Conviction Across the Generations – Our Greatest Reason for Hope

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

Many thanks to so many of you who reached out with emails and phone calls about my post about the Camino.

Many thanks also to Erin Studer …

… for his great post on special education this week, building on the equally great one that Lydia Hoffman offered on the same topic while I was away.

CharterFolk tag-teaming on a tough issue, like how we get better collectively at special education.

Love it.

Thank you again, guys.

Meanwhile, it certainly was an action-packed week in Charterland.

Tuesday’s elections were instructive, with both Virginia legislative races and Denver school board races playing out along themes we have been tracking here at CharterFolk for quite some time.

I’m not nearly the Virginia expert that Andy is, of course. But a few months back, we mused …

… on the dynamics surrounding Governor Youngkin’s efforts to tip both sides of the state’s legislature to Republican control. At one point in the conversation, I shared that I had seen reports that Virginia voters thought the Republicans were out of step on matters related to abortion and that Democrats were seen to be out of step on school choice, and the election would be a test case for which out-of-step-ness would matter most.

Well …

… we appear to have our answer.

As it relates to education policy, the results mean we won’t soon be seeing Virginia move out of its status of being what I have called “the largest charter school dead zone in the country.”

Meanwhile, in Denver, the school district having fully earned its moniker “Dysfunctional Public Schools” …

… the voters have initiated a course correction, defeating three teacher-union-supported candidates.

With Colorado being the state having the third highest percentage of public school students served by charter schools, where we have a newly elected Mayor in Denver who is a strong supporter …

… as well as a strongly supportive governor who just last week proposed a state budget that would fully eliminate the funding inequity that has long bedeviled state authorized charter schools …

… Colorado looks like the Anti-Virginia.

The Anti-Charter School Dead Zone.

A Charter School Bursting-With-Life-Zone, in fact.

It leaves many eagerly wondering what comes next.

My recommendation would be going forward with all the urgency we can muster while fundamentally staying the course.

Because my experience is that things are rarely as bad as we think they are when we’ve lost the last election, nor are they as good when we’ve won the most recent.

And by the time we’ve reacted in response to whatever the latest election result was, either putting more effort into places where we think things have gotten more favorable, or pulling back from where we perceive things have gotten more harsh, the world has changed again.

What we need is what we always need: Even more commitment and fuel to keep going toward a destination we are always striving toward.

Not so long ago, in the context of writing about Denver, I said we need a new coherence …

… a new North Star that will guide our efforts …

… when things are 7-0, as well as for when they are 0-7, and for every gradation in between.

As it is at the Denver school district level, and at virtually every major urban school district in country, so it is for alive and dead-zone states.

The moment requires a new coherence.

A North Star by which to navigate in Virginia, and Colorado, and every gradation in between.

Conviction Across the Generations – Our Greatest Reason for Hope

Much has happened in Charterland during my time on the Camino. I’m eager to turn my attention to the road that lies ahead. But before I do that, I have some unfinished business I have to attend to.

In my last days before taking off for Spain, I was working on a post about former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who passed away in the days before I left.

But in the last minute scramble before leaving, I couldn’t get it done.

Then, as fate would have it, who was the Contributor Columnist who offered the last post during my absence?

Hanna Skandera, former New Mexico Secretary of Education, and now President and CEO of the Daniels Fund, who wrote about the Fund working to grow by 100,000 the number of students attending highly successful charter schools and other innovative schools in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

So when I got back and re-opened the CharterFolk platform for the first time and found my still unfinished post about Richardson and New Mexico, I knew I had work to do.

Because, while there was much commentary after Richardon’s passing about other matters …

… little focused on the fact that the governor was a passionate champion for charter schools.

During his time as governor, he enacted legislation allowing the state to become an authorizer of charter schools, and he created significant new facilities resources for charter schools as well.

By the end of his governorship, he talked proudly about having doubled the number of charter schools in New Mexico, and he took his passion for charter schools to the campaign trail when he ran for president.

His was the kind of track record that led friends to call for him to be appointed U.S. Secretary of Education.

And he went on championing charter schools through the rest of his life, including his comments before Charter Schools of New Mexico just two years ago.

Such was Bill Richardson’s record on charter schools, one that merits our world’s recognition and thanks.

He certainly has mine.

I had the good fortune of meeting Governor Richardson one time. It was an encounter I well remember.

I was in Albuquerque in the fall of 2005 to announce grant funding for a charter school we were calling High Tech High Albuquerque at the time …

… but which went on to become known as the Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science

… a school located on the University of New Mexico campus that is now recognized to be one of the highest performing public high schools in the United States and the single best public high school in all of New Mexico.

At the time of my visit, the partnership with UNM was still just a pipe dream, but Richardson supported it and was doing what he could behind the scenes to make it happen. At some point in the day as people were being shuffled in and out of his office, the two of us were left alone for a moment. He came around from behind his desk and approached me.

