate the unfolding disconnect.

In my first two posts of 2023

… I shared that the presence of new instructional supports available to parents through AI will improve their educational BATNAs such that millions more will likely decide to keep their kids out of schools that don’t meet their minimum expectations.

All these threads have come together in recent weeks in ways that point to a new reality.

It’s what I would call a “doom loop.”

Something bad happening, triggering a response that is worse, which in turn triggers something still worse.

The phrase got new currency when the San Francisco Chronicle wrote one of the most influential articles of the year wherein it posited that the entire city of San Francisco could be caught in a massive doom loop.

The article’s assertion was that San Francisco has seen businesses and residents leave in response to city problems, which results in the city having fewer resources to address those problems, leading to even more businesses and residents leaving, which continues the spiral down.

Since the article’s publication, many other papers have used the term to describe what is happening in their own home towns …

… and national publications have used it to explain what may be happening to many cities across the country.

I am no more knowledgeable about broader urban matters than the next guy. So I have no special insight into whether our cities are actually caught in doom loops, or whether it’s all just overblown.

But this much I do know.

Regardless whether our cities are caught in doom loops, our cities’ schools most definitely are.

Or, at least the ones operated by major urban school districts are.

Perhaps the leading indicator is the fact that voters are now trying to initiate course corrections in places like Denver …

… and Philadelphia, where the new incoming mayor is saying she’s utterly indifferent to where better schooling comes from, whether it’s from a charter or a traditional public school.

We want all of our children in a 21st century modern school building with the highest academic achievement. If anybody is interested in talking to me about public education and you are trying to pit traditional public against charters, again, don’t do it!  I’m not the person to have that conversation with.  We are going to find a way to move educational opportunities for our young people forward.  And I’m a certified secondary English teacher by profession.  But we’re going to do it for all of our children.

It’s encouraging.

But, ultimately, it’s just the very, very beginning, CharterFolk.

Because the sad truth is that the challenges confronting our nation’s urban school districts cannot be addressed with simple course corrections.

That’s what a doom loop is – a circumstance from which simple course corrections are not possible.

A chain of events has been started and now we will see the inevitable play out.

Part of the precipitating event that started the arc of urban education’s doom loop, of course, has been the failure of city public schools to serve kids well. But it’s not the entirety of the precipitating event.  Otherwise a simple course correction (just making the schools better) would in fact be possible.

The other critical part initiating the downward arc has been the catastrophic fiscal mismanagement that has been visited on our urban schools such that they are now structurally prevented from getting better. In fact, they are now fated to become even worse. Because the way that school districts react to parents’ seeking other options only exacerbates their own problems.

Take Philadelphia.

Of course, the district has failed to provide quality education to vast swaths of students for generations.

For many years, a part of the problem was society’s structural underfunding of urban school districts.  But as Jay Matthews wrote earlier this month …

… recent scholarship coming out of Fordham …

… shows that the country has made encouraging progress on this challenge over the past decade.

And Philadelphia is case and point. 

At the beginning of the century, the district was receiving less than $7,000 per student. This year it is receiving over $26,000.

But the problem is that the district chose to mortgage its own future. It didn’t pay for the pensions or retirement health benefits it had promised its employees of the past. So it has to take huge amounts of money out of its current operating budgets to pay for what it didn’t pay for in the past.

The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that the district’s payments for pension and retiree health care will have grown from being 5% of payroll in 2006 to something approaching 40% of payroll in the latter years of this decade.

And that doesn’t count the huge additional mortgage the district has taken out on its own school buildings, refusing to pay for basic maintenance and upkeep so that it could provide bigger compensation to its staff in the near term, leaving many of the district’s school buildings in a state of abject dilapidation.

So when a naive group of well-meaning people like the makers of the Abbott Elementary television show come along, they end up doing exactly what the new mayor says she wants no part of – pitting charter schools against district schools …

… by claiming that the district’s funding problems are the making of charter schools, when in fact the real culprit is the district’s own decades-long fiscal mismanagement.

Unfortunately, Pew shows, this is not a dereliction of duty unique to Philadelphia, but is in fact one that many major urban school districts across the country have partaken in.

It’s the giant initial turn of the arc which gets the doom loop started in cities across America: self-inflicted budget harm forcing school districts to suck money out of their own classrooms to pay long-standing IOUs to past employees, making their present-day schools significantly worse than they would otherwise be.

It leads many more parents to head for the door, which arcs the doom loop further down.

And school districts can attempt to prevent parents from leaving by refusing to approve new charters, like Philadelphia has since 2018, including the four charter applications the district denied earlier this year …

… and districts can attempt to close as many currently operating charter schools as possible, like Philadelphia tried to do when it moved against three last year.

