The School Choice Dilemma: Yellow Matters More to Us Now Than Red and Blue

Good day, CharterFolk.

I start off today thanking many of you who are renewing your annual subscriptions to CharterFolk this spring. We’ve also had several new annual subscribers sign up in recent weeks without me even having to make requests. So thank you. Your financial support helps us a great deal. If you haven’t gotten your own subscription yet, why not do so today?

Lots of late-breaking information is coming out about some of the trends we have been following of late. Let’s do a quick whip around.

The state’s plans in Houston are being revealed to be ambitious ones …

… perhaps surprisingly so.

And the teacher union’s plans in Los Angeles are being revealed to be every bit as ambitious …

… though not at all surprisingly so.

Of course, ironies continue to abound, like this one from Philly …

… showing that admissions to the district’s selective admissions magnets are so broken that the district would apparently rather leave schools under-enrolled and make massive cuts to their budgets than let in more kids who desperately want to attend.

Meanwhile, cartoonish national TV shows about public education in Philadelphia …

… and accompanying virtue-projecting fluff pieces by status quo protectors in national publications …

… claim that somehow charter schools are the ones that systematically exclude kids.

Stunning, isn’t it?

And we could all wish that the TV show would portray a little reality, like an episode showing the school’s sixth graders being denied admission to all the district’s selective magnets while being admitted to all the non-selective charter schools in town.

But it isn’t going to happen. No one’s going to suddenly make the point that many of the students in this picture …

… are Abbott Elementary kids.

Young people who are systematically, structurally denied access to the better educations they want and deserve by their local school district.

Ironies don’t just go away, CharterFolk.

They have to be made to go away.

It’s why I’ve been delighted to learn of late about the encouraging progress that Philadelphia Charters for Excellence is making …

… a city-based membership association where nearly all schools are members and where advocacy strength is mounting.

It’s exactly the kind of advocacy structure we need from which to drive a new narrative for our movement.

Keep going, PhillyFolk!

Finally, I’ll wrap up the whip around in a city that has gone from being one of our most iconic to becoming one of our most ironic.

San Francisco.

The Chronicle published a story this week about a great tool that shows what every public and private high school’s application, acceptance and attendance rates are to UC schools.

The story dives into the San Francisco specific story, showing how private schools and the district’s selective admissions high school (with essentially private school admissions) have the highest application and admission rates, and that, with the sole exception of Mission High (a traditional public school that does very well), the only public schools not using selective admissions that generate high numbers of UC applications and acceptances are charter schools.

Meanwhile, across the Bay, a school district is considering reparations for the district’s past poor treatment of Black students and families.

The City of San Francisco is signaling the same.

The irony is that both the City of San Francisco and the San Francisco Unified School District control local funding streams to support public schools, and both systematically underfund or deny funding altogether to charter schools which serve a disproportionately high number of Black students.

So they virtue project about reparations to make up for abuses of the past while perpetrating new ones in the present.

It’s yet another example of why San Francisco has become the most ironic place in the country.

Whether that translates into the city experiencing a “doom loop” like some are suggesting …

… waits to be seen.

Let’s get on to the heart of today’s post.

The School Choice Dilemma: Why Yellow Matters More to Us Now Than Red and Blue

As many CharterFolk will know, yellow is the color of school choice. Every January we find the yellow scarves on capitol steps across the country.

Often it is CharterFolk who don such scarves.

This has made sense because so much of our DNA as a movement is about getting choice to those who have been previously denied it.

Now we are seeing a new wave of school choice measures be passed in legislatures across the United States.

While there have certainly been implementation challenges in some states …

… it is also true that recent legislation is changing the face of school choice in our country as we know it. This terrific explainer out of Future Ed released earlier this month does a great job summarizing the latest trends.

Historically, school choice programs have been designed to provide choice to those who haven’t had choice before.

These programs have had general parameters in place designed to ensure that participating schools would be held accountable for academic results so that taxpayers can see the return on the investment that they are making in education provided by private schools.

Now we are in a period where school choice programs are going in new directions.

Florida, for example, which used to restrict eligibility for its voucher program to low income families only, is now making the program open to all Floridians.

There is supposed to be a remaining preference for tiers of low income students, but other states aren’t including such preferences at all. As the Future Ed report highlights, the vast majority of students benefitting from the latest changes to the ESA program in Arizona never attended a public school before.

When Arizona‚Äôs ESA program expanded to become universal in September 2022, the state department of education estimated that 75 percent of the roughly 7,000 initial applicants in the universal category never attended an Arizona public school. While some of the applicants entered private schools in kindergarten, they likely account for a modest portion of the applicants. Homeschooled students may also participate in the Arizona ESA program, using the money for such expenses as curriculum materials and tutoring.

And in Arkansas, while there is a priority for low income students in the first three years of the state’s new voucher program, after that all students are eligible.

Iowa approved essentially the same concept.

Vouchers will be provided to everyone, with no preference for low income families or means-testing designed to make their vouchers larger than those provided to more affluent families.

And in many places we are seeing voucher and ESA advocates resisting participating schools having any accountability for academic outcomes whatsoever. In some places there are doing so while simultaneously attempting to impose significant new academic outcome requirements on charter schools.

It doesn’t seem too difficult to foresee where all this is headed.

I’m think about my recent time in India where so many parents are turning to private schools …

… but where now some suggest those schools aren’t generating any more learning than government-managed schools …

… leading to big foundations and policy makers …

… calling for common sense, outcome based academic accountability assessments by third parties …

… in order to guard against the debilitating re-regulation that is inevitably creeping into the private school world.

We seem, CharterFolk, to be on the cusp of a revolution in education in the United States, one where in many places we are going to see a far larger number of students educated by publicly-funded private schools.

But little thinking seems to be going into the regulatory architecture that will allow those schools to thrive for the long term while ensuring that this generation does not, like all generations that have come before, find a new way to allocate better educational opportunity to those with means, and worse to those without.

It creates quite the dilemma for us.

Generally, what is happening across the country right now is that CharterFolk are either staying in our historic posture of offering low key support to whatever school choice proposal is surfaced, or we are keeping our heads low and saying nothing at all.

And I don’t think any of us should be doing some big public lurch right now, or should be surprising political allies in the moment with a sudden new positioning on school choice proposals, especially in this highly partisan landscape we find ourselves in.

Navigating highly complicated, quickly changing red/blue dynamics is immensely important to us, no doubt.

But I do think, at the right time, in the right way, after we have had the discussions amongst CharterFolk (you know within the context of a representative membership organization like Pennsylvania Charters for Excellence) about our values related to the design of school choice programs, we should proactively get our views out into the landscape.

Indeed we must.

Because vexing issues are arising.

Like in Missouri right now where the state is considering a new open enrollment system that would allow students to cross district boundaries to get to better schools.

Could be a great thing.

But what if, as the current bill states, receiving school districts can create selective admissions for those kids who would seek to transfer, criteria we know would screen out kids by race and class?

Is that our idea of school choice?

Is that a shade of yellow we can all proudly wear around our shoulders?

I, for one, can’t.

Certainly, there can be all sorts of policies from mustard to lemon we should all be fine with. The idea here is not to get to some one-size fits all definition for acceptable school choice.

But there are policy ideas that some advance under the banner of “school choice” that reside on the opposite side of the color wheel.

Like the idea that we’re not going to means-test vouchers so that low income families get more.

Or that historically disadvantaged students won’t have special admissions preferences.

Or that all schools of choice won’t be held accountable for academic results.

It’s time we get crisp on these things, CharterFolk.

It’s why I say:

In terms of defining what we mean by school choice, yellow matters more to us now than red and blue.