The National Alliance’s Latest Report on Growth – Why It’s Imperative We Be Louder About the Fact that We Don’t Want More Charter Schools for the Sake of More Charter Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’m getting my last post for the week off to you on a Saturday morning. I find myself scrambling to stay atop my regular work while finding time to keep things going here at CharterFolk, a time pressure I know is nothing in comparison to the unbelievable lift that CharterFolk are contending with at the school level this fall. Thanks for all you’re doing, and thanks for your understanding as I get this out to you during a weekend when I hope you can at least catch a little breath.

As many of you have seen, on Tuesday, the National Alliance released their latest report on charter school enrollment growth.

It is mostly a trend-confirming study:

  • Parents with kids in traditional public schools have abandoned those schools in huge numbers during the pandemic (a reduction of 1.4M kids in traditional public schools).
  • Many parents (about 240,000) have moved their kids to charter schools.
  • There was a significant shift to virtual charter schools, but many brick and mortar schools saw growth as well.
  • In sum, charter schools saw enrollment growth of 7.1%, the highest rate we have seen in several years.

All intuitive.

Almost all of it aligns with the musings I shared in my first post back after Colombia that charter schools would be just short of serving 4 million students in 2021-22. If we were somewhere around 3.65M students in charter schools last year (including Tennessee which was left out of the data set), and if we have had another year of decent growth this year, we would currently be serving somewhere in the 3.9 million students range. That would equate to approximately 8% of all public school students in the country being served by charter schools right now.

My biggest error in thinking in my post-Colombia column was not about anything happening during Covid. It was about how bad things had gotten for charter school growth pre-Covid.

The Alliance’s data showed that we only had about 35,000 students growth in 2019-20.

If we add back in Tennessee’s 45,000 charter school students, we see a total national enrollment growth of about 80,000 kids in 2019-20. That equates to a 2.4% growth rate, the lowest that we have seen in the history of the national charter school movement.

CharterFolk, I can think of no better word to describe that growth rate than “sobering.”

Were we to have that level of growth for many more years, prospects for the movement stalling out altogether seem very tangible. And once we’re stalled out, it’s not hard to see what comes next – a focus on re-regulating and unionizing our schools that could erase all that we have worked for over the past three decades.

With all that acknowledged, I want to posit today that there are three great reasons for hope that we will in fact see far higher growth rates in the years ahead.

The first is temporary and very tangible:

The Covid-effect is likely to persist for several more years.

Yes, some families that have made the switch will return to their old schools once they feel that a sense of normal is returning. But the greatly increased awareness that parents and the broader public have about the alarmingly dysfunctional performance of our traditional public schools will result in many more kids ultimately moving to charter schools. This certainly proved to be the case during the fiscal crisis of 2009 when the charter school enrollment boom lasted for several years. No matter how much legislators attempt to protect the Establishment and give it time to build the new options that parents want in a crisis, the Establishment proves simply unable to build them. In California, legislators refused to fund the enrollment growth of non-classroom based charter schools in hopes of giving school districts a full year to build their own options. But now, districts are rolling out programs that are recognized to be a complete mess.

Meanwhile, non-classroom based charter schools are now receiving full funding for all the students they are serving, including new students. Add to the mix that California legislators enacted a “hold harmless” provision for school districts, meaning that districts will keep receiving the same funding no matter how many students they actually serve, and that hold harmless clause was not offered to charter schools. It sets up a situation where school districts have absolutely no incentive to retain students while charter schools are strongly motivated to keep serving as many students as they possibly can. What do you think the cumulative impact of that is going to be over the next several years?

It’s these kinds of inane policy decisions replicated across the country that only further ensure that charter school growth is likely to be robust for many years to come.

A second reason to believe that growth will be higher in the future is the fact that:

We are beginning to see charter school enrollment accelerate in Red States.

Data in the Alliance report that have not received much attention are numbers confirming what I have been calling “The National Crack Up” – a divergence in public policy goals and strategies between Red States and Blue States. The report speaks to the widening chasm in treatment charter schools are experiencing in different states.

In Red States (states where the governor and both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans), the charter school enrollment growth rate was 10.2%.

In Blue States the rate was 3.7% …

… with Purple States (where no one party holds the governorship and two legislative houses) having a rate right in the middle – 6.7%.