It’s a response to charter schools coming from school districts across the entire country right now.

St. Louis suing to stop the opening of a new charter this week.

The Denver superintendent trying to close a charter citing test scores even though he has been attempting to throw out the use of test scores for all other purposes.

Or the Los Angeles school district trying to take back district facilities from charter schools …

… making the astonishing assertion that the district, which not so long ago served 730,000 students, doesn’t have enough space to house charter schools when the district is now projected to soon be serving fewer than 400,000.

They’re all efforts that are doomed to fail, of course, because, regardless whether districts are actually able to choke off parent access to charter schools, they’re simply not going to get those parents back.

The world has changed.

Not so long ago, perhaps, school districts could think that parents living in cities would ultimately knuckle under and accept whatever substandard program the district would throw at them.

But not any more, as the Washington Post’s reporting so convincingly portrayed earlier this fall.

Homeschooling has become a part of the American mainstream in ways few could have predicted just a few years ago.

Given no other choice, parents are making their own …

… and it’s happening as much in cities today as anywhere else in the country.

Some states, including many with large urban populations like New York and DC have seen homeschooling rates more than double in just the last few years, and many other big-city states including California and Pennsylvania are not far behind.

It’s being powered, of course, by stunning new technology …

… that is resulting in the adoption of AI teaching tools happening at higher rates in American living rooms than in American classrooms.

Think of that.

Parents are adopting new teaching tools faster than teachers are!

Unable to stem the exodus of students out of their schools, and knowing that under-used or unused facilities are ones that charter schools tend to get access to, school districts go on to take the next step which turbocharges the doom loop.

They keep up the pretense up that all their facilities are being fully used.

In collaboration with teacher union partners who have made it a national policy to declare a moratorium on all school closures …

… during a period of unprecedented enrollment decline, districts across the country are consciously choosing to continue operating literally thousands of financially unviable schools, one of the most willfully self-destructive things school districts can do in terms of offering quality learning opportunities for the vast majority of their students.

Because invariably, districts spend more per pupil in their under enrolled schools than those students generate in revenue, requiring the districts to siphon money away from every other classroom in their districts. So, the schools that far larger numbers of parents want their kids to attend are forced to provide massive subsidies to schools that far fewer parents want their kids to attend.

In San Francisco, the district is keeping open a school that serves but 11 students and requires more than $40,000 per student to operate.

Across the Bay in Oakland, auditors are calling out the district for operating nine schools with fewer than 200 students when the district is already teetering on the brink of insolvency.

And in Chicago, the school district clings to its tiny high schools …

… with Hirsch High School serving only 100 kids, though its facility was designed for 1000, and where the district spends over $30,000/pupil, two and a half times more than it spends on its other high schools. The story is the same at Austin College and Career Academy which serves only 160 at a campus built to house 2000.

But maybe most debilitating of all is the program and staffing instability that happens across entire school districts as central administrations do all they can to keep unviable schools afloat.

This article …

… get is exactly right.

It’s starts with one parent who is absolutely furious with the district …

Parent Amanda Stevenson is livid.

This week — two months into the school year — she was told that her daughter’s kindergarten class would be split in half and parceled out to two different teachers, a district decision based largely on the budget as well as staffing needs at other schools.

… and it ends with another parent who is turning her attention toward charter schools.

“Please show us parents some common sense, and give us a reason to continue to grow with OUSD and entrust our kids in your care,” she said in her letter. “Show some flexibility and openness to feedback and give us parents a reason not to start researching charter schools for our kids from now on.”

CharterFolk, as we all know, many of the challenges that confront urban schools are ones that have impact on charter schools as well.

Some of our schools have seen decreases in enrollment. Some have even had to close. Many are having to make higher pension contributions like other public schools due to state decisions to underfund pensions in the past. And almost all in one form or another have had to contend with the staffing and student mental health challenges that have confronted all schools through the pandemic.

So we look at the situation with proper sobriety.

But we also understand that charter schools in the macro are different from traditional public schools in the macro because ours can course correct.

We don’t accrue our own unfunded liabilities forcing us to take money away from this generation of kids to pay for the educations of kids from the prior generation.

We don’t run economically unsustainable programs in facilities that are far larger than we need.

We sure as heck don’t take more per pupil money away from other schools in order to keep unsustainable schools afloat.

And perhaps most important of all, we have demonstrated that perhaps our greatest sweet spot as a movement is the improved learning we are generating with millions of young people who reside in urban settings.

In previous studies, CREDO and others have found that charter schools were most effective for students living in urban communities (Clark et al., 2015; Cremata et al., 2015; Cremata et al., 2013). This remains true in this latest study. Compared to their TPS peers, urban charter school students had an additional 29 days of growth per year in reading and 28 additional days in math, both of which were significant.

