Playground Politics – How Up Became Down and What We Do About It

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’m encouraged by the latest news out of West Virginia.

The offending language about special education and accountability that I wrote about recently has been removed, which means the bill represents an important step forward for school choice in a state that badly needs it. Many thanks to various people and organizations on the ground in West Virginia who helped this important result come about.

I am also encouraged by the response we got to Sonia Park’s great Contributor Column “Playground Politics” from yesterday.

Sonia’s post surfaces a real problem: How do we proactively assist people who get challenged because of their support for charter schools? Many of us have had friends who are charter school enthusiasts tell us that things have gotten so toxic in their Tesla-driving neighborhoods that they’ve simply given up trying to defend charter schools when people attack them. It’s far easier to just go quiet.

On the one hand, it’s easy to feel frustrated with our friends for succumbing to the pressure, but on the other, we recognize we’ve left these people hanging out to dry.

Sonia’s piece is the kind of thing we need to be doing much more of. It gives our folks tangible suggestions for how to handle difficult discussions. Those of us who have been in such conversations often and have learned things along the way need to be sharing with others more frequently. I have some concrete suggestions along these lines I’ll get out to folks in a future post.

But another thing we have to do is step back and recognize the absolute absurdity of the fact that, in a world where our public education system sorts kids and families and allocates educational opportunity inequitably at mass scale by design, and where charter schools don’t do such things, Sonia finds herself on a playground where the sanctimonious presumption of the other parents at the swing set is that charter schools are in some way less egalitarian in their admissions practices than traditional public schools.

How does this happen? How does up become understood to be down?

In my view, it’s a function of two things:

First, there is a conscious, extremely well-funded, never-ending campaign coming from the Establishment to define up as down, to defer attention away from the actual down-ness of traditional public schools’ admissions practices, and to re-direct it toward the supposed down-ness of charter school admissions.

Secondly, there is no communication from our side on this subject at all, or none to speak of anyway.

And that combination – well propagated lies from our adversaries and virtual radio silence from us – results in the public believing that up is down.

I mean, how else would we explain it?

In New York, as Sonia pointed out, traditional public schools are founded upon systems designed to allocate educational opportunity inequitably. Recently, we have finally begun to see our society pay a more little attention to the matter.

It’s a problem that affects admissions practices at hundreds of New York schools, with some of the most pernicious screening practices happening all the way down to the pre-school level.

In an extraordinary rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a New York City education panel early Thursday morning rejected a testing contract — halting, for now, the controversial practice of testing incoming kindergartners for admission to gifted programs. With testing originally scheduled for this spring, it’s unclear how admissions to the city’s gifted and talented programs will move ahead …. New York City is one of the only school districts in the nation that uses a test given to preschoolers to determine admission to elementary school gifted programs

While problems are particularly pronounced in New York, it’s not like there aren’t similar issues elsewhere. Just look across the Hudson.

These aren’t age-old equity problems created in the Jim Crow era. These are new schools being made right now!

And Newark isn’t the only place in New Jersey that is building new educational redlines. No matter what exit you take from the turnpike, you will find a new county opening up a vocational magnet using admissions that screen out kids along lines of race and ethnicity.

It’s a problem all across the United States.

This recent article from EducationNext does a good job talking about how widespread it is, from Boston to Virginia to all the way to progressive San Francisco where 55% of families have their kids in private schools.

The article describes the pushback from progressive parents who want to see selective admissions continue.

One white parent of an 8th grader told me in a phone interview that his son had been planning to apply to Lowell this year but no longer sees the point, given the new admissions policy. Lowell is one of the only schools in the city that this father thinks could give his son a real education. The man declined to be named in this article because his son was applying to private schools and he worried that the boy’s chances of admission there would be diminished if he were among the parents labeled “racist” for supporting merit-based admissions. A self-described progressive, this father says that he has been “shocked” at just how disconnected the board is from the people they represent. “I can’t deny their reality, but it’s so far from the reality I’m living in, it’s laughable,” he said.

I’ve written about similar problems in DC …

… as well as in my hometown here in Sacramento where the use of selective admissions has not surprisingly ended up contributing to a host of other racial inequity problems.

None of these admissions problems address the other aspect of educational redlining that Sonia’s piece brings up, which is the use of attendance boundaries that only further reinforce the inequitable allocation of educational opportunity happening in our traditional public schools.

Meanwhile, in the down is up world we live in, charter schools – the only schools not engaged in all this admissions nonsense – get presented as the ones that are supposedly trying to screen out kids. We end up the targets of lawsuits like this one in New Jersey …

… or the targets of patently unfair media hits like this one from the Southern California ACLU …

… to name but two examples.

Can you imagine what the press would be if the charter school movement was planning to open new high schools in Newark where admission would be based on how well applicants do on admissions tests such that Black and Brown kids would be systematically excluded?

Can you imagine the outrage if charter schools were using testing to determine what kids are admitted to kindergarten?

CharterFolk, up has become down, and we have to figure out what to do about it.

How do we drive a new narrative such that people like Sonia aren’t contending with a general backdrop that describes our public education system in completely upside down terms?

At different times here at CharterFolk I have said that there are two things that will ultimately define our movement:

  • What we advocate for
  • And how we advocate for it

Across both axes, in my opinion, our efforts are off the mark.

First, we don’t know what we are advocating for. We have no good North Star, and because of that, we really have no well-defined point of view on tough issues such as what to do about non charter schools that use selective admissions.

Do I think that all such schools should simply go away overnight leaving thousands of families in communities across the country without options?

No, I don’t. Absolutely not.

But I also sure as heck don’t think we should be saying that the way things are now is acceptable. And I immodestly suggest that some of the things I have been writing about here at CharterFolk regarding the need for Greatly More Public Education and the need to address the Great Disconnect of 2021 could provide something of a North Star for navigating highly complex issues.

