The Importance of Understanding the Agency and Intention Issues Playing Out in Schools, Courts and Legislatures Now

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Soccer games all over Northern California this weekend kept me from getting out my second post to you on Sunday. I’ll try to make it up to you with a few shorter posts this week, including this brief one today.

Next weekend it will again be hard to find time to work on a post. As many of you know, important school board races are happening in Los Angeles, and I’ll be there canvassing for charter-supportive candidates.

But I won’t worry too much.

I know that few of you will have time to read next weekend because you’ll all be out doing your own canvassing for charter-supportive candidates in your local communities.

Right, CharterFolk?


Let’s get on to today’s post.

Intent and Agency in the Classroom

Last week I argued

… that charter schools having the Agency needed to express the collective intent of all within a school community is one of the most important ingredients, if not the most important ingredient, to charter school success. In that article I said that not every charter school is successful because some of them fail to make good use of the Agency they have been provided, and some traditional public schools succeed because they find alternative ways to acquire the Agency they need to be intentional.

But generally, charter schools are set up to have more agency and intention, and, generally, traditional public schools are set up to have less.

This weekend we saw this article come out.

It covers the release of this study from EmpowerK12

… identifying charter schools and district schools in DC that have proven able to succeed with high needs kids at unexpected levels. It’s a great read, a portrait of reasons for hope amid the gloomy reports we keep hearing about the learning loss that happened during Covid.

In my post last week, I said that most studies of this kind tend to identify practices that schools use to succeed. This one does the same.

Just as I didn’t dispute any of the best practices that were identified in the studies I cited in last week’s post, I don’t dispute any of these. These all seem like strategies that would contribute to schools becoming “Bold Performance Schools.”

But they don’t get at the heart of the matter.

The writer from the Post, though, did when she asked a principal in one of the traditional public schools why her school had been able to be so successful.

Jenkins said it’s crucial that teachers, as well as students, parents and staff, feel they have agency and ownership over the school.

What we want in the end, of course, is schools that offer great programs to students.

Obviously, the schools that are profiled in the EmpowerK12 study are doing just that.

But great programs are built upon a foundation of properly prioritized needs, with Agency, along with Values, being right at the foundation.

As important as the six strategies identified by EmpowerK12 are, they will never be implemented meaningfully if the entire school community hasn’t had the Agency it needs to fully buy into them.

It’s why we need more studies to pay attention to the ways that schools access the Agency they need to succeed.

Of the 14 schools that were identified as Bold Performance Schools, by the way, 9 were charter schools and 5 were district schools.

In terms of charter schools and district schools having the level of Agency they need to succeed, that’s about the proportion I would expect.

Intent in Courts and Legislatures

My writing of late about the important of intent has focused on its expression at the school level. This fall, we have also seen how legislator intent has become an important matter as well.

In fact, one of the most important lawsuits having potentially massive impact on the chartering movement …

… could be decided on a matter related to legislator intent.

The plaintiffs in Charter Day School v. Peltier argue that charter schools are private actors and are thus not subject to the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. Constitution, and should therefore be able to require that girls wear skirts to school.

An appeals court in June decided as the vast majority of us in charterland would want.

This week we saw various religious institutions jump onto the case hoping that their added heft might convince the U.S. Supreme Court to take on the appeal.

To anyone with any awareness of the legal issues pertaining to this case, it is clear that the religious parties joining the effort are doing so for reasons having nothing to do with an abiding support for charter schools. They have another decades-long agenda related to their conception of religious liberty that motivates their actions, and they see this outlier charter school case as a convenient vehicle by which to advance their own cause regardless the adverse impact it might have on ours.

As it turns out, one of the assertions that is central to the plaintiffs’ extreme argument is that the legislators who passed North Carolina’s original charter school law had no intent to advance choice within the public school system, but were simply interested in getting school choice to parents however they might do it. What makes it easier for them to try to make that claim is the fact that, decades later, it is difficult to find hard evidence documenting what legislators’ intent actually was at the time.

It’s why I was so pleased to learn last week of the importance of an artifact that exists at the National Charter School Founders Library [Disclosure: The Founder’s Library is a client of mine, though I had nothing to do with the creation of this particular artifact.] where Minnesota Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, the author of the original charter school law that passed in Minnesota in 1991, recorded an oral history with Former North Carolina Speaker of the House Harold Brubaker …

… about the dynamics surrounding the passage of North Carolina’s original law:

Speaker Brubaker:  At that time we had a voucher bill introduced and a charter school bill introduced.  And a friend of mine walked in one day, and he had a book written by Governor Waddell of Massachusetts, and she said you need to read this chapter.  It talked about how Governor Wadell had a voucher bill and a charter bill.  And as folks got very upset with the voucher approach, they jumped on the charter approach.  I thought that was a very novel idea.  So we kind of turned up the flames in North Carolina that we have to go with vouchers, and suddenly all the naysayers, the house, the senate, the governor, jumped on this idea of charter schools.  So that was very helpful getting the background.  That’s why the legislation moved very quickly …

Senator Reichgott Junge:  We had the same exact thing happen in Minnesota five years earlier.  We were making the argument that this was better than vouchers.  And for the unions and the Democrats … that was something important to them … And that same issue

Speaker Brubaker:  Exactly …

Senator Reichgott Junge:  …in both Minnesota and North Carolina was the pathway for getting chartering down the middle.

In other words, the interview with Speaker Brubaker clearly demonstrates that the intent of the North Carolina legislature was not to make choice of whatever kind as the plaintiff’s in the Peltier Case are attempting to argue, but was to make a form of choice that would clearly be within the public school system, a system that is undoubtedly subject to the Equal Protection Clause.

One of the recurring themes I return to often here at CharterFolk is our need to be a big tent and for all of us to stretch ourselves to be more welcoming of others who may have ideas different from our own.

And, given that the U.S. Supreme Court may one day decide that states are required to allow religiously-affiliated charter schools, I can see ways that even that idea could be made to work under our shared canvas.

But charter schools not being subject to the Equal Protections Clause?

Charter schools being able in some way to discriminate against kids?

Something that would compromise our shared Values, the only things more bedrock than Agency itself?

That, CharterFolk, is a simple no.

And on the question of whether it’s important that our movement understand our own history more deeply so that we’re better prepared to talk knowledgeably about complex issues like this whenever we’re asked about them …

That, CharterFolk, is a simple yes.