The 64,000 Question – What Does Universal Really Mean?

Greetings CharterFolk.

Lots of charter school momentum to recognize this week.

Pushing back on ridiculousness in Chicago.

Pushing forward on geographic expansion in Missouri.

Successfully pushing the state of New Jersey to make an important new facilities program.

And New York City charter schools pushing all schools to make more academic progress.

All very encouraging.

But the environment we operate within right now is extremely complicated. And from the cacophony we are seeing a sadly predictable trend emerge.

Down the street from where we moved my daughter into a new apartment last week, I saw that Francis Parker, the poshest private school in town, is expanding its athletic facilities.

It reminded me that Harvard Westlake, the poshest (or at least one of the most posh) in Los Angeles is doing the same, having bought and started a construction project atop what used to be an entire golf course.

A little further north, the investment that is going into expanded private school facilities in San Francisco right now is being described as “a boom.”

As is the lacrosse-fest happening in NYC/Greenwich right now.

This article calls it an “arms race” happening among the most elite private schools as they speed to add amenities to their campuses in hopes of retaining their elite clientele and justifying their astronomical tuition levels.

The Marvelwood School in Greenwich, for example, recently completed the construction of a new athletic center.

Its yearly tuition, as reported by Private School Review

… is over $64,000 per year.

Which puts it 20th in terms of the most expensive private schools in Connecticut.

More broadly, in places across the country where universal vouchers have been approved, schools serving the wealthy are receiving new resources to support the buying up of golf courses.

While in Illinois, where late last year lawmakers shut down the state’s school tuition program targeted at low-income families …

… the inevitable closing of schools previously supported by the program is now proceeding.

It’s all part of a sadly predictable trend:

Even greater educational opportunity is going to those with advantage, and even less is going to those without.

Every generation finds its way of doing it.

And as Christopher King and Janay Barnes’s wrote in their great Contributor Column this week …

… character matters.

As it is at a school level, so it is at at a societal one, and at a charter school movement level as well.

Will we demonstrate the character needed to challenge our society to aspire toward greatly more public education, or will we be overcome by, if not co-opted by, the forces that drag us down?

Or stated more to point:

Are we about helping already-advantaged families access places like Marvelwood, or are we about all families, but especially less-advantaged families, accessing a marvel of new educational opportunity that they have previously been excluded from?

Call it “The $64,000 Question” before the charter school movement, and indeed before all of public education, today.

It starts with recognizing what is happening.

As I wrote earlier this week, the fact that Iowa is opening up eight new charter schools right now is a great thing.

It’s great because all of these schools will be Free, Public and Open to All.

At the same time, another major change is happening in Iowa education …

… one creating a new ESA program that limits eligibility to low-income families in the first couple years but becomes “universal” by 2025-26.

It means that the phenomenon that the Journal reported happening in Arizona and Florida right now …

… is headed for the heartland as well.

This story presages what’s to come.

A private school in Cedar Rapids is increasing its yearly tuition this year from $8,000 to $14,000, meaning the family portrayed in the article will need to increase its after-voucher contribution from $400 this year, to over $6,000 next year, meaning they likely won’t be able to stay.

So a program that advertises itself to be “universal” proves itself anything but.

And this is what is happening while Iowa’s ESA law still restricts eligibility to low-income families. Imagine the forces that will be unleashed when vouchers are provided to all!

In recent weeks, I have had several conversations with education reformers who have worked to advance school choice for decades, and they celebrate the fact that voucher and ESA programs are spreading across the United States right now. But they also acknowledge that they have never been seeking “universal” vouchers, vouchers that provide the same level of funding to all families regardless of income level. And they assure me that in the years to come, we will see these programs evolve to be means-tested such that low-income families will end up having enough resources to access many of the best private schools that operate within a state.

Others, though, assert that the provision of vouchers of equal value to all families regardless of income status will ultimately be a net win for all including low-income families.

Call me skeptical.

Deeply skeptical of the policy substance of the latter and of the political feasibility of the former, or even of the depth of genuine political commitment anyone has to the former.

Charter schools, as we all know, live out the meaning of universal everyday.

For CharterFolk, it’s a matter of character.

All means all.

We don’t screen out kids by place of residence, by perceived ability, or by income status.

This is what it means to be Free, Public and Open to All.

And being among the few public options that achieve that status, it’s incumbent upon us to make the case for why such status is important, and to ask other reformers to lay out their theories and intentions regarding the same.

As such, in the weeks and months ahead, you will see us here at CharterFolk reaching out to our fellow school choice advocates to provide their answers to the $64,000 question:

What does universal really mean?