The 30-Month in Gut-Check: Greatly More Public Schools – A Lasting North Star or Not?

Good day, CharterFolk.

Amid the Thanksgiving break, I have found myself in head-down mode, focused on my work and falling behind on proper expressions of gratitude for what everyone is doing to help advance our shared cause.

That certainly is the case here at CharterFolk.

Here I am behind in thanking Cameron Curry for his great post earlier this week, as well as behind in my sharing thoughts regarding Paul Escala’s and Greg Richmond’s column about the effectiveness of Catholic schools through the pandemic, and regarding Dan Schaller’s post about great momentum being generated by Colorado’s charter school sector.

I also owe thanks more broadly to you all.

I really had no idea what might happen when we decided to start this thing 30 months ago, and now we find ourselves with thousands of readers and Folk from many walks of Charterlife making important contributions to the content generated here and to the community we are building.

So to you all, I lift up my head for a moment and extend my deepest thanks.

The 30-Month Check-In

At different times in recent months, I have heard different Folk from different vantage points offer thoughts and/or questions along the following lines:

  • What now for charter schools?
  • Given that growth is so challenging in certain places, what should we be doing next?
  • What can our value-add be if it’s not growth?
  • And given that political conditions are changing generally, what’s the new vision?

The questions give me an opportunity to pressure test some of my base assumptions.

To be clear, there is virtually nothing that I do here at CharterFolk that is meant to be short-term in its outlook. The ideas that I share are meant to stand the test of time, like a good North Star. In my view, if the things I’m writing here don’t stand up over time, then they are essentially worthless. And you should stop reading, and I should stop writing.

And I’m not talking about ideas meant to endure 30 months, but 30 years, the duration of our entire movement, if not far longer. Because the timeframe over which the charter school movement will play out, if we are successful, is certainly several generations at minimum.

But two and a half years is at least a long enough timeframe to step back and gauge whether the ideas surfaced here appear to endure through changing conditions across many different contexts.

So I thought I’d step back and do a gut-check along these lines today.

How I Came to the Greatly More Public Schools North Star

Before I do, I wanted to underscore why it is that I think I came to have something unique to offer along these lines.

It is certainly not because I think I’m any smarter than anyone else, or any more perceptive.

I do think that growing up in a house of public school educators – my Mom a teacher and my Dad a school principal – helps. I do feel like I go through the world half teacher/half principal, and that’s a good set of bi-focals to wear when thinking about what makes schools work and not work. I also think it helps that I spent seven years in the classroom and three in the Office of the Superintendent in San Diego Unified before spending five years working in a charter school organization and the last fifteen in advocacy. The mix of experiences in charter schools and non, especially my years really trying to make things work within different traditional public school contexts, has given me some helpful perspective.

But none of those experiences were dispositive in terms of helping me arrive at a North Star.

The difference-maker was simply being given the chance to play the lead role at CCSA, an organization that was supporting a movement that had grown to serve nearly 700,000 students, and not getting it quite right over and over again.

It was a very unique role, supporting something that had grown to be essentially national in scope. Such scale first emerged in California, and I was the one who had the chance to sit in that seat. And so I got a chance to experience first what many others will come to when we have other organizations supporting state movements at the heft that first emerged in California.

What I experienced was my own struggle to assert a North Star.

It led to me not being as crisp as we needed in policy debates in the capitol, or on live radio or television, or representing charter schools in various public forums, or simply carrying the day in one-on-one conversations with people we should be able to win over.

In the beginning, I chalked it up to poor public speaking or nervousness or other simple failings of communication. But after a while I realized it was less how I was communicating and more what. Our mission statement and strategic plans and polling were all decently good, but they just didn’t work in pressure-cooker settings at the level that we needed them to.

And don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I was disastrously bad anywhere. The overall general message of charterness is so undeniably positive in the macro that most of the time we came through just fine.

But as the assault against charter schools intensified and adversaries would come loaded for bear with a wide range of new attacks, I knew something better was needed, and I felt it was within my grasp to articulate it, if I could just become resourceful enough to find it.

The breakthrough happened in my 7th year at CCSA.

I was driving into Oakland to a public forum where I knew the environment was going to be particularly hostile. As it turned out there were probably 2-300 people in the audience that night. Opponents outnumbered proponents 60/40, but vocal participants in the forum were essentially 100/0. Charter opponents were loud and venomous. Charter school supporters mostly stayed quiet, understandably not wanting to get themselves or their organizations caught in the toxic crossfire.

