Good morning, CharterFolk.
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On to the update.
Update Summary: In recent years conditions have gotten more difficult for charter schools because we have grown, and that gave the Establishment an opportunity to run a new strategy consisting of three parts: attacking charter schools; erasing evidence of poor Establishment performance; and blaming charter schools for any other problems in public education. The strategy is grounded in an effort to get focus off the problems that exist within Establishment schools and onto the supposed problems that exist in charter schools. The Establishment has achieved this, not by leading with PR efforts, but by advocating for bills and other proposals that drive a negative narrative for charter schools. While this strategy has been very damaging to us, it is also one that we could learn from as we make our plans for the future.
Today, we focus on why things have gotten even harder for charter schools in recent years. It’s something I alluded to in “How Shmuckheads Dropped the Ball on Vision.“
What was it about a decade ago that tipped things from being “incredibly difficult” like they always had been, to the “bordering on impossible” which has become, unfortunately, our new normal …? What led to the change was the fact that we had succeeded. We had grown … and that growth … gave our adversaries the opportunity to run a new and much more effective strategy against us.
That more effective strategy is what I want to turn to today. Plain and simple, it has equated to nothing less than a massive effort to destroy us.
Not to slow us down. Not to reform us. But to destroy us.
It is something that CharterFolk intuitively understand from our experience. Even in places where overall dynamics remain more positive, we see adversaries in the landscape more rabid in their opposition to us than we have ever seen before. Duking it out in the trenches, it can be difficult to see how the pieces of the Establishment’s strategy fit together. My aim with this post is to begin identifying the parts so that we may better understand them and learn from them. If we do, I believe that we will see that we have the opportunity to do to the Establishment what it has been doing to us in recent years, and that would be an important part of charter schools surviving and thriving in the years ahead.
That Establishment’s strategy to destroy us has three parts:
I dive into each below.
Of all the improved strategies our adversaries have used against us in recent years, the attack strategy has done more to make CharterFolk’s work more difficult than anything else. To understand its impact, it is helpful to remember the early years of the movement when things were not as difficult as they are today. What made that landscape so different from our current one was the fact that all the focus in the public realm was on problems in traditional public schools. Each new charter school in development was a proposal that embodied a sense of hope that problems could be addressed. The reasons for hope were not encapsulated in a billboard or any other PR effort. They were concrete policy proposals that were advocated for and had to be voted up or down, which created media coverage flowing from the controversy and suspense about whether the charters would be approved. In other words, charter schools were on the offensive, and the Establishment was on the defensive, and it stayed that way for nearly twenty years. Not surprisingly, being on the offensive, we were able to generate significant growth and momentum during that time.
But sometime about a decade ago, our opposition saw that the landscape had finally begun to change. Thousands of charter schools had opened across the United States. This provided the Establishment something large to attack. It was the opportunity it had been waiting for, a chance to get the focus off itself and onto something else by going on the offensive.
How they did so should be very instructive for us. They did it by doing what they do best. They advocated. They did not shoot from the hip. They chose a strategy very carefully after millions of dollars of deep analysis. It is a special advantage they have – tons of resources to poll and decades of having done it such that they are better at it than anyone else. And that put them in a position to learn something that the rest of us just did not know, or did not understand to the depth that we should have, which was that the public’s support for charter schools was soft.
The first time I was briefed about charter school polling during my first year at CCSA, our pollster told me: “If charter schools were a statewide candidate, you would be undefeatable.” It was shorthand for what a lot of experts thought then, and that created an opening for the Establishment. They had seen the same surface-level polling that we had seen, that maybe 60% or 70% of the public report being supportive of charter schools. But when they went deeper, they recognized that the vast majority of voters had no idea what charter schools are, and if they could hit charter schools over the head with a sledgehammer, if they could convince people that charter schools are different from what we actually are – basically, if they outright lied about us – they could drive down the public’s support.
So they set about designing their sledgehammer, not a PR campaign, but a series of policy proposals designed to get the focus off the failings of the traditional system and onto our supposed failings. Not bills designed to pass, but ones meant to drive a narrative, like bills calling for charter schools to comply with public meetings requirements or conflict of interest standards.
Do you really think our opposition gives a darn whether charter schools comply with open meeting laws or conflict of interest standards?
Of course they don’t. The last things they want is for those bills to pass. The longer the fight drags on, the better. That is why on many occasions when it would have been easy to actually enact a change in law – surgically eliminating for profits, for example, or advancing a clean bill on public meetings – they pivoted quickly to make sure the bills never passed so they could keep their lie in the public sphere. And once they had a meta-narrative going through their advocacy efforts, they then layered in their radio spots and websites and all their other communications efforts.
