The 1000-Cut Pain We Feel from Our Current Lack of Vision and the Huge Opportunity We Have to Set Things Straight

Good Morning, CharterFolk.

Thanks to so many of you for reaching out to me about the monster update from last week. I appreciate so many of you making it through to the end.

Today I’ll be a bit more brief, riffing off some of the implications coming out of this article.

It came out a week and a half ago and describes the dynamics emerging in Los Angeles as the second site opened by Gabriella Charter School continues to succeed and grow. CharterFolk may remember that we recognized Gabriella’s Founder, Liza Bercovici, as CharterFolk Extraordinaire last year.

In that post, I recounted how after having visited Gabriella’s first school I told Liza that if there wasn’t a second Gabriella site within a few years that I should be fired. That’s how amazingly great Gabriella is. A few years later, I made a visit to that second school in its first days of operation, and in addition to being blown away by what they were already accomplishing in a neighborhood just a few blocks from where I used to teach, I happened to catch my finger on a staple protruding from a door of the district-provided facility.

I took a picture in order to have a reminder of the visceral lesson I had received that day about the “thousand cut” threats facing our movement.

Usually in charterland, when we refer to “thousand-cut” threats, we mean the never ending effort to slowly re-regulate our schools such that we become no different than other public schools. But reading the article a couple weeks ago, I realized that there is another “thousand-cut” threat we face. It’s the little lacerations we experience day after day not having a clear vision for what we want our cumulative impact to be. We know intuitively that we don’t have that vision, but there are rarely huge moments when the pain from the lack of that vision is made manifest for all to see simultaneously. If there were such moments, we would probably fix this problem in a heartbeat. Instead, because the problems come in the form of small injuries over and over again, like this article, we just chalk them up as an inevitable little negatives we can’t do anything about, and we try to get on to the next news cycle as soon as we can.

But I don’t think that is a great way to think about the risk that 1000-cut vision problems pose. Add them up, and you see that they are enough to knock our entire movement off stride, and we should prepare ourselves for even more coming our way in the years ahead because protectors of the Establishment are going to make sure they keep coming. After decades of fumbling around looking for a way to oppose charter schools, and then spending millions of dollars on consultants and focus groups and polling to come up with a new strategy, they ultimately settled on this basic messaging:

It doesn’t matter how good charter schools are. It doesn’t matter if new charter schools turn out to be great. It doesn’t matter if some kids, even if they are our highest need kids, are being incredibly well served in charter schools. The only thing that matters is that the growth of charter schools makes all other schools worse. So it must be stopped. Now.

It’s the approach they used to great effectiveness during the Question 2 election in Massachusetts in 2016.

As I wrote early on here at CharterFolk:

What came back [from the memo] was fascinating …

Clear evidence that the referendum results had nothing to do with whether Massachusetts voters believed charter schools were doing a good job with kids.  Large majorities had accepted that charter schools were in fact good new options for kids and families.

But despite that, voters didn’t side with us because they had been convinced by our adversaries that as charter schools grow we make all other schools worse.

Basically, our adversaries are trying to convince the world that great schools like Gabriela Charter School and indeed the entire charter school sector in Massachusetts are harming other schools as they grow. And each time we let that narrative go uncontested, we experience …

… another of those thousand cuts.

What makes this circumstance doubly frustrating is an intuition that many of us have that it is actually not that difficult to overcome our 1000-cut vision problem. We just have to be full-throated that in fact our goal is to make sure that all of public education improves in our society, and then we have to explain how our collective strategy gets us there. And, in my view, in order for us to be credible that we can actually push our entire public education system to become greatly more public than it is today, we have to have a three-pronged strategy for impact:

  • We grow a fast as we can the number of great new schools like Gabriella that model what it means to be a greatly more public school;
  • We empower as many existing traditional public schools to convert into something better than they are right now;
  • And we push the rest of the system to purge itself of its unfairnesses and brokenness so that it can get better too.

In my view, if we can credibly get out into the public sphere that this is what we are trying to do and what we are in fact achieving, we will position ourselves well to put to rest the ridiculous Question 2 attacks that keep coming our way.

In many cases, the story almost tells itself, like the case of Gabriella’s first school where simultaneous to the co-locating of the charter school on a district campus, both the charter school and the district school thrived to such an extent that their shared facility was soon busting at the seams.

Would that we have thousands more problems like this! The charter school movement stimulating the creation of great new schools and the rejuvenation of long-underperforming existing schools such that that parents and communities can’t get enough of them.

Gabriela’s second school, though, has had a different story, one that we encounter more frequently. The charter school is thriving and parents want it to expand. Meanwhile, the co-located traditional public school struggles. So now the district has informed the parents of Trinity that they are closing the school due to the growth and popularity of Gabriella.

It’s basically a Question 2 cautionary tale on steroids.

Don’t let charter schools open. You see what happens to your traditional public school? It gets worse! Pretty soon it may go away altogether! You see?

