Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Thanks to many of you for passing along compliments about Joe Nathan’s great post from earlier this week. For those of you who missed it, I encourage you to check it out.

Thanks also to many of you for responding to our match challenges. We already have nine new paid subscribers from New Jersey, five more from California, and five more nationwide. Remember we have to get 10 in all our various states to draw down the match. So thank you to all of you who have already subscribed, and thank you to anyone new who will subscribe today so we can get closer to drawing down these matches!

Let’s get on to the update.


Today’s post grows out of a recognition that in some of my recent writing I have been trying to skip ahead, and I realize I need to slow down a bit to keep what I present here coherent. The recognition arose when I reflected on my post “General Principles for Overcoming the Great Disconnect of 2021” wherein I offered the four following principles:

  • There Isn’t that Much Equity to Lose
  • Now is the Moment to Consider Every School an Ally
  • The Words of the Moment are Agency, Accountability, Freedom, Blurring and Micro
  • This is a Crisis We Can’t Let Go to Waste on Equity

The coherence I want to maintain is one showing how these principles are aligned with the overarching agenda I have been advancing here since the inception of CharterFolk – The Greatly More Public Schools Agenda. The Principles and the Agenda are in fact completely aligned. This reflects my thinking that the way we help public education get over The Great Disconnect of 2021 is to pursue the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda, only on steroids.

What is the starting point analysis of the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda?

CharterFolk repeat after me:

Unfortunately, our nation’s public schools have turned out to be not that public.

Which is just another way of stating the First Principle: “There isn’t that Much Equity to Lose.”

As to the Second Principle, do folks remember what I said was my biggest mistake over my 10 years of service at CCSA?

Letting charter schools become understood to be one massive replacement strategy by not putting enough emphasis on the fact that chartering is designed to help absolutely all schools get better.

If there is ever a time we can’t afford to repeat that mistake it is now. Thus, the Second Principle is: Now is the Moment to Consider Every School an Ally.

(Joe Nathan, by the way, is one of our most eloquent voices regarding the importance of presenting chartering as something that can help absolutely all schools get better, which is another reason why I was delighted to present Joe’s Contributor Column this week.)

That brings us to the Third and Fourth Principles, which I want to focus on today. These are the principles that identify where we are trying to go. Our movement not having a good North Star has been a massive problem that I have been broken-recording on here at CharterFolk. At different times I have offered various policy ideas for what would help us arrive at a system that is Greatly More Public than the one we have today. Principle Three contains many of these ideas, but with words like “Agency,” “Accountability” and “Freedom” all thrown together, it runs the risk of sounding like a hodge-podge.

But it’s not. There’s a coherence behind what I am encouraging us toward. This morning I want to bring forward a new construct meant to help us understand that coherence more deeply so that we can drive with even greater aggressiveness toward that Greatly More Public North Star we are all aspiring toward, one that would fundamentally assist public education to overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.

I call the construct the “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education.”

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy, the idea that humans have different tiers of needs. This is a graphic I got from

The basic notion of the framework is that before people can address more aspirational needs of self-actualization, they must first ensure that basic needs such as sustenance and safety are met.

In my view, a similar construct can be created for our public schools. If we want to get to full actualization of fantastic schooling for everyone, we must make sure that base needs are addressed first. And when we see how askew our public education is set up from a proper hierarchy of needs, it puts into repose what our efforts should be.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education

Let’s consider first what a hierarchy would look like if our public education system were set up to achieve what all of us are driving toward – Greatly More Public Education for all.

At the base of our pyramid …

… is Values.

We’ve talked a lot about this here at CharterFolk. We need public education to reflect the shared values we hold to ensure that equity and excellence in education is provided to all. Specifically, we need to ensure that educational opportunity is allocated equitably in our society. Those who have historically been denied access to high quality public education in the past must have special access to it today. These values allow us to move forward with confidence knowing that we are helping public education achieve what should be its central mission, which is to ensure that our society becomes a better and fundamentally more just place.

Next, we come to ..

… Agency.

