Sometimes The Best Way to Grow Big is to Remember the Importance of Remaining Small

Good day, CharterFolk.

We continue to face some technical issues getting out posts to our now larger readership.  Some of you, we have learned, are having images redacted from CharterFolk posts. While we work to get this issue addressed, I will send out a few text-only columns.  I thank you for your patience.

I also extend thanks to Chris Ferris for her Contributor Column on Friday regarding small schools.  It was great to have Chris’s presence felt at CharterFolk again.  Some readers may remember the CharterFolk X Column we published in 2020 about Chris’s contributions to Our Community School in Los Angeles, and to Highline Academy in Denver, where she currently serves as Executive Director.

Chris’s thoughts about small schools are perfectly timed for the moment.  

As large urban school districts continue to see enrollment declines, they will inevitably look to close more schools.  Some communities will be accepting of school closures.  My elementary school alma mater closed with so little acrimony I didn’t even find out about it until months later.  Other school communities will be highly resistant.  Hunger strikes in Oakland this spring pointed to the degree of resistance some communities are prepared to put up.

The question for us in Charterland is: 

On whose side of this should we be?

Do we stand with those within our “Normal Streets?”  With school district central leaders who are “making the hard decision” to close schools down?

Or do we stand with parents and teachers and other community members who may want to do what is considered the abnormal thing – support a school whose enrollment is smaller than what the mainstream would consider viable?

Or do we just stay silent, following the reasoning that, because the closures are someone else’s issue, isn’t it better for us to keep our heads low?

Our rationale for wanting to keep heads low is clear.  Why would we want to make a school district’s effort to close a school even more complicated?  In many cases, the school districts seeking to close schools are authorizers of local charter schools.  In places like California, school districts also determine what district facilities are made available to charter schools.  Why would those charter schools want to risk irritating their authorizer when those authorizers can and do retaliate against charter schools whenever they make districts’ lives more difficult, never mind on an issue as contentious as school closure?

This is a dynamic that third party observers of public education just don’t get.  So often people who aren’t deeply aware of the power dynamics at play in education will ask why CharterFolk won’t just enact some change that seems clearly in the interests of students and families.  

What these people invariably fail to take into account is how vulnerable to retaliation many charter schools feel, either from their local school district or from the local teacher union or from other local parties who have the power to make a charter school who deviates from local orthodoxy pay a significant price.  

This reality was certainly a big subtext to everything we saw during Covid.  

Generally, those charter schools that felt less vulnerable to retaliation were the ones that deviated most from district practice (i.e. offered more in-person instruction than district schools were offering).  Those that felt their local school district or their local teacher union would target them if they dared deviate from local dogma were much less willing to try something different.

It’s yet another argument for why we want charter schools to have authorizers and facility providers that are independent from local school districts and other local decision-makers.

In terms of decisions related to the possibility of small schools in public education, it is evident that advocacy priorities for charter schools generally overlap with the interests of those wanting to operate small schools.

Generally, we support:

  • Schools having flexibility.  Look at the things in Chris’s piece about teachers and principals and parents all doing very different things in order to remain financially and programmatically viable.  Just compare those things to what would be permitted within a typical district school.  The school principal being the plumber?  Parents making donations left and right to keep the school going?  Teachers having their assignments changed repeatedly?  All of these things are absolute nonstarters at Normal Street.
  • Schools having manageable levels of bureaucratic responsibility.  A school of less than a couple hundred students simply cannot handle the same level of red tape that a school district can with large numbers of central staff whose sole function is to manage red tape.  If what you’re wanting is public schools to operate in a big, large, impersonal, unaccountable, one-size-fits-all way, the best strategy for accomplishing that is to heap new regulation on the schools, no matter what that regulation might be!
  • Schools having control of their budgets.  Enough said.
  • Schools getting all the money that their kids generate rather than having money sucked away to pay for costs at other schools, or for the central bureaucracy, or for unfunded liabilities that should never have been allowed to accrue in the first place.
  • School districts being required to responsibly maintain their school buildings.  So often we find school districts deferring maintenance for decades, eventually leaving campuses in completely unsafe conditions, with the vast majority of the most seriously dilapidated campuses being located in historically underserved communities that often most want the option of operating smaller schools.
  • School facilities being allocated to schools in ways that encourage co-location and efficient use.  This is essential.  If the only option is a small school paying for the cost of an enormous facility it will only partially use, financial viability will remain out of reach.  But if you can find ways for multiple providers to share school facilities, not only do you get more options to different communities, but you find ways to share the cost of facilities across providers in ways that are much more economical for all.
  • Special education funding where funding follows students and need.  Generally, states and school districts do not fully fund special education but require regular education dollars to be directed to any unmet special education cost.  This approach favors the large school districts which can distribute excess special education costs across a large base of students.  For a small school, just a few high-cost special education students enrolling in the school could result in bankruptcy.  It is why we always want to advocate for funding approaches which ensure that all schools, irrespective of size, receive the full funding needed to provide whatever special education services happen to be needed at a school.

