A First Anniversary, and the 10 Biggest Wins in CharterLand in the Past Year

Good day, CharterFolk.

It being National Charter Schools Week, I thought I would spend today’s post looking at the progress that we have made since last year’s celebration.

It turns out today marks an important anniversary.

On May 11, 2022, parents from across the country showed up in Washington to let the Biden Administration know that we weren’t going to sit idly by and let it eviscerate the national Charter Schools Program, a lifeline that has helped thousands of new charter schools open. By the end of the week, awareness was spreading that a shift in the charter school movement’s national narrative was setting in.

And now, if we look at the progress that charter schools have made over the past 12 months from a growth and advocacy standpoint, an even deeper conviction clicks in that May 11th was in fact a pivotal day. Since then, while there have certainly been policy fights where we haven’t won to the degree we would have wanted (case and point being the third-of-a-loaf win on lifting the cap in NYC that happened last week), the fact is that the charter school movement has had very few if any outright policy setbacks since last spring. And in terms of significant policy and growth wins, we’ve actually seen many foundational breakthroughs that look likely to put more octane into our shared efforts for many years to come.

It leads me to conclude that, though we still face many challenges, and though many in our movement are still putting up with ridiculous levels of blowback, it is also true that CharterFolk showing up at the White House door propelled our entire movement into new territory. And so, I think it fitting that we would consider a top 10 list of the positive changes that we have seen since that fateful day, May 11, 2022.

#10 – The Improved Regs Themselves

We start with the new regs themselves. Obviously, from a substance point of view, they are still a nuisance. But in comparison to what was originally proposed, they were essentially defanged. The Administration released them in the hours before the July 4th weekend, hoping to draw as little attention as possible to what was clearly a major retreat.

The Biden Administration came to office publicly positioning itself to do harm to charter schools.

What do we see now?

When was the last time you remember hearing something anti-charter school coming out from the Administration?

The turning point, CharterFolk, was May 11th.

#9 – National Enrollment Growth

A few months after the final regs came out, the National Alliance released new analysis showing that the growth in national charter school enrollment that occurred during Covid had been maintained, while traditional public schools had continued to hemorrhage students.

Growth numbers bounce around from year to year, so it’s often best to take a longer term view. When we do, we see that over the prior four years, the charter school movement had grown its percentage of nationwide public school enrollment by 1.5%,.

Just like it had grown by 1.5% in four-year increments going back a dozen years.

So, despite all the chatter we heard in 2019 and 2020 about the impending demise of the charter school movement, we simply forged on.

#8 – Public Polling Shows Rebounding Support

Much was made of eroding public support for charter schools in ’19 and ’20. Then the pandemic hit leading to a sharp rebound in support for charter schools. The Education Next poll released last fall gave us specific confirmation of trends along these lines.

Almost concurrently, polling from California also showed a striking increase in public support.

Over the past year, many other state-specific polls have been released …

… showing similar strong support for charter schools.

Meanwhile, polling released this spring by EdChoice showed that very large majorities of Black parents support charter schools and other forms of school choice.

#7 – New States and De Facto New States

The past 12 months have seen several states become charter school states. That has included bringing non charter school states into the fold as well as de facto non charter school states.

For many years, Iowa was a charter school state in name only, having just 130 students in total. But then policy changes in 2021 put new energy into state authorizing, In the fall of 2022, two new charter schools opened.

And now the first new charter school to open in Des Moines in more than a decade is slated to open this fall …

… with many other new charter schools also in the works.

Just a couple years ago, Alabama had less than a thousand kids in charter schools, but with eight new schools having opened in 2021 and 2022 …

… and with many more in the chute for 2023 and beyond, the state is now emphatically on the charter school map.

We’ve also seen a major breakthrough in Montana this year.

We’ve gone from a decades-long circumstance of not being able to get any charter school law through the legislature to one where two made it to the governor’s desk in the same year.