The country appears to be gearing up for a massive investment to help cities escape the clutches of an urban doom loop.

The experience of charter schools over the past thirty years offers reason for hope.

Should more voters and policy-makers unleash the course correction that is within our potential, the renaissance of the American city can be led by American city schools.

CharterFolk Contributor Alan Gottlieb – School Choice and the Montana Paradox

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Alan Gottlieb, a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think.

Alan Gottlieb, a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think.

I provide Alan’s brief bio below.

Alan Gottlieb is a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think, LLC. He founded EdNews Colorado, which later merged with Gotham Schools to form Chalkbeat. He does consulting work for Bluum, an Idaho-based non-profit education group.

Article and photo courtesy of Bluum

Article and photo courtesy of Bluum

Montanans proudly describe themselves as an independent bunch, marching to their own beat and placing the highest value on individual freedom.

It seems incongruous, then, that the geographically massive, sparsely populated state is one of only five in the nation without public charter schools, the leading vehicle in most states for parental choice in education.

That could be about to change, if a new law creating “Community Choice Schools” survives a state court challenge. The state legislature passed a bill earlier this year, signed by Governor Greg Gianforte, establishing the choice schools, identical in every respect save the name with charter schools in other states.

But the new law was immediately challenged in state court by a consortium of traditional education groups.

District Judge Chris Abbott of Helena in September placed a limited preliminary injunction on portions of the law, putting at least a temporary stop to any choice school approvals.

At the same time, however, Abbott allowed a Community Choice School Commission to form and begin planning implementation of the new law, even as its future remains very much in doubt because of what critics call overly broad and vague language in the state constitution.

Two constitutional barriers cloud the law’s future. The first is language that gives the Montana Board of Public Education (BPE) “general supervision over the public school system and such other public educational institutions as may be assigned by law.” Plaintiffs argue that because House Bill 562 allows the new commission to authorize charter schools, that the law usurps the authority vested in the BPE by the state constitution.

The second potential barrier is constitutional language that vests control of district schools in locally elected school boards. In the view of the law’s opponents, allowing an independent board to offer a public, choice school inside school district boundaries would undermine local boards.

Trish Schreiber, a special education expert and school choice advocate who helped drive passage of the new law, was named the commission’s chair by Gianforte. She said she remains hopeful the law can take effect. But she acknowledged the litigation could continue for well over a year, delaying the birth of true charters in Montana.

That’s a pity she said, because Montanans want and desperately need schools run outside the state’s entrenched education establishment. She said she saw this first-hand when she started coaching public school teachers and saw how poorly many school districts, especially in rural areas that comprise much of the state, serve those students due to insufficient access to special education evaluations and services.

“I was just appalled,” she said. It brought home to her the need for schools that operate non-traditional programs for students with a variety of needs that district schools can’t meet.

Regardless of how current litigation resolves, advocates express confidence that it is only a matter of time before the state has a choice school sector.

“Our voters are telling us we want school choice. We want to be involved in our kids’ education,” said State Rep. Sue Vinton, a Billings Republican and the House Majority Leader who sponsored and championed House Bill 562. “They are saying ‘we want to have choices in the type of education our children receive.”

Complicating matters further, a second charter school bill, House Bill 549, also became law during the last legislative session. It is, by all accounts, a weak law that gives the schools that might be created under it few of the freedoms charter schools in other states enjoy.

It allows districts to create their own charter schools, which must, by and large, abide by state regulations and collective bargaining agreements. True charter laws provide exemptions from those strictures.

Dale Schowengerdt, a Helena-based lawyer fighting the lawsuit against HB 562, said House Bill 549 does little more than provide “an additional funding stream” for traditional public schools.

“It’s almost comical,” he said. Still, should the more robust law pass court muster, the two bills could exist side-by-side. “I don’t see them as necessarily opposed to each other.”

Viewed from a superficial level, Montana would seem like fertile ground for charter schools. After all, next-door neighbor Idaho is extremely charter-friendly, and Montana’s libertarian streak should provide a welcoming environment.

But it’s not that simple for a variety of reasons. As charter school advocates tell it, several factors have kept charters from gaining a foothold until now.

First, though Montana now has a Republican governor and Republican supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, Gianforte took office just two years ago. Before him, Democrats held the governor’s seat for 15 years.

Second, those governors had close ties to the state’s education establishment, consisting of the School Administrators of Montana, the Montana School Boards Association, and the Montana Federation of Public Employees. These organizations have opposed the formation of choice schools and make up a portion of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit under the 501c4 Montana Quality Educator Coalition (MQEC).

