The Era Beyond the Beginning, the National Crack Up Straddle, the Barbell that Awaits


Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I hope you are all having a great holiday weekend.

Many thanks to Andy for recording a special Thanksgiving WonkyFolk podcast with me this week. 

Check it out here if you haven’t done so already.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

The Era Beyond the Beginning, the National Crack Up Straddle, the Barbell that Awaits

I start today making the assertion that the charter school movement has moved into a new era.

I call it the “beyond the beginning” era.

From where I sit, looking at things in the broadest, multi-decade terms, I see that the charter school movement’s first era came to an end in the summer of 2017.

That was when the NEA approved a new national charter school policy.

Others have said they don’t think the NEA’s new policy in 2017 was any big deal.  For them, the union had always been fighting charter schools and all the new policy did was articulate what the NEA had always been doing.

I don’t see it that way.

If all the union was doing was continuing what they had already been doing, why’d they even bother to make a new policy, their first in 16 years?

No, in my view, the new policy was a watershed.

It marked two important new realities.

First, it announced that the stopping of the charter school movement had become, not among the NEA’s top priorities, but its absolute top priority.

Secondly, the new policy was a gauntlet thrown down to policy makers announcing that it was no longer going to be possible to be mostly with them. Policy makers were either going to have to be all with them, or they would find the union all against them.

It was making it crystal clear that the posture of many prominent Democrats – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jerry Brown, Roy Romer and many others – being with the unions on virtually all other matters but at odds with them on charter schools, was no longer an option.

They were going to have to choose.

That moment of a line being drawn in the sand coming from one of the strongest political forces in the country represented the end of the charter school movement’s beginning.

And since that time, we have waited to see what lasting trends would emerge in the beyond the beginning era.

Now as we approach the end of 2023, it seems to me that we’re starting to see what some of those lasting trends are.

Some of them are ones that we are able to recognize faster than we could have otherwise because the pandemic accelerated history – made many things happen more quickly than they otherwise would have.

And all have been significantly influenced by perhaps the greatest political dynamic at play in our country today.

Hyper-partisan-ness.

Or as I have called it within the education policy realm:

“The Great National Crack Up.”

Red states and blue states going in fundamentally different directions on education policy such that there is a smaller and smaller overlap of commonality over time.

And while there is no doubt that a crack up is also happening in our country on other policy matters that are way above our collective political pay grade, it is my estimation that, in the education policy realm at least, much of the crack up is right at our pay grade.

Because much of it traces back to policy matters related to charter schools.

Specifically, to the union’s fateful decision in the summer of 2017 to make stopping the charter school movement its number one priority.

Here’s why:

A feature of the evolving political landscape in the United States has been the rise of “reactionaries.”

Not “reactionaries” as the term has traditionally meant, describing conservatives who react to liberal/progressive forces by trying to go back to a prior existing order.

But more in the literal sense of the word, as in describing one whose positions are primarily arrived at in reaction to the positions taken by others, most frequently in diametrical opposition to what the others are supporting.

So when the Blues suddenly become more supportive of Ukraine, the Reds’ reaction is to embrace the opposite, despite the fact that Reds have historically been the more muscular supporters of the military defense of Europe against Russian aggression.

And when the Reds suddenly become more protectionist, the Blues’ reaction is to support freer trade, despite the fact that Blues have historically been the more muscular supporters of tariffs and regulations that impede trade.

A good example of reactionariness in the education realm was the Reds becoming against standardized testing when the blue Obama administration embraced Common Core, despite the fact that Reds had long been the ones wanting to see regular evidence that students were learning basic skills.

In our specific realm – charterland – reactionariness has played out in fateful ways since the end of the beginning.

In 2017, when the teacher union announced that the stopping of charter schools was their number one policy priority, they were able, at least in the short term, to drag most of the entire Democratic Party into a new period of increased opposition to charter schools.

It led to the reaction from the Republicans, which was to do the exact opposite, despite the fact that many Reds across the country had long opposed charter schools, as was demonstrated by the fact that most of the states where we had no charter school laws – the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, West Virginia, etc – were very red states.

But once the unions had planted their charter opposition flag in the ground and much of the Dem establishment had gone along with them, the Reps at a national level went absolutely all-in in exactly the opposite direction.

Not just that support for charter schools and school choice became a higher priority than it had been previously, but in fact became a line-in-the-sand issue.

Just like the unions had drawn a line in the sand on the opposite side of the spectrum. 

It resulted in many of the most powerful Republicans in the nation becoming ready and willing to exact retribution upon any party member who dared cross the newly drawn line.

Further reactions accompanied the onset of the pandemic.

Much of it, yes, was related to other education matters – school closures, masking and various social policies. 

But significant parts focused on charter schools and choice.

Leading many at a national level to ask whether the unions had “overplayed their hands.”

The truth was that there was no one good answer to that question.

But, in fact, two.

In many red contexts the answer was a simple “yes.”

The unions had created an opening, and it led to massive, unprecedented, once-in-a-generation policy wins for charter schools and school choice in red states across the country.

Meanwhile in many blue contexts, the answer became a much more complicated “too early to tell.”

Yes, in the early going the unions had a lot of blue sky in blue states.

Former charter school supporters who had the line drawn in the sand in front of them like Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden toed that line.

