The Great Disconnect of 2021 – Public Education’s Year of Reckoning

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I hope you have all had great holidays. Thanks to so many of you for reading the 2020 Year in Review and offering encouragement. Thanks also to several of you for signing up for paid subscriptions. It’s a great way to start the year.

Let’s get straight to the update.

Update Summary: 2021 is set up to be a year unlike any other in the history of public education. It is born of a great disconnect between what our public education system is offering and the bare minimum that parents and society will accept. The disconnect has grown even larger in the COVID era. Our country desperately needs charter schools to help create greater equity and excellence across all of public education by bringing forward new ways of supporting students and generating advocacy breakthroughs. At the end of the post, I pledge to attempt to keep our discussions focused on the critical need to address the Great Disconnect of 2021.

After having mulled it over for several weeks now and having discussed it with a few key thought partners over the holiday break, I have come to the conclusion that 2021 is going to be a year unlike any that has come before in the history of public education in our country.

We are entering what I am calling “The Year of the Great Disconnect.”

To understand what makes this year so unique, we have to keep front and center the two great axes that frame consideration of our nation’s public schools, axes that I have been writing about often here at CharterFolk.

On one axis we have Excellence – how good our schools are. How much learning they generate. How innovative they are. How individualized they are to the needs of different learners. How able they are to help students on a range of developmental matters beyond straight academics.

On the other axis, we have Equity – how fair our schools are. There are many ways to talk about whether schools are equitable. I like focusing on the extent to which schools allocate high quality educational opportunity equitably. Do students and families without means receive the same quality of educational opportunity as those with means?

Certainly, charter school adversaries talk a lot about inequity, but their actions reflect that their overall assessment is that, relative to the Excellence and Equity axes, our public schools should be understood to lie here …

… in the upper right quadrant. Their actions reflect a belief that public education is good and fair just the way it is.

For generations, there has been a great disconnect between those in the establishment and those in the reform community, including those within the charter school movement. As I posited in my earliest posts at CharterFolk, our movement is born of a recognition that our public schools are simply not good enough, and they are simply not fair. That leads us to present public education against the Excellence and Equity axes like this …

… in the lower left quadrant.

In recent years, CharterFolk have come under great pressure to stop talking about problems in public education. The Establishment wants us to change our assessment of public education, to move ours to the upper right, closer to theirs. They do this because they know that if CharterFolk accede, if charter schools say that there are no problems in public education, we will undermine our very reason to exist.

But this is not the Great Disconnect that I am talking about. The disconnect presented above is long-standing. There is nothing new here.

The disconnect that is new relates to the difference that exists between what public education actually offers in terms of Equity and Excellence and what parents and society will minimally accept. Notice that I did not say “what parents and society really want.” That is a whole different category for consideration. No, what I am talking about is the bare minimum that parents and society will tolerate without bolting altogether.

To be clear, there has always been a disconnect between what public education offers and what parents and society will minimally tolerate.

Here the blue circle representing what public education offers is partially covered by the the red circle, which represents what parents and society will tolerate. It yields an overlap in purple …

…which represents the “value add” of public education.

In this rendering, the light blue crescent can be understood to be the part of public education that is literally “wasted effort.” It might as well not be done at all. Or you could argue that it is actually counterproductive, dragging our entire society down and leftward toward greater inequity and poorer education in general. The red crescent represents the parental and societal bare minimums that are not being met by our public schools at all.

If we added in what parents and society would really want of our public schools, it would look something like this.

The vast majority of what parents want is not being provided by our public schools. Parents with means steer their children into pink circle opportunities in private schools.

Many reforms of public education, with charter schools being the boldest and most successful of the lot, have tried to help public education move aggressively into the upper right quadrant to meet not only parents’ and society’s bare minimums but to reach their hopes and dreams.

Many reforms start out with greatly ambitious goals. Take the Local Control Funding Formula in California, perhaps the most consequential reform of our public education system to have happened in decades.

It was, in essence, an effort to catapult public education in California boldly in the direction of the upper right quadrant.

The LCFF’s great contribution is that it provided more public education funding for all schools while directing even more funding to our highest needs kids. As originally proposed, however, the LCFF would have been completely revolutionary because it proposed directing funding to the school level. Each school would have received funding based upon the students that it serves.