“You have to understand,” he said. “Supporting charter schools makes no sense for me politically. But it’s matter of conviction for me.

It was the kind of conviction that led him to take many risks in order to improve public education in New Mexico.

… including his decision to support a state constitutional amendment that, among other changes, would give the governor the authority to appoint the state’s Secretary of Education.

A battle he ultimately won.

It was an idea reflective of the spirit he brought to all of his work related to public education, one infused with awareness that those who have authority over our public schools should be people of conviction.

Years later, the state’s next governor, Susana Martinez, used the authority that her predecessor had granted her to nominate Hanna Skandera to be the state’s Secretary of Public Education.

But Hanna’s ideas were such that the education establishment rebelled, leading its defenders in the New Mexico Senate to refuse to even vote on her confirmation.

It went on for years.

… making her nomination A1 fodder time and time again …

… with one article, in the lead paragraph, actually quoting Hanna’s parents about her astounding resiliency.

Hanna Skandera comes from a family of long-distance runners.

“There’s something in us — a certain perseverance,” said her father, Harry Skandera, by phone from Santa Rosa, Calif. “There’s a very strong value in our family — if you believe that something is right, you stick with it.”

When asked herself, Hanna attributed her staying power to the same word Richardson cited:

Hanna Skandera’s perseverance has been tested over and over during her first three years as state secretary-designate of public education for Gov. Susana Martinez. The tumultuous period has been nothing if not a trial of endurance. Skandera has been criticized, insulted and questioned during three days of Senate Rules Committee confirmation hearings, and she has been berated by educators who do not think she understands or respects them.

Most of the time, Skandera maintains her composure while flashing a confident smile ….

Told that she sticks to her message well, Skandera, 40, said, “It’s not a message. It’s a conviction.”


And so, Hanna forged on serving in an unconfirmed status, driving an ambitious package of reforms unapologetically …

… including, of course, strong support for the growth of high quality charter schools.

And four long years later, when she was finally confirmed …

… what was one of the first words she turned to after having secured her appointment?

“I would say I’m humbled and excited, knowing that my conviction to the state continues and would have continued regardless of the outcome,” Skandera said. “But this outcome is a significant moment where we can come together as adults and really begin to focus.”

Conviction, of course.

During her years of service, Hanna drew an amazing group of leaders to her team, including Amanda Aragon, Executive Director at NewMexicoKidsCAN and Matt Pahl, who has gone on to serve as the CEO of the New Mexico Charter Schools Association, which just last month was awarded a big new CSP grant …

… to help expand highly successful charter schools in New Mexico.

It’s a growth initiative that is only possible because a coalition of advocacy groups has come together to defend the policy wins that Governor Richardson generated nearly 20 years ago.

A coalition whose leadership is infused with what special quality?

Why, conviction, of course.

It’s a conviction of multi-generational continuity going all the way back to the governorship of Bill Richardson.

Here at CharterFolk, we try to remind our world what it is that makes the charter school movement unique.

What it is that makes our reform effort different from all the others that have come before us and gives us the potential to achieve what none before us have.

One answer is that we are a reform effort that has been around for over thirty years now.

More than a generation.

And across the generations we see people of conviction pushing through seemingly insurmountable obstacles only to find themselves in new perches where they can have even greater impact.

Like a highly successful governor who goes on to run for president.

Like a transformational Secretary of Education with purview over one state’s education efforts now running a foundation supporting bold reform in four.

Like young staffers who go on to take new positions of leadership where increased resources elevate their impact to levels hardly imaginable just a few years ago.

All CharterFolk of conviction doing their parts and then looking to pass along the torch to the next generation of CharterFolk a-coming.

From where I sit, I see no end in sight.

To either the generations, or to the conviction.

It may very well be our greatest reason for hope.

CharterFolk Contributor Erin Studer – Special Education Implementation Has Room For Everyone To Improve

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Erin Studer, Executive Director of Charter School Programs for the CHIME Institute.

Erin Studer, Executive Director of Charter School Programs for the CHIME Institute.

I provide Erin’s bio below.

Dr. Erin Studer has served as the Executive Director of CHIME Institute since 2011. Erin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies with a minor in English from the University of Iowa, a Master’s in Special Education from National University, and he was among the first cohort to graduate in 2011 from California State University, Northridge’s doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Dr. Studer began his educational career in 1998 with Summit View School, which offers comprehensive elementary, middle, and high school programs for students with learning differences. He has been a special education teacher, general education teacher, and school administrator. Erin also currently serves on the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Executive Board for Charter Operated Programs Option 3 in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), is a member of the Los Angeles Advocacy Council, and a Board Member for Fenton Charter Public Schools. Erin has dedicated considerable time over the past decade to developing and delivering professional development for schools and school systems looking to provide more inclusive education options for all learners. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Anne, daughter, Kiera, and their two dogs, Max and Freeway. 