By this I mean that our second priority must be to ensure that our public education system is populated with empowered agents, educators and parents, within whom we situate the loci of control over our public education efforts. We do not want a public school system where stakeholders within it have no decision-making authority. In fact, we want the exact opposite.

Once we have empowered units within the ecosystem, our next need is …

… Accountability.

There can be no agency without responsibility. Accountability brings the responsibility into the equation. As we have seen in recent years, there has been a great struggle in our society over the definition of accountability as it relates to public education. Our world thinks of accountability as making sure that agents are held responsible for results. That means having a third-party authorizer determining every five years whether your results with students warrant you continuing to have the privilege of operating a public school. Without very strong accountability, the whole system falls apart. That’s why we put it near the base of our pyramid.

Next comes …

… Freedom.

Freedom is sometimes equated with agency. In this case they are distinct. Agency is making sure that you are conferring decision-making authority (i.e. choice) upon the agents within the system. Freedom is making sure that all those agents have as much discretion as possible, consistent with our Values, while being held properly Accountable. Basically, what we are saying here is that we want short ed codes. We don’t want enormous bodies of law and regulation and district policy restricting the actions of agents so that we can have the Freedom we need to make great educational opportunities for kids.

Now we come to …

… Funding.

Fifth up from the bottom. Don’t get me wrong. Funding is massively important. It’s essential fuel that gives the whole system life. And generally, yes, the more funding we have in the system, the more greatly public education we are going to have. But it has to come on top of a stable base of Values, Agency, Accountability and Freedom, which allows the Funding to be invested to maximum effect.

Then comes …

… People.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I realize that people are immensely important. Without great educators we will never get to greatly more public education. But what is it that attracts the best people to give their lives to public education?

The ability to make a massive difference. To actually be able to help kids.

That means they have to see that they are entering a system where the values are right, where they will have agency and freedom, while being properly held accountable in schools that are generously resourced. This is what will attract the stunning educators, including the next generation of CharterFolk, we will need to take public education to whole new levels.

Finally, we come to …

… Program.

This is the “actualization” of Greatly More Public Education – stunningly great schools and other learning opportunities in massive abundance. If you have the foundations in the pyramid properly set, the great programs follow thereafter.

And here’s the thing: while the pyramid metaphor shows the whole structure coming to a point, in actuality, if you have done your hierarchy correctly, if you have enough power built into the system, nothing should be coming to any single point, but should in fact blow out into a vast multitude of directions …

… making a volcano the operative end point metaphor we should be envisioning if we do our work correctly – thousands upon thousands of excellent new ways to educate kids building on one other, achieving heights we have never seen before.

It’s an end state very different from the sad state we find in public education today, which, as we will see, is supported by a needs hierarchy that is fundamentally different from what we aspire to.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Maintaining the Establishment

As we turn to considering the Needs Hierarchy undergirding the system as we know it today –the system designed to maintain the Establishment – we remember, again our starting point analysis of public education today, which is that, sadly, our nation’s public schools have turned out to be not that public.

The Hierarchy of Needs construct turns out to be a useful tool for understanding why this is so.

What is at the very bedrock of the advocacy efforts taken on by those seeking to maintain the Establishment?

Is it Values, like is at the base of the Greatly More Public pyramid?


At the base of the Establishment’s pyramid …

… is People.

But not all people.

Only Establishment people, a much smaller group than is the full universe of people involved in public education. It is a fundamentally narrower base – one whose primary motivation is making sure that public education doesn’t change, so that those who are benefitting from the currently barely public status of our public education system continue to do so.

Once the Establishment has been able to target the subset of people toward whom it directs all of its advocacy support, its next focus becomes, of course …

… money.

The objective becomes directing as much Funding as possible toward the target beneficiaries – those vested in the perpetuation of the Establishment itself. All one needs to understand how the Establishment prioritizes the relative importance of the purple and blue shapes is to have ever once advocated for the inclusion of charter schools in a local parcel tax or other ballot measure. In places where Establishment protection is strongest, teacher unions and others would rather that a ballot measure not pass at all than a ballot measure pass that equitably includes charter schools. Yes, the Establishment is always wanting more money, but only if it is able to direct that funding only to itself.