In June of 2017, after 16 years of having not updated its policy position on charter schools, the NEA finally released a new policy.
At its heart, it had nothing to do with open meetings or any other reform of charter schools. It was about getting what they had always wanted: a moratorium. Within a month, many state teacher unions across the country and the NAACP had all come out with new policy positions aligning with the NEA’s call for a moratorium.
Across the country, attacks continue along these lines to this day. Our adversaries fight to get them included in national party platforms and presidential campaign policy statements. Not a day goes by without another bill being surfaced, a new regulation being proposed, or a new district resolution being drafted. It has represented one massive effort to get the focus off the Establishment and its shortcomings by running policy proposals focusing on our supposed problems. It has been incredibly effective, and more than any other single thing that we have had to contend with over the past decade, it has made charter school work even harder than it has ever been before.
Attacking is all well and good. But how do you keep the focus off yourself when there is just so much evidence of problems within Establishment schools?
Well, you get rid of the evidence, of course.
Like the school performance data that used to be much more robust in states across the country.
Now, I realize I am becoming one of the dinosaurs around here, and I know how many in our movement have big concerns with standardized testing, but I also remember what it was like before student performance data came along. I was a teacher before there was any evidence in the landscape that Establishment schools were badly underserving kids, and I saw how the presence of new data dramatically changed the discussion. I am not going to say that I supported all the things that ed reformers tried to do with all the new data. A lot of it was misguided. I am not in favor, nor was I ever in favor, of state or federally mandated targets for growth and pre-determined interventions for schools missing targets. Nor did I ever think it was a good idea to mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to test scores. But was having evidence regarding school performance a hell of a lot better than what we had before, virtually no data whatsoever?
Absolutely it was.
But by around 2010, the Establishment saw the misuse of the data was providing an opportunity to get rid of the evidence altogether. A bizarre troika of teacher unions, Tea Party activists …
and suburban parents …
… came together to allow the Establishment to pull off what it had been wanting to achieve for decades: a widespread reduction in the amount of student performance data available to the public. Today in most states, whereas before we had testing data for grades 2-11, we only have data for grades 3-8 and just one year in high school. And we think that’s going to be enough to have any true sense how our schools are doing with kids?
Of course not, and that’s just the point, because Establishment protectors have long recognized a striking phenomenon regarding the public’s beliefs about public schools:
The less the public knows, the more the public likes its public schools.
Indeed, in the years immediately around the mothballing of California’s Achieve Performance Index (API) system, CCSA’s polling showed a significant increase in the percentage of voters who reported that the state’s public schools deserved an A or B.
Now, of course, there were myriad factors going into the public’s changing views of public schools during this period, but the general point holds. The Establishment knows that eliminating poor academic performance data contributes to the public thinking there is less wrong with public schools. And the less the public thinks anything is wrong with Establishment schools, the less there is reason to embrace significant reform, like the growth of charter schools.
At a school level, if there is no information available about how schools are underperforming, it becomes much more difficult to identify problems warranting the creation of new charter schools. This is something I wrote about in No Vision No Voice.
What is the one thing that New York Chancellor Richard Carranza and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio say charter school leaders simply may not do? Highlight problems that exist within traditional public schools.
How are you supposed to highlight problems in local public schools if the data you use to do so is taken away? Maybe that’s why City Council Members in New York accuse De Blasio of wanting to eliminate testing in order to hide poor performance.
What better way to obscure the fact that the District has 140 schools that are performing absolutely dismally?
So erase, erase, erase.
And if you can’t erase it altogether, render whatever evidence is left in the landscape unintelligible so that no one can make sense of anything, which is what a lot of the multiple-measure fad has become: nothing more than thinly disguised gobbledygook.
Almost as good as erase, erase, erase …
Obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate.
Anything to keep people from being able to focus again on the failures happening within the Establishment.
Finally, we come to those problems in public education that just can’t be erased or obfuscated. What does the Establishment do about those?
It scapegoats, of course.
What are the two things that you need to run a scapegoat strategy? First you need an “other,” something in the landscape big enough to blame. After our growth, charter schools had certainly become that. Secondly, you need ignorance, a broader lack of understanding about what has really happened, so that those who want to blame the other are able to do so credibly.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, ignorance on matters related to public education is in striking abundance. Often we see the blame game played on fiscal matters because many public school funding issues are so green-eye-shade (just check out any big school district’s annual budget), that there has been a society-wide glazing over of eyes. It results in a level of ignorance that primes the scapegoat strategy. Couple that with the fact that most district solvency problems grow out of irresponsible behavior that the Establishment has engaged in for decades, and various parties will do just about anything to avoid their roles in these messes coming to light. You end up with a perfect storm of conditions leading to charter schools getting blamed for just about any financial challenge you find in public education.