As I mentally prepared for the event on that car-ride into Oakland, I thought of a new way to describe what we were trying to do and why. The more I played it out in my mind, the more I thought it might work. So when I got to the forum I gave it a try.

I introduced myself as being someone who cares deeply about public education. The way I said it that day is the way I still talk about it today. I said that when I was growing up, my family wasn’t the churchgoing type, but we did have something that bordered on a kind of religion, and that was our shared belief in the importance of public education. I then rattled off the various things I had done in public education, both on the charter and non charter sides, and I shared that, sadly, my experiences had led me to conclude that public education in our country had turned out to be not that public. By that I meant that our schools simply weren’t good enough, and just as importantly, they weren’t fair enough. They allocate better educational opportunity to kids and families with means, and worse to those without. And so, rather than public education becoming one of our society’s biggest efforts to overcome historical unfairness, sadly, public education had become one of the biggest perpetuators of that unfairness. And I said that my North Star was to do my part to make sure that our sadly unpublic public schools would become greatly more public. As I saw it, the only thing that had the potential to help us reach that North Star at the scale that was necessary was the charter school movement.

Then I shared with the audience the three booster engines that propel us toward that North Star:

  • We grow as quickly as we can great new charter schools that model what greatly more public-ness looks like.
  • We help existing traditional public schools convert to charter status so that they can become greatly more public overnight.
  • And for the rest of public education, we use our growing advocacy heft to push the system to adopt policy changes so that it can become greatly more public over time.

It was a long forum. It probably went on 90 minutes, and it was complicated. We discussed all sorts of issues. And I’m sure the other side felt like they got in their shots, and many in that room were not convincible, and nothing I said convinced them. But over and over again through that discussion I kept coming back to my general frame, and then going into the specific issue that was brought up.

And I stood there.

I was on completely firm ground. Not once was I knocked off stride. Not once did I stumble off into incoherence. Never once did I feel myself slipping into defensiveness. Never once did I feel like my on-offense critique of the school district – and don’t get me wrong I was unapologetic in my critique – came across as excessive, or unfair, or motivated by something that did not reflect well on our movement.

Driving home that night, I knew that I had found something new. And for my final three years at CCSA, I refined it and used it over and over again. And while I still had my good days and my bad days, I never again had a general feeling of dissatisfaction with myself, like I had somehow not represented our movement as well as people could have expected of me.

For the past 30 months, I have been repeatedly (some of you may say ad nauseam) beating the “greatly more public” drum. And when I look at these new questions coming in about our “value-add” in environments where it’s tough to grow, I see again just how durable it is.

As a movement, regardless the circumstances we face, we must always demonstrate that our impact is continuing to grow. One of the biggest ways we demonstrate growing impact, of course, is to grow enrollment. And we should never get knocked off the idea that finding ways to grow the numbers of kids served in charter schools must be our shared obsession.

But inevitably, we are going to find moments when our first engine – growing new schools – is less possible than we would prefer it to be. So what’s our value add then?

The second and third engines, of course.

The challenge with these engines, though, is that we simply haven’t fueled them much over the years. We’ve grown accustomed to our policy agendas being designed to only secure direct wins for charter schools, not push the traditional system to evolve.

Which surfaces perhaps the most profound truth, which is that the second and the third engines are the scariest. They require the greatest amount of courage to generate lift – to articulate clearly and unapologetically that we believe there are problems in our public education system and we exist to highlight those problems and propose ways to get rid of them.

In this world of massive blowback from status quo interests, it’s understandable why we might take pause.

But it’s so important that we forge on anyway.

The Phenomenon of Sadly Unpublic Schools Choosing to Become Even Less Public

This is so because a sad reality is that, as charter schools grow, the protectors of the status quo often choose to become even less public, not more.

As problems within the traditional system have become more widely known …

… and as new charter schools have continued to grow even through the pandemic …

… leading to accelerating declines in enrollment …

… school districts are fully aware of the palpable sense of desperation that many parents feel.

And they know that, if they don’t do something, they stand at risk of losing massive numbers of students and families in the years ahead.

So what do many school districts choose to do in such moments?

They do what Houston chose to do this month.

To become …

even less public.

On top of its generations of allocating educational opportunity unfairly through the use of redlining attendance boundaries and selective admissions and through the siphoning away of money from high need students to subsidize the education of lower need students …

… the district decided to double down this month, creating seven new selective admission magnets …

… that it will subsidize by siphoning money away from other public schools …

Most of the schools would receive an additional $20 per student, and the salary for a teacher or magnet coordinator would be $62,700 for roughly every 250 students, but this number varies depending on the school. An estimated total cost was not immediately provided. 

