Milestones, Musical Chairs, New Infatuation, Bootleggers, Heat Death, Different Music, and ReLaunch

Good day, CharterFolk.

Struggling to keep up with regular work and my posting schedule. I will get one more post out before conference and then plan to take the July 4th week off.

Let’s get to it.

Milestones

As ever, there was a lot of news in the reform world last week.

Perhaps most noteworthy was EdChoice celebrating the fact that more than a million kids are now participating in voucher and ESA programs nationwide.

Robert shared thoughts at Fox about the significance of the milestone …

… and how he sees it to be just the beginning.

Combine that with the number of new choice programs with universal eligibility created in recent years (12 since 2022), we can expect participation to continue to skyrocket in the coming years. 

Musical Chairs and a Seat at the Table

It is vouchers and ESAs having this kind of momentum that is contributing to SmartFolk like Andy Rotherham worrying that charter schools might end up losing our seat in the round-and-round game of education policy.

As I said in a recent WonkyFolk edition, at least in terms of red state politics, I just don’t see it. Yeah, Republican governors may be putting more ESA and voucher chairs in the game, but are they pulling any chairs out such that charter schools might end up left in the cold?

We haven’t seen that anywhere. In fact it’s been the opposite. Simultaneous to Republican governors ramming through policy wins for private school choice, we’ve seen them pushing harder than ever for charter school wins.

Historically, wherever we have seen new private school options come on line, we have seen charter schools continue to grow. In fact, some of the states where we see the most robust growth of ESAs and vouchers right now are the same places where charter schools are growing fastest.

The more pertinent question, it seems to me, is whether in the blue political environments where many of our largest urban school districts are demonstrating the dysfunction that inevitably comes from status quo interests running the place …

… will charter schools regain a seat at the table …

Parker said that her ask for the city’s schools has support from Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson, traditional public school advocates, charter school advocates, and the city’s superintendent of schools. “We will not allow anyone to pit us against each other,” Parker said. “There are no divisions in Philadelphia to take advantage of.”  

… now that moments of reckoning approach.

Too soon to tell.

New Infatuation

But it’s not too soon to tell whether, as Andy and Matt Ladner suggest, many Republicans have developed a new infatuation.

What waits to be seen is what Republicans’ views on universal ESAs and vouchers will be once surface-level attraction wears off and substantive work begins.

Because, as we all know, universal ESAs and vouchers have got issues, and we’re just starting to see policy makers begin to grapple with them.

Top of mind is how to pay for them.

In Arizona this month, we saw the state approve a budget …

… that cut 3.5% from all other agencies and delayed a $333 million dollar contribution to a water infrastructure account in order to afford its universal ESA program, which has become a new $429 million line item.

I don’t know. Is it just me, or does Phoenix living without water infrastructure seem an unlikely long-term solution?

In Louisiana, many are celebrating the passage of the state’s new universal ESA program …

… but, tellingly, the bill only creates the legal framework for the program. It does not identify the resources to fund it. That legislative work is supposed to happen next year in time for a fall of 2025 roll-out.

We’ll see what dollars actually emerge once the infatuation wears off.

Meanwhile, across the country, more evidence of universal voucher-induced inflation in private school tuition is surfacing.

Right now most of the data are coming from Establishment protectors, so we should retain a healthy dose of skepticism about the accuracy of the immediate-term reporting. But the underlying economics suggest this will be a longer-term phenomenon that will only further increase the cost of ESA and voucher programs that are already proving difficult to afford.

And funding is just the tip of the substance iceberg when it comes to the actual implementation of ESAs and vouchers. Other challenging issues like accountability, proper use rules for ESA expenditures, and admissions wait to be addressed.

None of this is meant as some blanket criticism of voucher and ESA programs.

I surface it more as a reminder:

Infatuation is the easy part.

Bootleggers

The deeper substance of Ladner’s piece focuses on why charter schools have lost some of their luster in the eyes of policy makers and parents. One of his key contentions is that the charter school movement is suffering from:

… a Baptist and Bootlegger problem whereby incumbent charters (the Bootleggers) team up with charter opponents to limit competition- 900 page application requirements that a large CMO can have their legal department cut and paste from previous applications seem transparently designed to keep mom and pop operators out.

