The Pit, the Pendulum, and Our Decade of Truth

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Great to see such positive reaction to our CharterFolk of the Year announcement yesterday. I also appreciated those of you who reached out to offer kind regards on the first year anniversary of CharterFolk. It’s been an incredibly fun ride. Thanks to all of you for making it possible.

So much has changed for charter schools over the past year. I’ve begun describing 2020 and the couple years preceding it, as “the charter school pit.”

It was like we were staring into an abyss.

Maybe the nadir was the passage of a new restrictive charter school law in California …

… and Biden’s flinch at the mere mention of the words “charter school” during the presidential campaign.

Now just a year later, the pendulum is swinging hard in the other direction. I started writing about this in Blue State Blues? News to Make You Smile, this idea that we were seeing a resumption of charter school momentum even in blue states …

… on top of clear momentum in red states.

Now the pendulum appears to be swinging even faster, even further.

Bills being stopped in Colorado …

… and California …

… with a prominent charter school supporter being appointed to a position of high influence in DC despite the concerns of the local teacher’s union.

Meanwhile, the New York Times endorsed a mayoral candidate …

… who endorsed a lifting of the cap on charter schools …

… and shunned the endorsement of her old boss and (charter school hater) Bill de Blasio.

Now major publications are talking about a broader “charter school comeback” …

… leaving Randi Weingarten “incredibly disappointed” …

… just like I’m sure she’s incredibly disappointed to see that, although Biden told Eskelsen-Garcia that he “feels the same way” about charter schools as the NEA does, he’s gone ahead and proposed continued funding of the National Charter School Program.

It’s a political pendulum swinging as fast as any we’ve seen before, something captured in new polling recently released by the PIE Network showing that parents and the broader public are demanding transformative change of our public schools.

In fact, the PIE polling specifically encourages reformers to call out problems in traditional public schools, present bold vision, and focus on who would benefit from our public education system becoming fairer, all themes we have been highlighting here at CharterFolk during our first year.

It is against this general backdrop that I have been reconsidering one of the three main constructs that I have presented this year to help us understand the challenges we face (with the other two being “The Great Disconnect” and “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education.”)

It’s what I called the “Smile Curve of Public Education Reform,” which was part of the Blue State Blues post in April. Here’s a slightly modified version of what I presented in that post.

I think that, generally, the concept of a smile is the right one. Since the charter school “honeymoon” – the first fifteen years of the movement before the Establishment woke up to the level of threat we posed – we have seen a decrease in charter school momentum due to the Establishment attacking us with everything they’ve got, and it was destined that we would go through a period of immense challenge when we ultimately demonstrate whether we have the strength and resiliency needed to “round out the smile.”

That’s what we’re in the middle of right now.

While I stand by the general concept of the smile curve, I would like to offer a few adjustments to fill in some needed detail and nuance. They are changes that align with the notions of a pit, a pendulum and a decade of truth.

I start with the pit.

The first change the smile needs is getting rid of the straight line drop on the left side. The truth is that we were not in a period of outright plummeting momentum from 2007-2012. Instead, momentum was decreasing gradually as the Establishment put its full weight against us but struggled to figure out their smartest line of attack.

That’s when two things happened.

First, the Establishment finally came up with its optimal advocacy strategy, which included initiating their Kids Not Profits campaign that presented charter schools as a billionaire plot meant to privatize public education.

It also included their Question 2 campaign strategy in Massachusetts which basically argued that, no matter how much better charter schools may be serving kids, it doesn’t matter because the growth of charter schools makes all other public schools worse.

Second came the the election of Donald Trump which associated charter schools with a polarizing figure.

Those two things happening simultaneously sent charter schools, at least in blue state and blue city contexts … into something resembling a free-fall in momentum.

That was the sensation in 2018-2020. Looking into the pit.

Next, we came to the pendulum period, the rapid sweep of changing public opinion happening in response to traditional public schools struggling so mightily during Covid.

In my mind, the public’s changed perception of charter schools and traditional public schools was destined to happen. Covid just made it happen much more quickly that it otherwise would have.

Which brings us finally to our Decade of Truth, what we prepare to enter right now. If charter schools are to prove successful, the Decade of Truth will consist of two things. The first is the equivalent of the Establishment figuring out its improved strategy against us. It’s our movement finding our optimal advocacy strategy, making the moral argument for charter schools, aggressively pursuing an advocacy agenda that drives a new narrative for or movement in exactly the way that parents and the general public want us to do in the post Covid world. If done properly …

,,, it could change things for charter schools dramatically and quickly. It won’t be enough to ensure our success in one grand step, but it would usher in the next phase, which will be the long hard slog of winning policy fights through the ongoing building of collective advocacy strength.

We arrive in the exact same place as originally presented – on the other side of the smile – but we get there by a somewhat different route.

This, CharterFolk, is where I believe we find ourselves as we prepare to enter our 31st year as a movement and our second here at CharterFolk. We have made it through the pit and the pendulum, and we now turn our attention to the Decade of Truth that awaits us.