#6 – Funding Equity Breakthroughs

The past year has seen as much progress on charter school funding equity as any in recent memory, if not ever. A recurring scourge in states across the country has been charter schools being denied access to local tax increments, often equating to charter schools receiving thousands of dollars less per pupil than other public schools. Last summer in Missouri, after years of setback, we finally saw a breakthrough, with the state stepping forward to provide additional funding to bring charter schools to parity.

In Indiana, the state has now required school districts to share local tax proceeds with charter schools.

The same idea is near the finish line in Florida.

But this isn’t just a red state phenomenon. Colorado’s charter schools authorized by the state have now received two major bumps in funding since May of 2022 …

… to compensate for being denied access to local tax dollars, and now charter schools have received a commitment to close the remaining $22M shortfall next year.

And don’t rule out the charter schools of DC making significant progress on funding equity soon given the increased collective action we saw on this matter just yesterday.

#5 – The West Opens

The momentum that the charter school movement has across Mountain States is something I’ve been writing a lot about here at CharterFolk …

… but it’s now a phenomenon that is generating broader awareness.

Whether it’s Arizona and Colorado leading the nation in the largest percentages of public school students being served in charter schools, or surprising policy breakthroughs happening in New Mexico, or Bluum stewarding a movement toward rapid expansion in Idaho, or charter schools finally getting off the ground in Wyoming, the fact is that we have as much blue sky opening up in western states as any place in the nation right now. And conditions look set to stay favorable for many years to come.

#4 – Impending Red State Enrollment Explosion

It’s not an overstatement to say that we’re on the cusp of an explosion in charter school enrollment in many red states right now. After years of virtually no growth in Arkansas, recent policy changes poise the state to open nearly 20 new schools in 2024.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina Charter School District has authorized the opening of 11 new charter schools by fall of 2024.

But that’s just one of the authorizers in the state. The Charter School Institute at Erksine is set to authorize six more.

All told, 30 new charter schools are set to open in South Carolina in the next 15 months.

And don’t even get me started on North Carolina.

#3 – Irrepressible Growth in Blue States

Amid all the talk of blue sky in red states, we can lose sight of the fact that, amid partly cloudy conditions, charter schools are finding patches of blue sky in blue states, too.

New Jersey saw its previously opposed governor …

… do a complete about-face …

… to support a big increase in the number of charter school expansions in 2023.

Meanwhile, charter school enrollment in California is holding steady while school districts are experiencing a mass exodus of students, and in parts of the state we’ve seen 60% charter school growth in the last five years.

Even amid the menace of a charter school cap in NYC, charter school enrollment continues to grow.

And don’t even get me started on what’s going on in blue, blue Connecticut.

#2 – Emerging New Advocacy Strength

Across literally every one of the locations presented above where we have seen a policy or growth breakthrough, we have seen the presence of strengthened advocacy enable it. Whether it’s …

  • A strengthened New York association with over twice as many members as just a couple years ago; or
  • A DC Alliance with 100% of schools as members taking on the funding equity fight in Washington; or
  • IQE and other advocacy partners coming together to achieve breakthroughs in Indiana; or
  • The strong coalition of advocacy orgs upping their games in New Mexico; or
  • Bluum stewarding a movement through its early years in Idaho; or
  • The League achieving new levels of influence in Colorado; or
  • The New Jersey association showing the rest of the country how a new tandem can be built; or
  • The Connecticut association using a new CSP grant to catalyze new energy behind growth of the sector; not to mention
  • The National Alliance itself which is making significant strides toward becoming an even more effective national advocacy organization …

… to name but a few …

We have seen, CharterFolk, a period of advocacy strengthening for our movement in the past five years unlike any we have seen before.

#1 – The Re-Discovered Transformative Potential of CSP

Which leads me back to the top.

There was a reason, CharterFolk, that charter school opponents concentrated so much effort on attempting to throttle the national Charter Schools Program.

