The Huge Opportunity to Make Progress on Red Lines in Blue States Now

Good day, CharterFolk.

Following up my post from Saturday wherein I lamented Sacramento Unified’s incompetence in creating a remote option for its families who seek one …

… two days later this story came out.

It’s actually a statewide phenomenon.

It’s like clockwork.

Policy makers try to defend Establishment schools by preventing parents from going to charter schools already offering what the parents want, only making matters worse. In the end, many more students end up suffering than needed to be the case.

There are many “like clockwork” developments happening in charterland these days.

For example:

Charter schools start to show increased momentum in Red States:

What happens next?

The “like clockwork” response …

… a pathetic attempt to recast the entire history of the school choice movement as a conservative plot to undermine Brown vs Board of Education and destroy public education altogether. (Really, Duke, if this is the quality of work your “distinguished” professors put out, I’d love to see what your undistinguished ones do.) But it’s the kind of clockwork we are going to have to get used to because there are many knee-jerk people in our country who are going to believe this stuff no matter how unhinged from reality it might be.

The question is: how do we put together a strategy for navigating this new reality?

Another new study reveals a path forward, this one from the Urban Institute.

It’s a study much like the recent one from Annenberg that I wrote about in April:

Like the Annenberg paper, the Urban Institute report ties modern day district boundaries and school attendance zones to the Home Owner Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlines that were drawn by the US Government in the 1930’s. It highlights how 2000 schools in the country that are adjacent to one another have sharply different racial compositions due to educational redlines. Some of the visuals are incredibly striking:

All this is good, but then, unfortunately, the study goes off the rails when it looks at “school choice systems.” While the authors say that the evidence is not conclusive and more research is necessary, they have enough confidence to assert that:

Districts with centralized school lotteries are demographically different and have higher rates of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segregation than others.”

In other words, “school choice systems” do not help overcome the redlining problems caused by HOLC all those decades ago, but may in fact make things worse.

To be fair, the study’s authors make efforts to be precise, and they do not say that “centralized school lotteries” are interchangeable with “broader school choice systems,” but their general co-mingling of the concepts is unmistakable and does a great disservice. The school choice that we all fight for in the charter school movement is antithetical to the centralized school lotteries run by school districts. The challenge is that, in order to expose the Urban Institute’s gross errors of thinking in the report, you have to go much deeper into what school districts’ centralized lotteries actually do. And that can be very time-intensive and can require a lot of local knowledge.

For example, one of the three schools highlighted in the study meant to be most illustrative of the broader dynamics playing out in the other 2000 schools across the country is Canfield Elementary School in west Los Angeles. I happen to know a lot about Canfield. I served as a T.A. there for a year before I started teaching. The study certainly gets right the systematic exclusion of students of color from Canfield’s attendance boundary that has happened over the decades.

And going deeper certainly reveals that the school district’s “centralized lottery system” makes things worse.

What I object to is the authors somehow calling the district’s centralized lottery a “school choice system.” It’s actually the exact opposite. The district’s lottery actually prevents historically underserved families from choosing Canfield.

At some point in the 80s or early 90’s, Canfield had seen a drop in enrollment. That led to the school letting some out-of-area students, primarily Black students from the other side of La Cienega Boulevard, to attend the school. I remember while I was there that a group of mostly-white parents went door to door in the neighborhood trying to recruit their mostly-white neighbors to bring their kids out of private schools so that they could get enough enrollment to make Canfield a 100% “community neighborhood school” again. Ultimately, that group became …

… Friends of Canfield.

Over the years, they changed their tactics. In order to get Canfield to serve only kids from the neighborhood, or kids very much like the kids who live in the neighborhood, they decided to create a “choice program.” You know, the kind of thing you see described on the district’s “Choices” website.

Because, while Canfield is billed as a “neighborhood community school” …

… it has actually become a “School for Advanced Studies” …

… meaning that if you live outside the attendance boundary, you have to be identified as gifted or do well on standardized tests or live up to other selected admissions criteria …

… in order to be eligible to attend Canfield.

And, of course, all these selective admissions criteria screen out kids by race.

So in the end, after the district performs its “centralized school lottery,” Canfield ends up with a demographic profile …

… that is 21% Black and Latino in a school district that is over 83% Black and Latino.

This is what “community neighborhood schools” are, perpetuators of educational redlines that consist both of attendance boundaries that were literally drawn during the Jim Crow era and selective admissions criteria that might as well have been.

And who are the Friends of Canfield’s closest allies in helping to create a broader system of community neighborhood schools?

The party most responsible for the state of public education in Los Angeles today.

Its leadership works exhaustively to reinforce and strengthen the redlines embedded with the community neighborhood school concept all while working to present themselves as on the side of kids and families and racial justice.