… that don’t use such selective admissions.

Allocating better educational opportunity to students and families with means and worse to those without is the very definition of being sadly unpublic.

The irony, of course, is that just as Houston ISD is choosing to become even less public, protectors of the status quo …

… have thrown all they have against a proposal to empower parents to make new schools that would have been greatly more public.

As such, we see status quo protectors celebrating the stopping of supposedly “privatizing” charter schools …

… while supporting the creation of new selective admissions magnets that will be more private than privates.

It points out a very plain and sad truth, which is the Establishment simply doesn’t care.

It doesn’t care whether schools are more or less public.

All it cares about it is whether it controls those schools and all the money that comes with them.

And this is not, sadly, a circumstance that we only find in the Lone Star State.

New Jersey has a long history of operating one of the most abjectly inequitable public school systems in the country.

With Newark Public Schools being among the very worst of all.

Amazingly, over the decades, Newark’s charter schools have grown to serve about 40% of the district’s students and have become some of the highest performing public schools in the nation.

The city’s public charter school sector–expected to reach near 40% of the student population next school year–also performed exceptionally well, better than nearly any other sector in any city studied.

Of course, none of those charter schools have attendance boundaries or use selective admissions or take money intended for other students to serve their own kids.

So they have become both better and fairer at the same time, the very definition of greatly more public.

They are certainly more public than what we find within the rest of the Newark school district, which for decades has operated magnets that use selective admissions that concentrate high performing students in some schools, and lower performing students in others.

But when that historical disparity wasn’t enough, the district started making admissions into existing magnets even more selective

… and it opened even more selective admissions schools.

It leads to some of the saddest circumstances we find anywhere in modern American life.

As stunningly great journalism by Patrick Wall, Senior National Reporter at Chalkbeat has shown over the past few years, many of Newark’s most vulnerable kids end up left in abjectly horrible educational settings …

… where they are neither safe on campus grounds …

… nor even in classrooms themselves …

… never mind whether they have access to the quality instruction they deserve.

It’s a problem that is happening over and over across our country.

Sadly unpublic schools choosing to become even less so.

Los Angeles has opened scores of magnets in recent years.

Some of them, we should acknowledge, have been fine new options not using selective admissions, like the new school whose driving force bears an uncanny resemblance to the founder of CharterFolk.

But many of the district’s other new magnets do use selective admissions. At last count, at least 113 schools use selective admissions in LAUSD …

… as verified by the district’s own Choices program brochure.

Not once, may I add, has the co-locating of any of the district’s hundreds of new magnet schools resulted in a controversy or an allegation of the new school “usurping campus resources.” But dare to co-locate a charter school on a district campus …

… and the usurping knows no bounds.

Deconstructing What School Districts Confess When They Go Less Public

What often eludes our attention when school districts open more selective admissions schools is what they are essentially confessing.

They are admitting that they know that their schools serving more middle class students simply aren’t good enough, and they risk losing those students.

And they simply don’t know how to make schools any better without throwing up new redlining walls.

And they don’t feel any real sense of accountability should they decide to make their already appalling and appallingly inequitable schools in high needs communities all the more appalling.

So they throw up a new generation of redlines.

It’s why it’s so important that we remember to emphasize all three of our booster engines simultaneously.

  • Yes, we want to open as many new charter schools as we can, including charter schools in middle class areas demonstrating that you don’t have to draw offensive new redlines just to offer better schools to everyone.
  • And yes, we think many of the district schools that middle class parents are now desperate to leave could be made significantly better and fairer at the same time if they were allowed to convert to charter school status.
  • And yes, of course, we keep advocating for policies that attempt to erase educational redlines over time, and of course, oppose the drawing of any new redlines that are completely unnecessary and counterproductive.

The Durability of the Greatly More Public North Star

Looking across the three contexts we have discussed today, we see the value of the Greatly More Public Schools North Star.

In Texas where conditions seem generally favorable …

… we place more emphasis on growth, but commit a portion of our advocacy heft to contest the sad new nonsense we see emerging in places like Houston.

In New Jersey where things seems like they could go either way …

… we pursue a roughly balanced mix.

And in Los Angeles, where things look as daunting as they ever have been …

… we may be going into a period where we prioritize 10% growth and 90% pushing the district to evolve into something more public than it’s sadly become.

But in none of these situations do we find need to change our North Star.

All we have to do is adjust how much fuel we are putting into the three booster engines that propel us toward that star.