It’s because they know how transformational it is turning out to be.

And now a greatly under appreciated change is happening to the CSP which is poising it to be all the more catalytic:

Following up a change to the CSP statute in the last years of the Obama Administration, charter school associations and other support organizations are now becoming the distributors of CSP funds.

It means that, rather than state bureaucrats looking for every excuse to not give out the funds, or actively opposed policy makers consciously working to staunch the flow of funds under their purview, now for the first time CSP funds are coming into the hands of CharterFolk ourselves.

And we will be the ones who ensure that CSP investments going forward achieve even faster growth and even greater levels of overall impact.

It sets up our entire movement for a period between now and the end of the decade that will be at least as transformational as any that have come before.

And it explains why it’s fitting we pay special attention to the First Anniversary of May 11th.

It was the day when we generated a breakthrough likely to reverberate across the charter school movement, and indeed across all of public education, for decades to come.

What We Do When There is No Education There There

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

During Andy’s and my last podcast, we discussed societal amnesia about education matters.

This week, as we see the teachers of Oakland go on strike …

… I think again of amnesia.

Is it that we simply forget, or that we try to forget, or that we have forces at work that consciously lead us to forget?

Or could it be that these things just don’t matter to us any more as a society, so we don’t care enough to remember?

My sense is that part of the work of CharterFolk is to care much more than other people about the mission of public education, and that caring forces us to remember. And it forces us to insist that others remember too so that somehow we can start making better decisions than our past ones which have kept public education from achieving the excellence and fairness we need it to.

The history of teacher strikes in Oakland is a long and tragic one.

Oakland’s first public school opened in about 1850. For the first century and a quarter of public education in Oakland, there were no teacher strikes. Then in 1975, the legislature sent a bill carried by Senator Rodda to Governor Jerry Brown granting teachers the right to collectively bargain. Fittingly, in one local paper an article about the new legislation appeared beside another depicting a different form of menace being dragged up from the deep.

Brown signed the bill into law on September 22nd, and within days, editorials began appearing across the state. Some marked the significance of growing teacher power.

Others wondered whether the Rodda Act would end up driving school districts into bankruptcy.

The new law took effect on July 1, 1976, three days before the country’s bicentennial. Within a few months, a revolutionary war was playing out among competing unions in Oakland, with each attempting to out-militant the other.

By November of the following year, the first strike had begun.

When it ended eight days later …

… most accounts focused on how little the strike had generated in terms of increased compensation for teachers. In fact, when the teachers ratified the agreement, they simultaneously stated their discontent with the outcome, expressing no confidence in the district’s leadership. Governor-candidate-in-wait Pete Wilson said the small concessions agreed to by the OUSD Board made the deal a win for taxpayers.

But it was just the first skirmish.

Because a little focused on provision in the Rodda Act also granted teacher unions the right to negotiate “agency fee” powers from school districts, which allowed the unions to gather fees from non members, greatly increasing the resources that the unions would have at their disposal. By December of 1981, courts had ruled on a case allowing all teacher unions in Alameda County, including the Oakland Education Association, to enforce agency fee collection.

Almost immediately, the political power of the union grew to behemoth status which translated into new levels of influence over Oakland Unified School Board elections, whether that was helping protect incumbent candidates in 1981 …

… or going three-for-three later in the decade behind a slate of newcomers billed as “reformers.”

The union’s increased influence postured it to come out swinging …

… and this time when they settled, teachers “cheered wildly” at the outcome: 20% raises that sent tremors across California and the entire nation.

Three years later, the State approved a $10M bailout of the district when OUSD proved unable to afford the agreement it had negotiated.

But when the state’s requirements for fiduciary responsibility became known, the district rejected the bailout and got a loan from private sources to stay solvent.

Seven years later the next strike happened.

For five long weeks, the community pled for common sense.

In the end, the agreement that was struck offered 26% raises to teachers. Once again, a deal negotiated in Oakland reverberated across the nation.