It’s an agenda and a duplicitousness that Establishment protectors work to advance across the entire country …

… ultimately resulting in the thousands of redlined school situations that the Urban Institute writes about.

For many years, teacher unions and others have been able to wrap themselves in the apple-pie and motherhood-ness of the “neighborhood school” concept. But things are changing. It’s why these new reports like the Annenberg and Urban Institute studies are a good thing, even if they get fundamental things wrong, like conflating “school district lotteries” and “school choice.” They are a part of the important racial awakening that is happening in our society, and they are casting attention on problems we should have eradicated generations ago.

The new attention is certainly helping. Our country’s affinity for “community neighborhood schools” is waning. Recently, I was provided polling from the District of Columbia about likely voters’ opinions regarding attendance boundaries. I quote a couple of data points from that poll below.

  • 46% of voters agree with this statement: “Assigning students to schools based on their residence has made public education more segregated than it was 70 years ago. It’s time to make access to a great school more equitable by setting aside seats in DC’s best public schools for students who live outside the boundary zone.” Of those who agree with this statement, 71% strongly agree, 26% somewhat agree.
  • 31% of voters agree with this statement: “Assigning students to schools based on their residence is necessary to create true neighborhood schools. We should keep the school boundary zones we have, so families have certainty about where their children will attend school.” Of those agreeing with this statement, 51% strongly agree, 37% somewhat agree.

CharterFolk, this is quite a sea-change in the American psyche, an opportunity right now to push for a pulling down of educational redlines and to draw a new narrative for our movement showing that, rather than “school choice” being on the wrong side of history as the “distinguished” professor from Duke so lamely asserts, we are actually the movement with the commitment and the heft needed to help our society finally rid itself of this plain injustice.

It is why I was delighted to see this development occur in DC in recent days.

A group of 11 charter school principals, led to a significant degree by CharterFolk of the Year Finalist Daniela Anello, brought forward a proposal to allow charter schools to offer to historically underserved students a statistical advantage in the schools’ lotteries. In terms of driving a new narrative for our movement, this gesture does many things right:

  • It was done by a group of CharterFolk coming together. When we act in unison, we create a storyline that has to be paid attention to.
  • It grounded the effort in a tangible policy proposal – the charter school board approving a motion allowing the schools to create the admissions preferences – which creates the conflict and the cliffhanger that draws attention to the matter.
  • And finally, of course, it advances a great policy idea, one showing that charter schools make great efforts to serve the kids who need better educational opportunity most.

It’s essentially presenting our movement as the “anti-Canfields,” not making it harder for historically underserved students to access a great educational opportunity, but to make it easier.

Exactly what we want to see in community after community across the United States.

But the problem is that the initiative is missing the key thing we need if we are serious about forcing the discussion to go deeper:

The critique of the current system.

As we have written about several times here at CharterFolk, DC’s traditional public schools purport themselves to be the most unwalled schools you can find anywhere …

… when in actuality, like Canfield Elementary School, they feature redlining attendance boundaries that were literally made in the Jim Crow era and selective admissions criteria …

… that might as well have been.

But no one knows about this because no one has ever drawn their attention to it!

Now, CharterFolk, now is the moment to seize this mantle. We are the one form of public education in our society that doesn’t have historical redlining cooked into our very DNA. So it is incumbent upon us to lead.

We let the world know that charter schools do not seek to grow for the sake of having more charter schools. We seek to grow because our nation’s public schools have turned out to be sadly unpublic, and that until they rid themselves of educational redlines and other design-disasters that make them some of the greatest perpetuators of racial inequity in our society today, we will remain, as Donald Hense so aptly put it, “hellbent” on accelerating and intensifying our work.

That means our entire base coming together in communities across our country attempting to advance proposals that would force the system to give up its redlines and other inequities – basically what the 11 schools in DC are doing, only times 10 or 20 or 100 – over and over again, until the truth begins to sink in with the public and begins to register at Duke University and at the Urban Institute and in all the places where honest evaluations of charter school impact should be happening.

And of course, it begins the process of holding accountable teacher unions and other protectors of the Establishment whose uncontested ascendency in Blue contexts right now is leading their communities down a path that will only result in another generation of historically underserved students getting screwed out of the better educational opportunity they deserve.

It’s forcing the analysis to go deeper in a way designed to change the discussion everywhere so that we regain as much momentum in Blue States as we now have in Red.

Because the deeper the public can get into what has really happened at places like Canfield Elementary School, the more it will come to understand what we already know to be true, which is that the charter school movement is our greatest reason for hope that public education in our country ultimately can and will be redeemed.