The examples go on and on …
But the blame-charter-strategy plays out on a much wider range of issues than just fiscal matters because school districts have so many things that they need to attempt to escape blame for. And as it relates to public education, our society has developed a massive case of collective amnesia. We cannot remember long enough to identify how a problem in public education came about three weeks ago, much less three decades ago, and charter schools have now been around for nearly 30 years. It makes conditions ripe for the Establishment to do in the 2020’s what it could never have done in the 1990s or 2000s: to create a new narrative that charter schools are not a response to the failings of the traditional public school system, but are the maker of those failings.
Problems in special ed these days? It was all hunky dory before there were charter schools.
Facilities? There weren’t dilapidated buildings before charter schools came along.
Poor academic performance? Kids were learning so much more back in the day.
Each blame initiative, again, not just some PR effort, but an opportunity to use the same tactics the Establishment uses within its attack strategy.
Doing what it does best. Advocating.
Advancing moratoria resolutions that public officials have to vote on.
Going on strike.
Running new bills.
All supporting their narrative that charter schools are to blame.
Attack, Erase, Blame.
It is a three-part strategy that simply would not have been viable to run against charter schools when our movement first began, but it is one the Establishment has pivoted to with great impact over the past decade. And it has ended up making the work of CharterFolk even harder than it has ever been before.
But it is also something we should consider very instructive, because for all the challenge that the strategy has placed upon us, it also points a way forward for us. At this moment of reflection in the history of our movement, my belief is that we have the potential to improve our advocacy efforts patterned to some degree after what has been done to us. In so doing, we would take something that was intended to destroy us, and turn it into a force magnifier for our movement that could propel us into even higher levels of momentum and impact in the years ahead.
Just how we do so are thoughts and ideas I look forward to surfacing and debating and refining with all of you in the weeks and months ahead here at CharterFolk.
In the meantime …
Just keep going.
Good morning, Charter Folk.
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In the cliffhanger, I presented that I believe it is evident what our new vision for charter schools should be. Today I will attempt to start laying out a framework for that vision. But before I do, I want to be clear that I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one vision for charter schools that will work. All sorts of variations on a theme will suffice. Conditions are different from state to state. I also don’t think it’s up to shmuckheads like me pontificating on high. The only thing that really matters is what the movement decides. And the movement can only make its decision in the context of representative advocacy organizations approving and advancing visions reflecting the views of CharterFolk. If there is any value in offering ideas in a context like this, it is just to help the conversation along. My aim is sharing something that both holds together in terms of making broad strategic sense and has a decent shot of getting our base to coalesce around it.
Generally, the best vision statements are ones that show effort in support of some commonly held ideal. At CCSA during my time there, we decided to make our ideal “learning.”
It wasn’t bad. Other ideals that make sense in our realm are opportunity, student success or preparedness. Over the years, though, I have become convinced that these aren’t the best ideals for us.
In my view, the best ideal for charter schools to be working in support of is public education itself. Public education holds a special place in our country, more so than in many other countries. It cuts right to what we are all about. It acknowledges the subtext to nearly any discussion we have about our national heritage, that in addition to some of the greatest achievements and breakthroughs ever to have happened, our country’s past is chock-full of some of the most appalling abuses in human history, and one of the ways we address our shortcomings is by supporting public education.
Our adversaries know, whether we have recognized it or not, that we are in a great struggle over the ideal of public education, and it knows that whoever’s vision prevails – whoever convinces the public that their ideal for public education is best – will ultimately succeed. This is why the opposition always tries to present us as “privatizers,” people who supposedly work in direct opposition to the ideal of public education.
This is not something that the Establishment chose randomly or without extensive, methodical analysis. They have mountains of data supporting the idea that this is a winning approach for them, and they are all in behind it.
Their constant effort to label us as privatizers makes it understandable that so many of us are doing all we can to remind people that charter schools are public schools.
All of this is important, but we can never forget that we are not seeking to be “as public” as other schools. We are by design and implementation way more public than other public schools. And our vision must always be that we remain way more public and drag the rest of our schools to greater publicness over time. That includes making sure that all public schools become simply better – offer higher quality educational service to everyone – and that all public schools become more equitable – more fairly allocate educational opportunity to everyone. In so doing, we demonstrate that public education can better serve the interests of the public all, rather than the private few.
By definition, a private school is a school that chooses to serve the interests of a private group. Private schools create private benefit by putting up walls determining who may attend. Those inside the walls get the benefit. Those outside do not. The walls consist of tuition requirements that are too high for many to scale. Walls also consist of selective admissions which exclude kids along lines of race and class. Other characteristics of private schools underscore their private-ness. They are accountable to no one but their private clients. No public entity licenses them or determines periodically whether their performance has been strong enough to warrant continued operations. Lastly, private school operators may allocate funding as they see fit between sites and they can freely move funding from one campus to another if they so choose.