While I’m all in with Matt on our Baptist problem, the fact is I just don’t see much evidence of Bootlegger complicity.

Yes, stifling regulation and general blowback is a massive problem in the charter school space, all the more so now that private school options can expand at will in many parts of the country. And yes, massive compliance challenges are particularly daunting for smaller organizations to contend with. Many are getting crowded out altogether.

But are big CMOs actually okay with, or in some way are supportive of, the heaping on of additional regulation that is happening in CharterLand these days?

All to squeeze out competition coming from “moms and pops?”

Not from where I stand, at least.

CMOs are as frustrated by debilitating new regulation as any category of charter school organization.

Larger organizations have their own challenges which make them just as sensitive, if not even more sensitive, to regulation and compliance risk. Perhaps most daunting is the reality that CMOs have to think about the potential impact on their current students every time they consider opening a new campus. And with regulation and toxicity as pronounced as they are in many places now, many CMOs are re-assessing whether its worth taking the risk of attempting to open another school when the distraction could have detrimental impact on literally thousands of kids lives. Making things still worse is the fact that the Baptists are getting better at their opposition, and many CMOs know they only make themselves a target when they project their intent to grow. So some are understandably more sober in their assessment of growth prospects in the current environment.

It points to where our real problems are.

Not with any Bootleggers.

But 100% with the Baptists.

Heat Death

For the remainder of this post I turn to the part of Matt’s critique that, to me anyway, strikes closest to home – the idea that charter schools run the risk of dying off like a slowly cooling universe.

Matt surfaces charter schools’ declining growth rates …

… as evidence.

I think, frankly, it’s a helpful push.

Tennessee is case and point.

In no other place in the country have we seen as many charter school policy breakthroughs as we have seen in Tennessee in the past six years.

A new state authorizer. Geographic expansion. New funding equity. New facilities support.

And Tennessee charter school quality is on the rise, with CREDO identifying the state’s sector to be among the highest performing in the country, and the Tennessee Center’s latest publication showing that strikingly large percentages of charter schools are exceeding district performance in both Nashville …

… and Memphis.

And yet, despite all that other progress, charter school enrollment has been stuck around 43,000 since 2019.

So for a governor who has been very public about the fact that he wants to see many more students in improved educational settings before his time in office ends, it’s understandable that he’d reach out to controversial providers to enter the state and throw all he’s got behind private school choice.

And look, I understand there’s a lot of nuance here, and it’s highly likely we would have seen support for vouchers and ESAs in Tennessee grow among Republicans no matter how quickly charter schools might have grown.

But, ultimately, the charter school world will either prove able to present itself as being on the path toward ever-growing impact or it is inevitable that the infatuation policy makers and parents demonstrate for other reforms will blossom into long-time romances.

Potentially leaving us out in the cold.

So, returning to Andy’s metaphor …

The risk to the charter school world is not that policy makers pull a seat from us. It’s that we prove unable to keep filling more seats with students whose families love the education their kids are receiving.

Different Music

But the music that plays in the game of round-and-round is changing. A completely different context is emerging as the backdrop against which charter school growth either occurs or doesn’t.

One of the big data presentations that has made the ed reform rounds this spring has been Marguerite Roza’s map showing expected public school enrollment declines across the country by the end of the decade.

The nationwide picture is sobering, but in some states like California, New York and Louisiana where projections are for public school enrollments to drop by 16%, 14% and 12% respectively, the picture might best be called “harrowing.”

Indeed, the Manhattan Institute is now predicting …

… that Texas will soon have more students than California.

It’s a development most would have thought completely impossible a decade ago, one requiring that we begin to rethink the impact we are having.

To wit:

Eight years ago, CCSA made a moonshot goal of getting to the threshold Robert is celebrating private school choice achieving this month.

Consistent with our projections at the time, such growth would have resulted in charter schools serving 15% of California public school students.