In other words, the LCFF as originally proposed in January of 2013, wanted to fund all public schools in California in the way that only charter schools are funded today.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the Establishment completely hates it. The Establishment is used to funding being controlled by school districts which can move money from one school to another in order to cover various costs, like more senior teachers’ salaries and pensions or a larger portion of administrative overheard, something that ultimately compromises both Equity and Excellence by requiring that kids from lower income areas subsidize the education of kids in higher income areas.

The Establishment had a complete fit behind the scenes in the weeks and months after the initial unveiling of Governor Brown’s new funding system. By the time the May Revise was released in the spring of 2013, the proposal had been changed to ensure that funding would still be directed to and controlled by school districts. The LCFF’s other great flaw is that there are no accountability provisions. School districts receive gobs of additional funding, but there is no requirement that the schools that they operate actually perform any better, not even with the students for whom the new funding was intended. In the end, yes, the LCFF, made an important contribution. It moved things upward and to the right, but not nearly as much as many had hoped for.

The problem for other reform efforts is that they are typically not championed by political wizards as adept as Governor Brown. So, instead of being able to move even incrementally up and to the right, generally our public schools stay in a circumstance of fixity. Try as any might, year over year, reforms of our public schools fail to meet the bare minimum expectation of parents and society, never mind what parents and society really want. Incrementally, the overlap between what public schools offer and the minimum that parents and society will accept has been diminishing over time.

Then in 2020 COVID hit.

And the death of George Floyd occurred.

These events led to a dislocation of unprecedented scope and consequence, one where our schools were suddenly understood to deliver less Excellence and Equity than they had been perceived to deliver before. This is what I attempted to describe in The Teacher Union Straightjacket – What COVID Reveals If We Act With Courage. The fact is that parents have never before seen as up close and personal the shortcomings of our public education system, and huge numbers have become more frustrated than ever about the options available to their kids.

Expressed graphically, our public schools are understood to have occupied the absolute bottom left space against the two axes.

Meanwhile, the demand for greater equity in the wake of the racial awakening that has happened in 2020, and the demand for more effective remote and/or hybrid learning experiences that a pandemic-ridden world requires, have pushed the bare minimum that parents and society will tolerate upward and to the right …

… such that we find ourselves on the cusp of something we have never seen before.

What makes 2021 fundamentally different than any year that has come before is that the delta between what our public schools actually are and what parents and society need them to be has never been greater.

It’s the Great Disconnect, an inherently unstable situation.

As Larry Rosenstock said in our CharterFolk Chat last month, “Parents love their kids more than anything else in their life.” There is nothing that they won’t do to make sure that their children get what they need to lead a successful and fulfilled life. That is leading parents to take steps in the early weeks of 2021 that they have never been willing to take before. Many are rethinking whether public education is the right place for their kids altogether.

Policy makers, meanwhile, are only making matters worse. Their sole priority is to protect establishment schools without qualification. That leads them to do some of the most ridiculous things imaginable, like approving new policies or state budget proposals which prevent families and students from getting to the very public schools they are so desperate to access.

CharterFolk, in the year ahead, thousands upon thousands of families are going in new directions with their kids and may never come back to public education. And if it happens at a scale that is certainly possible in this moment of mass societal frustration with our public schools, it becomes impossible to predict what that means for maintaining our country’s longstanding commitment to public education.

This is why I wrote in 2020 CharterFolk Year in Review that “the world has never needed the charter school movement more than it does right now.” It needs us to help bring forward the solutions that will allow our public schools to make strides upward and to the right faster than we ever have before.

In the weeks ahead here at CharterFolk, I will do my best to keep our discussion anchored to the gravity of the challenge that is before us. It will require discussion of the new instructional approaches and the new school designs that we must bring forward. Indeed, some of the things we will discuss may force us to reconsider our fundamental conception of schooling altogether. We will also need to discuss the advocacy strategies that we will need to allow these innovations to come to life. Finally, it will require that we think anew about who our allies are. In my view, while the challenge before charter schools and all public schools is taller than we have ever seen before, it should also be plain that we have more people with aligned interests behind reform than we have ever had before. The question is whether we are creative enough and courageous enough to propose the new alliances that will provide us the additional strength we will need to push through the changes that 2021 will require.

In the end, what we seek, of course, is for public education to play the role we all need it to play, rather than being the ballast, the dead weight pulling our world further down and left …

… becoming instead the leading force, pulling the rest of society toward the Equity and Excellence all students in our society deserve.

It’s going to be quite a year, CharterFolk.

So thankful to have you along for the ride.