After funding, comes …

… Program.

Note that Program comes after identifying who gets paid and how much, but before Freedom or Accountability. This positioning reflects that the Establishment is committed to making Program great only to the extent that it can be achieved without granting Freedom to agents within the system and without holding anyone responsible for ensuring that Program quality is high. This is where the massive ed codes common to so many states come from. The idea is to value-project and micro-manage into statute a mountain of requirements that both keep Establishment people occupied and require even more money to comply with.

Then and only then, we come to …

… Freedom, Accountability and Agency, none of which exist in any meaningful way within Establishment schools as they are currently constituted.

Freedom is permitted only to the degree that ed codes have not explicitly banned different approaches to instruction and have not heaped up educators with so many compliance requirements that they have any time left over.

Accountability is essentially a foreign concept in most of public education today because, by definition, no entity can hold itself accountable. Yet, school districts, for reasons that make absolutely no sense, are entrusted to supposedly hold themselves accountable. In the end, unlike what happens with charter schools which are accountable to third parties with enough power to close the schools if they underperform, Establishment public schools simply deem their own performance acceptable and keep on operating in unaccountable perpetuity.

Finally, the only thing more anathema to the Establishment than Accountability is an entity (like a charter school) with decision-making authority independent of the Establishment itself. Thus we see Agency in the second-lowest priority position.

Which brings us finally to …

…. Values.

In the Hierarchy of Needs For Maintaining the Establishment, Values are not at the foundation. They are not the bedrock from which the other elements and characteristics of the public education system grow. They are just what happens to be made manifest after all the other needs in the hierarchy have been first addressed given that those other needs are considered to be higher priority than the Values themselves.

With this being the case, is it any wonder so much of public education in our country operates in a manner that is offensive to our values? This is how it was set up by design! In the DNA of our current public education system, Values come absolutely last.

It creates one of the great dichotomies related to the public education Establishment. On the one hand, it is immensely powerful, one of the most formidable political forces in our society today. On the other hand, its horribly designed Needs Hierarchy makes it ever-prone to teetering.

This system’s fragility makes it incredibly threatened by any actors who could disturb the precarious balance – actors like charter schools, which explains why the Establishment has done absolutely everything in its power in recent years to completely and utterly destroy the national charter school movement.

And then, against that general backdrop, came 2020 …

… and Covid …

… and racial awakening …

… which has tipped the Establishment into it the Great Disconnect of 2021.

Something at risk of becoming completely unraveled.

Putting it All Together

So recapping, I hope I am making clear that strong alignment and coherence exists between the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda and the General Principles to Overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.

We start where we just ended – with a sad realization that our public schools are unfortunately not that public, or that (Principle 1) There Isn’t That Much Equity to Lose. That has only been made more apparent during the Great Disconnect.

As we chart our course in the current moment, we remember our biggest mistake over the first three decades of our work, keeping front and center (Principle 2) That Now is the Time to Consider Every School an Ally. In other words, we keep our work focused on …

… People. A recognition that we can not do this alone. We simply must bring as many People as possible from the traditional system with us, knowing that they are as desperately wanting to make greatly more public education available to kids and families as we are.

In this moment of incredible need and opportunity, we propose many policy changes designed to help our schools generate greater equity and excellence, focusing on (Principle 3) Agency, Accountability and Freedom (and yes, of course, continuing to advocate for more Funding) …

… as well as the “Blurring” and “Micro-ness” that will allow the next generation of quality program and innovation to emerge on the landscape …

… never forgetting for one minute that at the bedrock of our work must be a North Star of Greatly More Public Values ensuring that we (Principle 4) Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste on Equity.

Strong Values allow us to prioritize and assemble our Hierarchy of Needs in a manner that is coherent and aligned …

… and ultimately generates the explosion of Greatly More Public Educational opportunity we want for absolutely all kids in our society, especially those who need it most …

… allowing us to overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.

The Great Disconnect of 2021 Test Case, Part 1 – Sacramento Unified has Little Equity to Lose

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Last week in my first post of the year, I posited that 2021 is the Year of the Great Disconnect, making this year the most important in our lifetimes for public education.