I know it’s a somewhat crude measure, but the visual of states ranked by growth rate pretty much tells the story.

When it comes to where charter school growth is happening in our country, Red is definitely on top.

Meanwhile, even more favorable policy changes that were approved in Red States this year create the conditions for even more robust growth in the near future. With a base of enrollment in Red States that is now 325,000 students larger than in Blue States, it is clear that Red States have a momentum level and an overall heft that will bump up national charter school growth rates for many years to come.

Finally, we come to the third reason, and this one I admit is the most speculative but I also think it’s the one that could have the greatest overall impact:

There has never been a better time to articulate a new vision for growth.

It leads me to my only criticism of the National Alliance report.

No doubt, the report does a good job describing all the trends happening related to charter school growth at a particularly important moment, but it does not articulate a compelling vision for WHY we want charter school growth in the first place.

I know that in moments like this it seems like the why is self-explanatory.

The public school system is struggling and whatever you might think about public education, you support the idea that parents should be able to get their kids to the better options they desperately need right now.

So Covid provides us a kind of temporary hall pass for messaging related to growth, a reprieve from the dynamics that have been in place ever since the Question 2 setback in Massachusetts where our opposition finally figured out that the best way to fight charter school growth is to present it as one massive selfish gesture. It’s a message that boils down to the following:

It may be true that some kids and families get better education through the growth of charter schools, but it shouldn’t be allowed because it makes all other public schools worse.

It is a frame that basically sets aside any discussion about whether charter schools are any good or not, or are any better than the schools that students would have otherwise had to attend. From our adversaries’ point of view, it literally doesn’t matter whatever benefit might accrue to students who are able to attend new charter schools because they assert that the damage that is experienced by students who remain in traditional public schools is even greater. This is the frame at the heart of our opposition’s attack against National CSP funding: It doesn’t matter if the funding would make a bunch of great new charter schools because those new schools will only make all other schools worse. So cut it off.

Not having a compelling why for charter school growth, many in our world go silent. We pretend it isn’t happening. Or we pretend it isn’t something we really care about. All it does is provoke more backlash. So let’s just shut up about it.

Which seems like a good strategy until you have to justify why something like CSP funding should be continued. And one of the National Alliance’s top priorities, of course, is keeping that CSP funding. So they have to talk about growth. Thus they release the report, hoping that the presence of Covid provides an unmistakable why.

And maybe it does.

For today.

But for tomorrow? For the years and decades to come?

It’s just a matter of time, CharterFolk.

And the time is so ripe for us to step out with a new rationale for growth!

With huge Red swaths of the country doubling down on charter schools already, and many Blue areas exhibiting some of the most dysfunctional …

… broken …

… and simply unacceptable …

… behavior imaginable …

… there has never been a better time than right now to articulate anew our reason for growth.

We can assert things in the fall of 2021 that it would have been far harder to say just three years ago.

The kinds of things that we use to say all the time three decades ago when our movement first got started.

Hard truths about our public school system.

Like how our public school system has, sadly, turned out to be not that public, and we, as Donald Hense put it

are hellbent

… on growing new charter schools …

… NOT because we want more charter schools for the sake of more charter schools, but because the growth of charter schools coupled with an advocacy agenda coming from the charter school world seeking to push the traditional system to purge itself of the inequities that are cooked into its very DNA …

… will result NOT in public education being better for SOME kids …

… but for ALL kids.

And we salute the efforts of extraordinary CharterFolk who, despite the unimaginable challenge of providing their current students great services during the Covid crisis, and despite the absolutely ridiculous levels of blowback that are coming at them from protectors of the Establishment, have somehow found a way to keep opening new schools so that even more students can be served.

Like many of our CharterFolk X from last year who are opening new schools this fall despite all the incredible challenge.

Extraordinary leaders like Eduardo LaGuerre in Yonkers, New York …

… and Eddie Conger in Plum Grove, Texas …

… and Elaine Swafford in Chattanooga, Tennessee …

… and Jen Wickens in Tacoma, Washington …

… and so many more.

It is perhaps the single best argument we have for charter school growth:

The stunning CharterFolk who are driving it …

… bound by a common purpose to make public education in our country better for absolutely everyone.

A purpose that waits to be articulated anew for a world that is newly poised to embrace it.

Come on, CharterFolk!