And when the district again couldn’t afford what it had negotiated, the state approved a $100M bailout, ten times the size of the 1989 offer, which this time the district had no choice but to accept.

That $100M loan is still not paid off. In his last year in office during his second stint as governor, Jerry Brown got a deal done to try to help OUSD clean the slate.

All told, the state committed to chipping in another $34.7 million to the district over several years in exchange for the district embracing common sense belt-tightening. The district took the early tranches of funding until the belt-tightening part kicked in, at which point OUSD did what it did in 1989, which was to reject the terms of the bailout.

It made that decision a few months after having learned it was receiving a $300 million dollar infusion from the feds for Covid relief.

But that’s not the only de facto bailout the district has benefitted from of late. In 2021-22, OUSD was by far the largest recipient of Community Schools grant funding …

… receiving 50% more money than LA Unified, though OUSD serves only a tenth as many kids. All told, OUSD was given over 11% of the total statewide Community Schools funding that year, though the district serves about one half of one percent of all students in the state. Those funds, of course, were allocated by the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, who shows special interest in Oakland.

De facto bailout funding has flowed on top of the unprecedented additional resources that have been provided to California public schools over the past decade.

Through it all, we’ve seen two more teacher strikes in Oakland. One in 2019 that by most accounts only secured modest additional concessions from the OUSD Board, leaving 42% of teachers opposed to the deal …

… and a one-day strike during Covid where the union protested the district’s plans to consolidate campuses.

That strike in combination with a hunger strike …

… increased pressure on the school board to limit the number of campus closures …

… leaving the district in a circumstance where it has more than twice as many schools as other districts in the area serving the same number of students …

… with some of the remaining tiny schools demonstrating the most dysfunctional economics found anywhere in public education in the United States. Prescott Elementary, for example, a school serving just over 100 students …

… sees per pupil expenditures that are higher than the most expensive private school tuitions in the Bay Area, while generating academic results that are among the very lowest in California.

All this happens against a backdrop of civic crisis in Oakland.

Last month the A’s announced that they are leaving the city …

… following both the Warriors and the Raiders out the door. Major corporations headquartered in Oakland have joined the exodus.

And now the city confronts the largest budget shortfall in its history.

The only difference between the city and the school district is that the city’s Covid relief money has already run out. And though OUSD has been among the least transparent school districts in California about how it is spending its Covid relief funding, literally refusing to respond to open record requests on the topic …

…ultimately what happened to the city is going to happen to the district too. The money is running out …

…meaning that Oakland Unified is only a couple of years away from budget shortfalls that will be every bit as historic as the ones the city faces now.

Can you imagine what happens to Oakland Unified when that level of budget crisis emerges? On top of all the other chaos the district is already contending with?

Gertrude Stein famously wrote that there was “no there there” in Oakland.

Some people, I recognize, believe that state bailouts for places like Oakland Unified are likely to continue in perpetuity, with the pattern of 10X increases in the size of rescue packages going on and on into exponential infinity.

But I don’t.

The problems are just too big.

The rough beast that is slouching toward Oakland is also slouching toward Los Angeles and Sacramento and San Francisco and Chicago and Philadelphia and … and … and.

There is, in many more ways than one …

… no end in sight other than a scope of dysfunction that will surpass our collective bailout capacity.

And so, we approach a moment of reckoning when, literally, there may soon be “no there there” for thousands of kids and families whose future well-being depends upon accessing a quality education.

With that being the case, CharterFolk, it becomes incumbent upon us to help our world overcome amnesia about education matters.

And in resetting our shared historical bearings, we will posture ourselves to make fundamentally better decisions.

Brought together into a coherent new whole, those decisions will become a new vision for creating the next “there” in public education …

… like the one that the charter school community in Oakland is beginning to advance today and that will ultimately ground our work as CharterFolk for many decades to come.