By that, I meant that we have never seen a circumstance where there is so little overlap between what public education is offering parents and society, presented in blue, and the minimum that parents and society will accept, presented in red.

At the end of the post, I called on CharterFolk to begin devising the changes in educational approach and advocacy strategy that will allow public education to make progress on Equity and Excellence at the pace that is required to retain voter support behind public education.

In my second post of the year, I advanced Principles for How to Address the Great Disconnect of 2021. Those principles are:

  • There Isn’t that Much Equity to Lose
  • Now is the Moment to Consider All Schools Allies
  • The Words of the Moment are Agency, Accountability, Freedom, Blurring and Micro
  • This is a Crisis We Can’t Let Go to Waste on Equity

Like I did when I presented the Greatly More Public Framework and then test-applied it to a local area in Washington DC, I would like to present a local test-case showing how the four principles would help address the Great Disconnect of 2021. I thought I would do so looking at my own hometown of Sacramento. Today’s post focuses on the first of the four principles. Upcoming posts will focus on the remaining three.

I start with Sacramento for several reasons.

First, it’s my hometown and so I happen to have learned a lot about it over the years. That also means that I don’t run the risk of being perceived to be some outsider who people wonder why I’m talking about their neck of the woods.

Secondly, Sacramento Unified is the district serving our state’s capital, so its story has the potential to have significant impact on public education in California. If only we could get our legislators and other policy makers to look at Sacramento Unified truthfully, it would go a long way toward changing the discussion in our state.

Finally, this is personal to me. Amy and I have friends who work in Sacramento Unified schools. We see the toll working for the district has taken on them. Generally, they’re in a mode now of counting the days until they can retire. Even more importantly, we know and care a lot about many kids who attend schools in the district. I wrote about some of these kids in Education Inequity Shown in the Lives of One Soccer Team. It is a team where two-thirds of the players would be the first in their families to go to college, and one-third come from families who have already attended college.

What brings the Great Disconnect of 2021 home for me? Check out this picture.

Of the kids whose families have gone to college (I bet you can guess which kids those are) absolutely none of them are sending their kids to high school in Sacramento Unified. Zero.

The other kids in the picture? Aside from two families who drive up from Stockton, all the others attend Sacramento Unified schools. In other words:

Every family that has the means to get their kids out of Sacramento Unified has done so. Those without those means, have not.

It leads us to start our analysis where every analysis of public education in our country needs to start, which is with a deep understanding of the underlying truth that gave birth to the charter school movement in the first place, one that so many are pressuring us to no longer say.

What is it?

Repeat after me, CharterFolk:

Sadly, our public school system has turned out to be just not that public.

Or, in terms of preserving equity, sadly, within many of our public schools, there just isn’t that much to lose.

In last week’s posts, I expressed the unpublicness of our so-called public schools this way.

Neither equitable nor excellent.

But, by rights, this graphic doesn’t describe the reality that is Sacramento Unified. Not all school districts are the same. Some are worse than others. A more accurate rendering of where Sacramento Unified stands relative to the Equity and Excellence axes would be this:

About as low as you can go, and, sadly, not fixable.

Why not?

Because the district has been among the absolute worst offenders in terms of mismanaging its fiscal affairs such that the liabilities that have already been incurred, consistent with California’s constitution, can never be erased. And now, unconscionably, the district is putting the burden of those costs on the backs of some of California’s most vulnerable kids. And that will ripple through to diminish the quality of education that will be provided to those kids for decades to come.

The public record is replete with evidence of the district’s gross mismanagement.

The problem has literally been building for decades, with all sorts of agencies raising the alarm.

As of 2018, the District’s unfunded OPEB liabilities, “Other Post Employment Benefit” liabilities, which are the district’s obligations to pay the cost of teachers’ lifetime health benefits, have grown to $725M, 140% the district’s entire annual budget.

Unlike almost all other school districts in the state, Sacramento Unified has done nothing to reign in these costs, so they continue to grow. Meanwhile, the district’s enrollment is plummeting.