Special Education Implementation Has Room For Everyone To Improve

I was on a Zoom with leaders from charter schools throughout Los Angeles this past August when a discussion of the then recently released Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study, As a Matter of Fact: The National Charter School Study III, came up and everyone agreed that while the overall news was positive, the bottom line on special education was not good. Speculation began as to why. Was the data from non-classroom based schools included in the average? Was the comparison match for students really as tight as it should be to make proper comparisons for the students with disabilities? Have the students with disabilities who left their public schools for a charter school already been “failed” by the local school district?

These may or may not be reasonable questions or assertions, but as someone who has spent a significant portion of my 25 years in education working with students with disabilities and studying the laws and policies that govern special education in America, I can tell you the truth is that neither charter schools as a whole nor traditional public schools are “ahead” when it comes to serving students with disabilities regardless of what CREDO or any other analysis of the data may say.

Facts bear out that across our nation the student group that is most likely to not graduate with a high school diploma is students with disabilities. The student group most likely to spend significant portions of their school days being taught curriculum that is not on grade level standard is students with disabilities. The student group most likely to be bullied, be identified as at risk for failure, have high rates of truancy and absenteeism, etc.…is students with disabilities. This is true nationally in charter schools, and it is true nationally in traditional public schools.

Amidst all this, is the persistent fact – which has existed for the entire timeframe of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from 1975 to today – that Black and Brown children are overidentified for special education. Given the widespread use of segregated service delivery models in special ed., this means that in many districts special education becomes a de facto system of segregation.

Please note, I am using the term “nationally.” There are local exceptions to these circumstances and outcomes. There are bright spots and there are promising practices to which we should all be paying attention.

There are also hard questions that we should ask and hold ourselves accountable for answering, so that we can push for solutions to these problems on behalf of all students with disabilities in all schools. And it may just be – regardless of what the data says now – that charter schools could (and should!) play a unique role in moving the practice of special education in America forward.

In CharterFolk just a few weeks ago, Lydia Hoffman wrote a compelling piece asking what it would take for more charter schools to improve the educational experience of diverse learners. She provided three extremely salient points about the barriers that stand in the way of better service delivery for diverse leaners and students with disabilities:

  1. the siloed model of special education that is pervasive across schools in America,
  2. the wide disparities in funding models from state to state, and
  3. the limited resources available to share best practices.

Thank you, Lydia for these excellent points! Special education does indeed need to stop being a parallel program that runs alongside the rest of a school’s programming. We do need appropriate allocation of fiscal resources from states and from the federal government. We also desperately need to collaborate among schools and especially “go to the bright spots” of high leverage practices in serving diverse learners and students with disabilities.

Let me expand on Lydia’s points:

1. Funding.

It doesn’t solve everything. It is what mathematicians might call “necessary but not sufficient.” You could have all the money in the world, but if you spend it on a bad system, policy, or program you are likely to get extremely similar results to what you were getting before you had all of that money. That said, it is very difficult to arrive at and/or sustain excellence in your special education programs and services if schools are consistently underfunded. Looking at the nation as a whole, we see that approaches to funding special education in schools varies widely. Is it any wonder then that our results taken state by state also have considerable variance?

But here is what I think we all need to keep in mind: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a Federal Law. Implementation of that law comes with federal funding…but not enough. That’s not just my assessment; it’s the assessment of the federal government. The funding target for special education has never been met in its 48 years of existence dating back to the original PL 94-142 Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

The goal of the federal government when reauthoring the law as IDEA in 1990 was to fund the costs of special education at approximately 40%. Per US Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland current funding is less than 13%. This leaves states and local districts to pick up a much larger tab than was ever intended. Can you imagine if special education funding doubled? Even this would be far less than the original intent of the law, but still…wow! What innovations might be attempted when schools are properly resourced! What an overall budget boon it would be with more adequate funding for the implementation of IDEA.

I know it can be hard in our polarized political landscape to get charter and traditional public schools to come together on issues, but I firmly believe increasing funding for special education is clearly an issue we could all rally around. If we could join together to compel Congress to commit to a doubling of the current federal special education expenditures to 26% of the cost of special education services, it would be the most profound and impactful federal investment in America’s education system since the introduction of Title I funding.

2. Lose the Silos.

In an era of multi-tiered systems of support, one would think that collaboration among general education teachers, special education teachers, and designated service providers would be at an all-time high. Sadly, I don’t believe that is true. Too often people view special education and the services, supports, and individualized education plans that are part and parcel of the work of special education as something apart from the mission of the rest of the school. Too often special education is seen as additional thing that schools must do for the “hard to serve kids” and largely done in order to comply with a legal mandate.