Third, the Montana Federation of Public Employees is a powerhouse, representing not just teachers but all other public employee groups in the state. Related to the union’s political power is the fact that Montana has a strong history of organized labor, dating back to the days of the copper barons. Their rapaciousness gave rise to a powerful labor movement in the state, vestiges of which remain today.

Finally, Montana’s rural nature has created a loyalty to its many tiny school districts. “In these rural areas, oftentimes the public schools are the biggest employer in the community,” said Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a free-market advocacy organization he founded in 2020. “That’s a big influence on a local legislator when they’re making decisions on issues like school choice.”

Concerted pressure combined with the fact that Montana’s state government is now Republican-dominated helped turn the tide in 2023.

Katy Wright is a teacher, a “strong, proud union member,” and a supporter of bringing choice schools to Montana. She is a member of the new choice school commission and believes she can help convince her fellow union-members that choice schools will be beneficial to students and teachers alike.

What brought her to this conclusion, which cuts against the grain of teachers union positions across the country? It’s simple, she said: First, her own experience as a public-school Montessori teacher opened her eyes to the value of educational options. And second, she read the research demonstrating the efficacy of charter schools.

Wright teaches in a multigrade Montessori classroom — grades 1-3. The multigrade approach, she said, tracks well with stages of child development. “That catapulted me into advocacy work to try to get more public access to the Montessori methodology because it works so well,” she said.

Much of her advocacy has focused on “trying to reform public education within the existing district landscape.”

She helped talk the Montana union into supporting licensure equivalency for Montessori-trained teachers, something unions have opposed in other states. Ironically, she said, one effective argument was that if the public system didn’t get onboard with opening Montessori schools, it would open the door to charters in Montana.

“It just took some education to get their support,” she said.

Wright said she is optimistic the same strategy can turn the union around on choice schools as well. “Because Montana never does anything the usual way, because Montana is always an outlier, I’m really hopeful that there can be a union partnership in this choice school environment, because it’s law now.”

She said reading a 2023 research study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) convinced her that choice schools would be beneficial to Montana.

“The evidence is there that choice schools, charters, can benefit students and benefit teachers,” she said. “It’s just connecting people with accurate information, which is what we did with the Montessori issue.”

Wright, as a member of the Community Choice Schools Commission, will play an important role trying to bridge what in most places has been an intractable divide. “I have a history of working with my union to move us forward in different ways than people expected,” Wright said. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like in this case. I’m working both sides of the fence here.”

How Judge Abbott ultimately rules on the lawsuit against HB 562 is anybody’s guess. But Schowengerdt, Schreiber and others said that the recent inclusion in the case of three intervenors for the defendants strengthens their case significantly.

Two of the intervenors are members of Montana tribes (one is also a state representative) who want to establish dual-language immersion schools on their reservations. The third is a nationally-recognized special education teacher and school administrator who wants to start a school focusing on special needs students.

“it gives some of those concrete facts for why the Community Choice School Act is important in the first place, and the purpose it serves,” Schowengerdt said. “The law is designed for people just like my intervenors. They’re people who have tried to work through the traditional public school model and have been rebuffed time and again.”

Still, the law’s supporters fret that the judge can make an argument, if he so chooses, that it violates the constitution. While “general supervision” over public schools is a vague term that the constitution doesn’t define, Schreiber worries that it gives the judge room to uphold the lawsuit.

“It’s possible we’re going to lose this, but we had to take it to this level. We just had to,” she said. Some legislators even counseled against pushing the bill, fearing it would die in the courts, she said.

“What kind of attitude is that? That’s not how this is done. We need to call the opponents’ bluff of a lawsuit by offering a bill that explicitly adheres to the constitution, unlike previous versions of the bill,” she said.

While choice schools remain hung up in litigation, two other school choice developments have progressed in Montana. During the 2023 session, the legislature approved Education Savings Accounts for special education students.

The new law provides families of students with special needs who meet the federal definition of a “child with disabilities” an account with a maximum annual allocation up to $8,000. The money can be used for flexible educational and therapeutic uses, including private school tuition. The accounts may also be used for education-related transportation.

The state also expanded its tax credit scholarship program, launched in 2015, from $2 million per year to $5 million. It allows individuals and corporations to claim a 100 percent tax credit for contributions to approved student scholarship organizations — nonprofits that provide scholarships for private school and tutoring. No individual can claim more than a $200,000 tax credit.

Whatever the ultimate fate of the choice school law in Montana, it heralds the dawn of a new age in the state, said State Senator Ken Bogner, a Miles City Republican who carried the choice schools bill on the Senate floor“.

It’s a really exciting time for Montana,” Bogner said. “There are 45 other states that have passed this, so for Montana to finally get there is very gratifying,” he said.