While we’ve still got a long ways to reach a million kids, given that charter school enrollment has grown in California by 130,000 since that time while district enrollment has dropped off a cliff, charter schools look likely to soon achieve the 15% threshold that was considered a moonshot not so long ago.

So you tell me, CharterFolk.

How should we think about “growing impact” in places where public school enrollment is in free fall?

For years now, I have been writing about how charter school enrollment growth and population growth are correlated …

… and many of the darkest shaded states on Marguerite’s map – Texas, Florida, Idaho, the Carolinas – are precisely the places where we see the most robust charter school growth happening.

But statewide analysis only gets to a part of the story.

When one goes deeper and looks at a city level, we see numbers that are “beyond harrowing” …

… with many big cities having already lost 10-20% or more of enrollment before the further losses that Marguerite projects.

And it is precisely in this segment of public education – large urban school districts – where the charter school movement has concentrated its effort over our first three decades.

So, irrespective of the politics that we face right now, given the broader demographic changes that have occurred in society and the priorities that the charter school movement has previously set, it was inevitable that CharterFolk would go through the period we are experiencing today.

A period of reflection, reprioritizing and retooling.

It’s a time of coming to grips with the fact that we need to diversify our offerings geographically so that we can reach every community in the country, as well as diversifying them programmatically so as to offer the hybrid learning models that many families are seeking in the post-pandemic era, all while building the advocacy strength needed to dismantle the policy impediments being thrown up by desperate Baptists seeking to stop any and all charter school growth.

In the shiny-object-obsessed world of education policy, it’s the kind of work that might not draw immediate attention. But done correctly, and focused on obsessively over the next few years, it has the potential, not just to put to bed any suggestion that the charter school movement faces some impending heat death, but to catalyze the next chapter of increased charter school impact more broadly.

Relaunch

A close friend in the ed reform world recently called the moment we find ourselves in to be:

“Our time of preparing for the relaunch.”

And if there is any doubt about whether we have it within our potential to initiate such a relaunch, I draw your attention to Louisiana.

Perhaps one of the more challenging environments we find ourselves in.

A state experiencing massive enrollment decline.

A state whose largest city is already almost completely served by charter schools leaving reduced prospects for continued growth in urban areas.

And a state where Republicans clearly have other infatuations.

But despite all that, what have Louisiana charter schools achieved over the past year in partnership with their state association led by CEO Caroline Roemer?

The equivalent of a charter school relaunch.

Passing a package of five charter school bills branded to underscore the significance of the relaunch.

Labeled “Charter Schools 3.0” by charter advocates in recognition of the sector’s 30th anniversary in Louisiana, the package aimed to modernize the state’s existing laws, which Roemer said have become a hindrance to charter schools’ success.

At the same time, Louisiana’s department of education has released new numbers showing that charter school enrollment in the state grew by over 7,000 students in the last two years to over 94,000, generating one of the highest percentage increases of any state in the nation over that period.

In a state that Marguerite shows to be experiencing some of the worst enrollment decline in the country!

And with the bill package set to go into effect next year, Caroline tells me the Louisiana charter school community is collectively setting its sights on serving 100,000 students in the next couple years, and tens of thousands more on top of that before the end of the decade.

Is it enough to deem ourselves beyond the risk of heat death that Matt worries about?

Far from it.

But it shows what would be a clear antidote to a possible frozen future:

Charter Schools 3.0!

Bold new agendas.

Dozens of them happening across the country.

Each tailored to the unique circumstances we find in different states.

In places where robust growth is already happening, achieving even more.

In places where it’s not, finding a way to keep growth momentum decently high while reminding all that the music playing in the background of public education is changing.

Such that a new national discussion emerges among CharterFolk.

Catalyzing the very thing I think our movement needs more than anything else:

Reconnection with purpose.

Shared purpose

A compelling North Star to strive toward.

Helping us understand even more deeply why we grow.

Despite all the ridiculous opposition we face.

Such that we are all even more infused with the energy of a rapidly expanding education universe where all kids, but especially those needing better education most, are fundamentally better served.