Separate schools, classrooms, and programs were never the intention of IDEA. Segregated service delivery and segregated special education programs, while often convenient for the adults who operate those programs and services, has very little – if any – research base to support their validity or implementation. Skills and knowledge learned in resource rooms and special day classes have shown time and again to have poor generalization when students return to general education classrooms. Over time, extended placement in special education classrooms and programs often increases the disparity between the skills and knowledge of children with disabilities and those of their non-disabled peers in the general education classroom.

Again, all the money in the world spent on a poorly designed system in which children and adults are segregated and are running parallel education systems inside one school campus will not yield different results. So, we must look to the schools and school systems who are already making progress with their diverse learners, who are already bright spots in the educational landscape. We need to look to them, learn from them, and replicate their success.

3. Go to the Bright Spots.

The truth is there are many schools and districts who do get results for their diverse learners and students with disabilities which outpace the results of other schools in their state and schools nationally. We should learn from them!

Returning to the CREDO report for a moment, it is important to note that when you dig deep into the special education data you discover there were states that were producing results that outperformed the local traditional public schools in their state. In fact, of the 30 states analyzed for special education performance in the CREDO study, 16 states had special education performance results that were worse than their local traditional public schools, 10 states had special education results that were not different in a statistically significant way than those of their local traditional public schools, and 4 states/regions in the study had special education results that were better than their local traditional public schools. New York, New York City, Rhode Island, and Tennessee had charter sectors that in statistically significant ways outperformed the results of their local traditional public schools for their students with disabilities.

We should find out why. And when I say “we”, I mean everyone. All operators of public schools – charter and district – should want to know why charter schools in these regions are doing better. Is it their funding models? Is it their service delivery models? Is it their local autonomy that allows them to design best fit programs for their students? We should all be interested in finding out.

A quick note by the way about the CREDO study: It’s a good study. That said, you could have timed with a three-minute egg timer how long it was going to take “experts” to come out of the woodwork to tell us all what was wrong with the design of the study. The negative response was swift, voluminous, and continues to this day. The Washington Post just published a piece by Valerie Strauss on October 12, 2023, on what was wrong with the CREDO study’s data analysis. Keep in mind the CREDO methodology was used in the prior two CREDO studies which people somehow had far fewer concerns about when those results were published.

I don’t know Valerie Strauss and have not read much of her work, but I was left with the distinct impression after reading her recent article on the CREDO study that she had not actually talked to anyone from CREDO who did the study or analysis of the data.

I did. I spent over an hour reviewing the data and methodology with James Woodworth who led a portion of the work on the CREDO study. It was a fascinating conversation which put on display for me how rigorous this study really is and how truly “school level” the data is that is being analyzed. A brief example: the student match process demographically matches students not across an entire state but instead with the students from the twenty closest traditional public schools from which a charter school’s students would most likely attend if they did not attend the charter school. Think about that, the data we are looking at is comparing demographic matches for students not across an entire state but literally just down the street.  It’s hard to get more apples to apples than that. Is it a perfect, “end all be all” study? No. The perfect study doesn’t exist. But the CREDO study does exist, and it’s a good one.

Mostly it is good study not because of the headlines it generates but because of the questions it leads us to ask and the schools at which it can direct us to look. It can help us look not just at states and regions but the schools themselves that bend the needle in terms of serving traditionally underserved students. It can help us see patterns and approaches that consistently work for student populations across regions. I also believe that when we continue to dig into these bright spots, we will find schools that leverage local autonomy to provide innovative, student-centered approaches to serving all learners and in doing so bring about increased success for students with disabilities.

The school I lead, CHIME, is in California and while California is a state that the CREDO report shows us needs to improve its results for students with disabilities, I would offer CHIME is a “bright spot”. We utilize co-teaching, universal design for learning, and a constructivist approach to teaching and learning to create a fully inclusive school design for ALL learners. We serve over 760 students TK-8th grade from across 42 zip codes in LA county and approximately 20% of our students are students with disabilities. Seven and half percent of our students are students with moderate to severe disabilities. All of our students learn together in general education classrooms 100% of the school day. Our student results support our approach: our students with disabilities outperform the state and local district averages on state assessment when compared to other students with disabilities. Those results are not an anomaly. CHIME’s students with disabilities have consistently outperformed their peers with disabilities at other local district schools for over a decade.

CHIME is just one example. There are dozens and dozens of bright spots across the country that charter and traditional public schools should be looking at in order to improve the educational outcomes of students with disabilities.

And here is my sincere belief – charter public schools have a unique opportunity to innovate in the area of education for students with disabilities. When given the right fiscal support and local autonomy, I know charter schools can push the envelope. I often say, “None of us got into the work of charter schools to replicate bad practice, so let’s not do so with special education.”

Let’s innovate. Let’s lead the way. Let’s create schools where all children are welcome, and all children can thrive.