But then we got our advocacy acts together more.

And in many places where teacher unions were strongest and were able to enact significant parts of their own destructive agendas, public education quickly came to be seen to be mired in dysfunction.

Such that many Dems began to come back our way again.

Making perhaps the best answer to the question about whether the unions had overplayed their hand in blue contexts:

“Too early to tell.  Everything still hangs in the balance.”

Now as we near the close of 2023, the Great National Crack Up is playing further out. 

Despite the challenges that governors encounter in even very red states when they attempt to pull off new voucher and ESA programs …

… even more red state governors are gearing up to make a run at it in 2024.

In blue contexts, the Establishment thinks up new lines of attack to recreate their monopoly.

It makes the underlying dynamics more visible.

Such that we can now see the contours of the era beyond the charter school beginning.

On the one hand, from an education policy substance standpoint, we see an even greater divergence than we’ve seen before.

Red states pushing to open up educational opportunity to an ever-wider range of options including ESAs and vouchers that can be used in an ever-wider range of private schools including religious ones.

And blue states pushing to narrow educational opportunity to only those provided by the government directly, with special enmity reserved for private schools, particularly religious ones.

On the other hand, though, from an education funding standpoint, we may be approaching a new era of convergence.

One brought on by budgeting profligacies emanating from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Happening at exactly the moment that massive federal infusions of Covid-era money into public education have been exhausted.

Creating a funding circumstance for education in both red and blue states that is as dire, if not more dire, than any we’ve seen before.

In blue states, the direness arises from the unsustainable compensation increases that many large urban school districts have granted to their employees in recent years which, in combination with the decades of fiscal mismanagement that those school districts have engaged in, will soon cause public education budget shortfalls of unprecedented scope.

Meanwhile, in red states, the direness arises from many states having embraced universal vouchers while having vastly underestimated the number of parents who want to make use of those vouchers, ripping open massive holes in state budgets across the country.

And once the size of the education funding shortfall becomes apparent in both red states and blue, where do you think they’re going to turn for assistance?

Why to the feds, of course.

With the reality being that no federal funding can be used to fill funding holes caused by voucher and ESA programs in red states, just like maintenance-of-effort and supplement-not-supplant rules prevent federal funds from offering much assistance to blue state school districts entering their moment of pension and unfunded liability reckoning.

It’s a circumstance that becomes, then, the backdrop against which the “beyond the beginning” era of the national charter school movement plays out.

One where policy makers will ultimately determine whether they can span the chasm and support significant increases in federal funding for education while simultaneously creating great new policy flexibility allowing states to go even further in diametrically opposed directions regarding how public education is provided

And if they can’t, the consequences could be devastating for public education in our country.

Inklings of it now appear on the landscape.

Tennessee saw it first.

This week we saw policy makers in Idaho start talking about it, too.

The possibility that states may begin foregoing the receipt of federal education funding altogether.

Which puts us closer to that day when red state policy makers at a national level begin questioning the federal funding of public education altogether.

It’s the gravest threat posed by the Great National Crack Up:

Not only a loss of shared assumptions about how public education should be provided in our society.

But a loss of shared commitment to keep investing in it at the level that is needed.

Which could result in a massive shrinking of the nation’s public education pie.

At precisely the moment we need it to grow like never before.

These, CharterFolk, are the underlying conditions that have come to the surface as we have moved into the era beyond the charter school beginning.

It’s a period that is both fraught with risk and ripe with opportunity for our movement.

On the risk side is the reality that the Great National Crack Up is particularly threatening to charter schools because we’re not the kind of thing that can just jump to one side of the chasm or the other.

We are only viable if we are able to maintain bipartisan support like we have going all the way back to the beginning.

But the divide is spreading, meaning that those like us who straddle must be prepared to get stretched in ways beyond anything we’ve experienced before.

On the opportunity side, never before have we had as much unique value to offer both sides.

Guiding principles for the Blues seeking ways to achieve long sought levels of excellence and equity from publicness.

Along with guiding principles for the Reds wanting the same from new and expanded systems of parent choice.

Such that it is conceivable that a new wide lane could open up for charter schools in the time beyond the beginning.

Not some big blob of policy compromises in the middle.

But an era of us growing our presence on both sides of the spectrum.

A barbell approach, so to speak.

With a rod of steel holding us together.

The steel of common purpose.

Purpose so important that we don’t let ourselves get drawn into policy squabbles that could break us down the middle.

But instead advance an agenda reflective of policy agility and creativity allowing us to cultivate strong presences across political divide.

Not something that can be easily achieved. Don’t get me wrong, CharterFolk.

How we navigate the period beyond the beginning will be as challenging as any we’ve faced before.

But it’s one I believe we have the potential to come through well if we grow the advocacy and political strength that is now within our potential given that we have moved beyond the beginning and have become a reform effort spanning generations.

And should we succeed we would position ourselves to never again have our eras defined by other forces changing their priorities about us.

But would become a movement whose eras are defined by the priorities that we ourselves make.

How we summon that strength in the era beyond the beginning is what I turn to next.

It starts with a shift in mindset.

A recognition that the world has changed.

Along with a recognition that we ourselves have changed, too.

I consider it one of the most important posts I’ve tried to write since starting up CharterFolk.

Hope to see you here.