I hope it turns out to be a primary theme for our gathering this year in Boston:

The Great Charter School Relaunch of 2024.

CharterFolk Contributor Dan Effland – Seminar Is Our New, “Always-on” Professional Learning Community

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Dan Effland, the Executive Director for Summit Atlas High School.

Dan Effland, Executive Director for Summit Atlas High School

We provide Dan’s bio below.

After working for 10+ years as a professional musician based in Chicago, Dan was inspired by some incredible experiences working with young people in Chicago Public Schools to change paths and dive fully into the world of K-12 education. Going through Teach for America, Dan earned an M.S. in Special Education from Dominican University and worked as a Special Education teacher for grades 6-12 in Chicago and eventually Seattle. He then served as the Dean of Culture and Instruction for Grades 11-12 at Summit Sierra High School for two years and received his M.Ed. in Public School Building Administration from Columbia University. Dan is currently the Executive Director for Summit Atlas High School and also serves on the Network Leadership Team for the Summit Public Schools CMO in Washington and California.

Seminar Is Our New, “Always-on” Professional Learning Community

In the complex world of charter school leadership, where challenges arise as rapidly as opportunities, the introduction of Seminar has been invaluable for many of us in the field. Seminar serves as a community connector for charter school leaders while also functioning as a digital hub for building and sharing solutions to community problems. 

This groundbreaking initiative fundamentally supports the value of collectivity through leadership development, capacity building and sharing resources and best practices. This resonated with me as a leader and is a core belief at Summit Public Schools. In just a few months of existence, Seminar is already building momentum and impact as it brings together a passionate community, practical resources, and innovative workshops to empower charter school executive leaders.

A Tailored Solution for Charter Leaders

Seminar is a dynamic community crafted out of necessity and driven by the practical realities of leading schools and CMOs. Developed by seasoned charter network founders Jen Davis Wickens and Kristen McCaw, Seminar directly addresses the unique challenges faced by leaders like us.

From grappling with teacher shortages to navigating fluctuating funding and political landscapes, the hurdles in our path are numerous. Upon joining, the entire Seminar community is your strategic ally, offering not just theoretical knowledge but practical tools and resources that are immediately applicable on your school site or across your network.

Jed Wallace said it best:

Most people think that CharterFolk need “a manual” to succeed.  But Seminar knows the truth. This work is complex.  It requires “a seminar,” a learning experience and system of support reflective of the complexity and priority of the responsibilities that are being taken on.

The Power of Practicality

What sets Seminar apart is its grounding in the everyday experiences of charter school leaders. The platform focuses on the real-life issues we face—from optimizing operational efficiency to strategic planning and staff development. Each resource, tool, and workshop is designed to be directly relevant and actionable. Within the first couple of weeks of joining the community, I experienced a fantastic, concrete workshop on leadership voice that I was able to apply to a key meeting several hours later.  Additionally, I have been able to adopt shared resources as broad as a yearlong scope for an operations leader and as narrow as a job description for a common school based role. 

Here’s a snapshot of the tool, which houses a dynamic list of workshops charter leaders need to succeed.

Community to Keep You Going

As charter system leaders, our jobs are difficult on their best days, but we continue because of the joy of connection and community. Seminar serves as an extension of that community to include leaders in similar roles, doing similar work across the country. It’s a place where leaders can share experiences, strategies, and solutions in a supportive environment, enhancing our collective capacity to lead our schools effectively.

Here’s a snapshot of community exchange within the Seminar portal.

This is a dedicated spot to foster connections that matter, offering support and insights from those walking similar paths.

Free Resource & Call to Action for Charter School Leaders

Seminar is sharing a free enrollment resource for all CharterFolk who are hustling to plan community events that increase enrollment. Visit here to download your complimentary enrollment event plan to support summer outreach and enrollment planning this summer. 

I invite all charter school leaders to explore Seminar. Whether you’re looking to refine your leadership skills, enhance your school’s operations, or simply connect with peers who face similar challenges, Seminar offers a unique and valuable experience. It’s a community where we can all grow together, sharing challenges and best practices that ultimately support the students and communities we serve.