The latest estimates are that the district now serves less than 39,000 students, down from 53,000 in 2002.

In the end, we find a circumstance where fewer than 40,000 Sacramento Unified students, mostly low income and Black or Latino, are left holding the bag to the tune of over $20,000 per pupil. To service that debt will require taking thousands of dollars per year from every student in the district for decades to come.

What do parents with options do?

They move to any other school district in the county, none of which have similar unfunded liabilities, meaning that if you stay in Sacramento Unified, your kid is screwed out of thousands of dollars per year, while kids whose families move to Placer or Elk Grove or Natomas don’t have to pay a dime.

This is what happens across so much of public education in our country. Families that have more means get where they need to go. Low income families of color end up holding the bag. They end up paying for the education of kids who came before. It equates to an intergenerational theft, one that takes from the current generation, which is poorer and more black and brown, and gives to the past generation, which was more affluent and white.

Unfortunately, it only gets worse from there.

In terms of sorting kids by race and class, in elementary and middle schools the screening is done primarily through the use of attendance boundaries. More affluent white families who can afford more expensive housing gravitate to certain attendance areas. Less affluent families of color end up elsewhere. Pro Publica shows how wide the disparities are in Sacramento, with a few schools having 30% or fewer students receiving free or reduced price meals, and the vast majority of the other schools having higher than 80%.

A list of roughly one third of the schools in the district.

By the time kids go to high school, the job of sorting by race and income becomes more complicated. Many families like the higher income families on the soccer team either move to other districts or enroll their kids in private schools. To encourage as many affluent families as possible to remain, the district resorts to creating magnets using selective admissions.

Then stories like this one happen.

It’s a situation I have talked about for years.

This is how I phrased it in one speech:

Have you seen this article from Sacramento? A student attending a magnet with a severe under-representation of African American and Latino students conducted this appalling study supposedly finding that Asian and Caucasian students have higher IQ’s, and thus, the school’s selective admissions were justified. Now everybody gets all up in arms. Blame the kid. No doubt. It’s outrageous. All of that. But folks, the administration of that school is using selective admissions criteria – grades, test scores, teacher evaluations and discipline records – it knows screens out kids by race. The only difference between what the kid did and what administrators are doing is that the administrators are supposed to know better!

What puts it all in repose?

How many of the Sacramento United kids in this picture would you guess are attending a selective magnet?

Not one.

They’re either enrolled in their resident high school, or in a program tracking graduates into fields that do not require college attendance.

But not even that is the worst of it.

Because if we could track spending on the various schools that the district operates, we would see that the district almost certainly directs additional funding to the high affluence elementary and middle schools (primarily in the form of paying the cost of more experienced teachers) and to the selective magnets like typically happens in magnets across the country …

… all in the hopes of convincing more affluent families to stay.

In the end, the district does not grant admission to the kids on my son’s soccer team. And then, they go into the budgets of the schools the boys are forced to attend instead, and they take money from those schools to subsidize the very programs that the boys were denied admission to, on top of having stuck them with the district’s OPEB bill that sucks away thousands of dollars per student per year.

That is the baseline for equity in Sacramento Unified.

You tell me, CharterFolk.

Do you think there’s much equity here to lose?

Well, believe it or not, it got even worse because then COVID hit, and, as I have been writing recently, Sacramento Unified has gone on to prove itself one of the most dysfunctional school districts in the country.

It has only accelerated the exodus from the district.

Meanwhile, the entity most responsible for the mess that the district has become – the Sacramento Teachers Association – poured $380,000 into Sacramento Unified School Board races in November …

… unseating the board president …

… and solidifying their control of the district …

…allowing SCTA to dig in even further.

This is the state of public education in California’s capital city.

It is a flashing warning light that we have entered a year unlike any other.

The Year of the Great Disconnect.

When we finally realize how sadly unpublic our public schools have become.

When we fully embrace, sadly, that as far as equity goes, in many parts of our public education system, there really isn’t that much to lose.

Next week we dive into Principle 2. It’s when plans for addressing the Great Disconnect of 2021 begin to come together. Hope to see you here.