And most important of all:

  • Situating decision-making authority in the hands of parents and school site teachers and principals.  What we want is higher levels of agency within our public school system so that innovative solutions can emerge.  If a small number of teachers and parents have a vision for how their school can work, we should be doing all we can to give them a try.

Generally, when we see school operating conditions become fairer and more competent, smaller schools suddenly become more viable than is commonly understood.

Often what makes small school financially unviable, is not the school model itself.  

Most often, financial unviability is created by the financial irresponsibility that school districts have engaged in previously, which require dollars to be sucked away from today’s schools to pay for the sins of the past.  

It is far easier to hide where dollars have to be siphoned away from when they are being taken from schools that are larger and where the students who are being robbed from are nameless and faceless.

In the kind of school that Chris Ferris talks about, a school where the names and the family conditions of Bethany and Kayla and Dylan are intimately well known, it is much harder to siphon away dollars.

It’s because every dollar siphoned away is really felt. 

So for central district staff facing the near term fiscal imperative to shift resources around to meet whatever central expenses Normal Street is responsible for today, it is far better to get kids and families into larger settings where it is less transparent where the dollars are being taken from, and where culpability for the poor performance of those larger schools and for the district itself can be foisted upon forces outside Normal Street.

What’s the Normal Street Credo?

“It’s not that we have mismanaged our funding and our facilities and have offered programs that are worse than what could have been reasonably expected of us.  It’s that we’ve never been provided enough funding and facilities to offer quality programs in the first place.”

They say this despite in many cases having been provided gargantuan sums to develop massively expensive school buildings, some replete with talking benches.

Just in the last week we’ve seen both Chicago Public Schools and San Francisco Unified go forward with plans to build immensely costly new school buildings despite the fact that both districts are experiencing unprecedented enrollment loss.

Literally, both of their projects are projected to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000/student seat!

And they don’t have enough money available to keep some small schools going?

This is what happens when we leave funding and decision-making authority in the hands of Normal Street. We end up with a circumstance where the people we want to see most helped are the ones who end up most penalized.

  • Historically underserved kids and families.
  • Our highest need and most vulnerable kids and families.
  • And yes, our kids and families and educators wanting to operate smaller schools.

The new normal that we want is small numbers of adults being held acutely accountable for the educational experience of small numbers of kids and families.  And we want, of course, those school communities getting every penny of resource that was meant to be directed to the students the school serves.

And any player in the landscape that works to assist those wanting to make small schools, in this era in particular, is going to see massive new amounts of energy and creativity and appreciation and long-term loyalty come its way.

It’s why my sense is that, despite the blowback that we’re certain to feel in the short term, the right long-term place for us to be is on the side of parents and families wanting to make new small schools.  And it is to be on the side of larger organization who specialize in helping small schools open and thrive, like many of our most effective charter management organizations have become over the years.

Most specifically, it means working hard to make sure that there are charter school conversion laws on the books in every state in the nation, and there are supports available to any group that wants to convert a school to charter status so that anytime a school district decides it wants to close a school, the parents and the educators of that school know they have another option.

And they know they have someone at their back.


With the idea in mind that, hopefully, if we do our work right, those who we support to convert will become CharterFolk too.

In this way, we recognize one of the greatest ironies we face as a movement.

Sometimes the best way for the charter school movement to “get big,” both in terms of positive impact for students and families and communities, and in terms of our quest to build advocacy strength in service of us all …

… is to remember the wisdom that Chris shared with us last week:

The importance of remaining small.