Our vision for public education begins by identifying the problem, which is that, unfortunately, our public education system has turned out to be just not that public. In many ways it operates like private schooling. It puts up walls determining who may attend. Those walls include attendance boundaries which function like educational redlining.
Other walls are the selective admissions that we see in thousands of magnets and other traditional public schools.
These admissions practices result in our public schools allocating better educational opportunity to those with advantage and giving worse to those without, essentially mirroring what private schools do. Like private schools, our traditional public schools are accountable to no one, having been provided the authority to be both licensor and licensee. With no separation of powers at play in their accountability scheme, school districts regularly deem their own performance satisfactory and grant themselves authority to keep serving students no matter how dreadful their track record of results has been. Finally, our public schools allocate resources disproportionately to more affluent kids and families, depriving resources to those kids and families who need them most.
In sum, rather than fulfilling its central mission of helping our country overcome its historical shortcomings, sadly, public education has become one of the strongest forces perpetuating and deepening the very same unfairness it was supposed to root out. In fact, a massive Establishment has built up working to keep things the way they are so that, perversely, public education never achieves its purpose.
The role of charter schools is to make sure that public education finally becomes what it was always intended to be – something greatly more public. There are many hallmarks of greatly more public schools. Over the months ahead, I will roll out a framework elaborating on the full range of those hallmarks.
- Greatly more public schools serve all kids like charter schools already do and like Establishment schools, sadly, don’t.
- Greatly more public schools are accountable like charter schools already are and like Establishment schools, sadly, aren’t.
- Greatly more public schools allocate resources fairly like charter schools already do and like Establishment schools, sadly, don’t.
Under each of these hallmarks, our argument is that it is in the best interest of all students and communities that schools have these characteristics, but it is particularly damaging to our most vulnerable students when schools don’t.
For example, under “public schools serve all kids,” our argument is that all students would be better supported if they attended schools like charter schools where attendance is not determined by a family’s place of residence or by selective admissions criteria. But it is particularly damaging to our historically underserved students when they are prevented access to schools based upon their place of residence or how they perform on a test.
Or under “public schools are accountable,” we think that all students would be better served if they attended schools that were truly accountable like charter schools are – had third party authorizers who determined every five years whether the schools had generated results strong enough to merit continued operations. But when schools aren’t truly accountable, it is our historically underserved students who suffer most.
Or under “public schools allocate resources fairly,” we think it would be better for all students that public schools have to approve their budgets down to the school level. But when they don’t, it is invariably the highest need kids who suffer most.
And our vision for public education, the North Star that we are driving toward is not that some public schools function this way, but that all do.
This is what has changed over the first three decades in the charter school story. In the beginning our task was simply to show that some public schools, any public schools, could be made which embody the characteristics of greater publicness. And that’s what we did to a stunning degree, opening up thousands of charter schools across the country. But now, having made that progress, we recognize that we have developed a credibility on these issues that positions us uniquely in the landscape to push the Establishment to rid itself of the practices that so wantonly benefit the private few rather than the public all.
Toward that broader end, a big part of what we do, of course, is grow new charter schools in order to get as many kids as possible, as quickly as possible, into schools already featuring these hallmarks of greater publicness. This is our historical bread and butter, helping charter schools grow, and we should not be anything but full-throated about our desire to accelerate growth as much as possible going forward.
But that can’t be the only thing we do!
In order to demonstrate our care for all kids and all communities, we also push the Establishment to adopt hallmarks of greater publicness as quickly and as fully as possible. In fact, we grow and activate our entire movement behind policy proposals to make the entire public school system greatly more public. As we grow, not only do we see more kids being served in schools that are greatly more public, but we also see ourselves building the advocacy strength needed to accomplish what has never been done before – an overcoming of Establishment protection and a freeing of public education to finally become what it was always intended to be.
It is a vision that passes the Question 2 test I referred to last week by showing how the entire public education system gets better as charter schools grow. That’s an important step forward, but ultimately, it is still not sufficient. Growing schools and pushing the system to evolve is ultimately a two-legged stool. The vision we need requires a third leg. Without it, the whole thing tips over.
What is it?
It grows out of what was my absolute worst failing during my years at CCSA. In my opinion it is probably the biggest mistake we have made in the history of the charter school movement. Something that, if corrected, would bring all the pieces together and create a vision that would poise charter schools for another era of unprecedented momentum and impact.
What was that failing? What’s the missing third leg?
Can’t wait to see you here Thursday, CharterFolk.