It is moments like this that our three-pronged strategy becomes so important. It allows us to demonstrate how in actuality the charter school movement is on the side of the parents and teachers of Trinity.

Not, of course, on their side saying that Gabriella should not be allowed to grow.

But on their side saying we support them wanting to take control of their own destiny too.

It starts with fiscal transparency.

As it is right now, no one knows whether Trinity Elementary is financially viable. LAUSD’s area superintendent says it’s not viable, but we have no reason to trust her.


Because unlike Gabriella and all other charter schools, LAUSD does not have to approve a budget or get an audit down to the school level. And the district has so many legacy fiscal problems that it has to move money all over the place simply to keep the place solvent. So we have no idea where all the money goes that the students of Trinity generate.

This is why the third prong of our strategy – pushing the broader system to purge itself of its unfairnesses to become more like charter schools – is so important. When we make one of our top policy priorities, not just ensuring that charter schools secure funding equity on a per pupil basis down to the school level but that all schools do, we demonstrate that we are on the side of parents and teachers and students at all schools, and we emphatically demonstrate that our movement is about making sure that all schools get better. This should be a policy proposal we are bringing over and over again to state levels and to school district levels across the country, the idea that parents and teachers should be entitled to know whether their local school community is receiving all of the funding that the students of their school generate. If there is any single bill idea I’d like to see flowing from our movement right now it would be proposals empowering parents to be able to request analyses from their state’s department of education (or some credible third party) showing whether their local school districts are spending as much money on their schools as the districts are receiving for their students.

We know for a fact the answer is no!

Until such time as we can get proposals like that approved, we should be doing all we can to bring the analysis to parents and teachers ourselves. Just like we should be bringing it to the parents and teachers of Trinity right now.

And we should prepare for the reality that comes next, when parents and educators see how much their local school community is having funding deprived of them by their local school district: the desire for their school to convert to charter status so their kids can get what they deserve. Over night! Regardless what the area superintendent says! We empower school communities to take their destinies into their own hands.

And look, I’m not naive. I know how toxic things are. School districts and teacher unions and others are all going to push back and that will limit the number of schools that actually convert. But imagine the constructive discussion that will ensue simply from being able to surface the possibility.

What is the LAUSD board going to say when the parents and teachers of Trinity bring a request that the district present a budget and an audit down to the school level so they can see where all their kids’ money goes?

No, we refuse to give you that analysis?

On what grounds will the district refuse?

Or will the district provide the analysis showing that huge amounts of money are being taken away and then just tell the parents to shut up and accept it?

Sorry, CharterFolk, I just don’t think so.

My sense is that, not right away, but over time, as we become more effective making sure that these discussions happen more broadly, we will see ever more parents and teachers wanting to convert their schools to charter status so they too can take control of their own destinies. Not every one of those new schools is going to be successful, but a lot of them are. And once they are successful as a single conversion, they will likely do what many other successful conversions have done like Fenton Avenue and Vaughn and Granada– seek to replicate themselves. Each of those organizations has expanded to serve many more kids than when they first converted.

Basically, our message to the families and educators of Trinity is to succeed as a first school and then make like your namesake and replicate. Our message should be that there is nothing that we would like more than to see a trinity of Trinities, just like I think all of us in charter school advocacy should be fired if we don’t find a way for there to be a trinity of Gabriellas within a few years.

(Sorry, Liza, I know I’m insufferable.)

And here’s the final thing, CharterFolk.

I think we need to be working on this kind of positioning because it’s the strategy we need to deal with thousand-cut vision problems, but we should also be aware that the world is changing very fast, and there will likely be in the years ahead enormous new developments occurring that will provide for our movement massive new opportunities as long as we are crisp on our vision for making all public schools better.

Because the challenges that are arising from a situation like Gabriella/Trinity are a rounding error in comparison to the problems that are going to be coming out of school districts across California and across our country. What do you think the parents of local school communities in San Francisco and Sacramento and Oakland and Los Angeles and Denver and Chicago and New York and you name it are going to say when their school districts come forward with massive budget cuts to respond to the massive decreases in enrollment that have emerged during the Covid era?

You think all those local school communities are just going to sit idly by and let those massive cuts happen to their schools when they have no idea where the money their kids generate is going? At this moment when parents are standing up and being more assertive than they’re ever been before?

Not a chance.

Can you imagine how this might play out here in California? A school district decides to decimate a local school community budget. The school community rebels and decides to convert to charter school status. And then they come to the school district to get their charter approved, and the district turns them down attempting to argue “fiscal impact?”

Think of that! A group of parents seeking to escape the reckless “fiscal impact” their district is imposing on their kids having their charter denied by a district citing the parents’ negative fiscal impact on the district, when all the parents want is a school that receives the money that their students generate!

The world is changing, CharterFolk. Parents and educators are going to be frustrated and looking for new solutions in ways far beyond anything we have seen before.

The only question is: we will have the vision in place we need to be ready for them?