This will be the subject of next Wednesday’s post: What should be our position on selective admissions schools and redlining attendance boundaries?

Secondly, we don’t know how we should be advocating either. We don’t have a good advocacy strategy for advancing a North Star should we ever get one.

That will be the subject for next Friday’s post: Presuming we come to a position reflecting our values and aspirations as a movement, how do we get our new narrative out into the landscape such that we stop leaving CharterFolk on a limb when they are accosted by sanctimonious neighbors at the climbing structure?

Taken together, the two posts will attempt to surface a viable approach for helping the world recognize that up is in fact up and that down is in fact down, and that the charter school movement is a force that has the potential to drive our entire public education system in the direction of a North Star we should all be eager and proud to aspire toward.

Hope to see you here.

The Great Disconnect of 2021 is Becoming a Massive Chasm

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Thanks to many of you for your responses to last week’s post about what CharterFolk is and isn’t. In it I highlighted that we’ve received recent match challenges for the next 100 people who sign up for paid subscriptions. We’ve now made it 20% of the way there, with all of the new subscription revenue being matched dollar for dollar. So to our 20 new paid subscribers, I say thank you! And to any of you who have been waiting for the perfect moment to join, isn’t now the time?

I wanted to return today to the theme I’ve been writing on since the beginning of January – The Great Disconnect of 2021.

There are different ways to express it graphically – one showing the extent to which parents and society are simply fed up with what the public education system is offering …

… or another showing how our wrongly prioritized needs in public education are resulting in a collapse of the Establishment as the disconnect plays further out.

I have developed some general principles for how we can overcome the Great Disconnect. I have also begun developing a test case showing how those principles can be applied. The test case I have been working on is my own hometown – Sacramento.

Unfortunately, the Great Disconnect happening in California’s capital city is turning into a massive chasm. Here is a story that came out just yesterday.

The thing that is crucial to remember is that Sacramento is not an isolated case. It is just one example of the broad chasm that is opening up within public education across the entire country right now.

While it is incredibly sad to see our public schools so profoundly fail our kids and families at a moment like this, it is also important that we recognize that times like this are when great progress can be made in our quest to make greatly more public education for all.

In my second post here at CharterFolk, I wrote the following:

The last time we had a major crisis in public education – the great recession of 2009-2013 – despite the fact that charter schools experienced disproportionate funding cuts in virtually every state in the country, we grew like crazy.  Nationwide, charter enrollment grew 74% during that period. In California, it was 88%. 

We are seeing a similar pattern play out during the Covid crisis as well. Charter school growth is accelerating across the United States.

From New York …

… to Idaho …

… to Florida …

… and North Carolina.

Seismic change is afoot in St. Louis.

New schools are being proposed in DC.

And in places where we have never been able to have strong charter school laws before …

… we see huge moments of opportunity arising.

Of course, all of these are signs of the Great Disconnect of 2021, as is, of course, the massive blowback coming from an increasingly desperate Establishment …

… doing all it can to limit parents from getting their kids better options in communities across the United States.

Perhaps the place in the nation that puts the Great Disconnect in its best perspective is Rhode Island. A few months back, in response to recently surfaced problems in Providence public schools, the state took over the district.

Soon plans were coming together to expand high quality charter schools in order to get improved opportunity to Providence kids and families as quickly as possible.

That, of course, led to predictable …

… panicked gestures from the Establishment to hold things back.

And as we all know, the Establishment has their beholden policy makers willing to do their bidding no matter how contrary it may be to the interests of kids and families.

How is this all going to play out? Will Establishment forces actually be able to stifle things in Rhode Island?

It’s too early to tell. But I would encourage CharterFolk to keep the following two points in mind.

First, the fact that the state took over the Providence public schools has without a doubt been a positive thing for kids and families regardless whether any new charter schools ultimately end up opening. You think there’s any way that Providence would ever have been one of the few school districts in the East to have remained open during the pandemic …

… if the state hadn’t taken over, giving Rhode Island’s courageous Governor …

… the leverage she needed to do right by kids?

No way.

So, there’s great purpose in simply pushing against the Establishment right now regardless whether it translates into wins for charter schools because, most importantly, the pushing is translating into wins for students and families.

Here’s the second thing:

Recall, CharterFolk, what it was that fundamentally changed the lay of the land in Providence:

This study …

… from Johns Hopkins.

With the publishing of their report, people finally saw …

From the Executive Summary

… how unpublic Providence’s public schools have tragically become.

And, equally importantly, the public has seen the reason for hope that charter schools represent.

And they have seen the Establishment try to step in and quash things, to actually attempt to force parents to take their kids back to schools that have left researchers in tears.

This, is what the public is seeing during the Great Disconnect of 2021 – one massive nationwide Johns Hopkins study laying bare the tragic state of our so-called public schools. And the public is seeing how the Establishment is attempting to force parents to accept schools that leave many in tears.

It creates not a disconnect, but ultimately, a chasm.

One that is being seen across our entire political spectrum  – from readers of the Wall Street Journal …

… to listeners to National Public Radio.

Our challenge, CharterFolk, is to remember the lessons of Rhode Island, to keep the harsh truth about our public schools front and center for all to see, and then to do all that we can to live up to what is expected of us at this moment:

To be a reason for hope, getting good things done for kids and families in as big of numbers as possible. Ultimately, when all is said and done, I am certain that the record will show that the progress that charter schools made during The Great Disconnect of 2021 will make the headway we made during the Financial Crisis of 2009 seem like a rounding error in comparison.

It won’t be an easy road, by any means, but it is the one that CharterFolk are expected to tread. As we always have since the beginning of our movement three decades ago, we lighten the load by supporting one another as we go.

I leave you with Milton:

“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”