The Shark that Circles Now in the Public Education Deep

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

So much for my New Year’s resolution to stay on a firm publishing schedule of Tuesday and Friday mornings. Work was such this week that, if I was going to get a second post off to you at all, there was going to be no other time to do it than hauling my carcass out of bed early on a Sunday morning, which I managed to do. And looking at what’s coming down the pike over the next few weeks, I see only more of the same, meaning that delivering on my New Year’s resolution will be only all the more challenging.

I’ll do what I can and thank you for your understanding.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

The Shark that Circles Now in the Public Education Deep

Some CharterFolk who have been with us since the beginning may remember that in one of my earliest posts

… I shared this screenshot.

It’s a stereogram, a rendering that, if you focus your eyes in the right way, reveals a three-d image.

I explained the point of sharing the screenshot thusly:

That is what we are doing – trying to set our eyes right so that we can finally see and so that the entire public can finally see the inequity within our public school system that leaps forward in three dimensions when we properly train our focus on the needs of kids and families, especially those who need better education most.

Now, I admit right up front: one person’s “pattern recognition” is another person’s “confirmation bias.”

But everywhere I look of late, patterns, or confirmations, depending on how you look at it, just keep leaping out.

This week I was reading a blog I like.


(Is that a great title for a blog looking at public education in San Francisco, or what?)

This week, the writer, Paul Gardiner, was looking at the tendency of San Francisco Unified to spend significantly more on small schools, typically small elementary schools, than on larger schools, which tend to be high schools. As one who obsesses on how school district budgeting practices tend to perpetuate public education inequity, this makes all sorts of sense – more affluent parents tend to keep their little ones in public elementary schools, but then jump ship as their kids enter adolescence, and to keep these families in the system as long as possible, school districts tend to suck money away older, lower-income, brown and black kids, in order to subsidize schools serving the younger and more affluent.

When I went to poke around on the web regarding a concept raised in the post, the first link that came up was one showing a presentation from district staff about San Francisco Unified’s unfunded health care liabilities.

It turns out those liabilities are approximately $1 billion right now, about $20,000 per student, and given that the district is putting away essentially no money toward these liabilities, they’re on a trajectory to grow to $1.5 billion in just a few years.

It’s a level of financial irresponsibility that a charter school would never be permitted to engage in, but because school districts are fundamentally unaccountable in ways that charter schools are not (states have to bail out failing school districts thereby enabling their continued wanton irresponsibility), terrible mismanagement having disproportionately tragic impact on historically underserved kids continues unabated in school districts across the country.

This is how I described unfunded liabilities back in July of 2020:

Think about it.  What is an unfunded liability? 

It is intergenerational theft.  It is a decision to not have the present pay all its bills but instead to impose a tax on the kids of the future.  In LA, the kids to whom the benefit is directed – the kids of the past – were whiter and more affluent than the current and future kids from whom money is now being taken. 

On its face, growing unfunded liabilities is a straightforwardly racist and classist offense. 

The black and brown and poor kids of today and tomorrow pay for the educations of the white and more affluent kids of yesterday, with the direct beneficiaries being a retired teaching force that is far more white and more affluent than the kids and families from whom educational resources are being siphoned away.

I didn’t know at the time of writing that early CharterFolk post that San Francisco had an unfunded liability, but I could have guessed. And this past week, just keeping my eyes focused in stereo, the truth came out in three-d.

Stereo-viewing reveals heartbreak emerging in many other places right now as well.

Take Baltimore.

Not only is the school district moving aggressively to close a charter school …

…that many believe to actually be doing a great job with kids, including Maryland’s new governor who saluted the school a couple weeks ago on the day he was inaugurated …

… the district is also withholding millions of dollars of funding from charter schools such that many are now formally petitioning the Maryland State Department of Education to intervene.

Meanwhile, new analysis released this week shows that the district manages 23 schools where literally zero kids are proficient in math.

It makes plain what is really going on.

Charter schools are being held to a standard the school district itself doesn’t come close to achieving.

And not only that.

Embedded in the article about the funding dispute between charter schools and the district, we find this language:

They [the Baltimore school district] are using the 25% withholdings to cover a $200 million gap in special education and pre-K funding not covered by the Blueprint, as well as for retiree health benefits for former employees. (emphasis added)

You got that right, CharterFolk.

Not only is the school district attempting to close charter schools for not meeting standards it fails to meet itself by far wider margins, so too is it taking money away from charter schools to pay for its own history of appallingly bad fiscal mismanagement!

The examples go on and on.

Following up my last article

… wherein I profiled the situation in Philadelphia where a district experiencing rapidly declining enrollment …

… is moving aggressively to close charter schools …

… I decided to google to see if there was any update.

What came up?

This story showing how the school district recently decided to reinforce the selective admissions criteria it uses at its magnets.

This, CharterFolk, is our public education world presented in stereo.

It’s the same phenomenon I have written about repeatedly here at CharterFolk, including during my 30-month gut-check post

… where I showed that the same heartbreak is emerging in Houston …

… and Newark …

… and in scores and scores of schools in Los Angeles.

It’s the story of school districts feeling like they can’t keep up with high quality charter schools and, so, sadly decide to become even less public by drawing a new generation of educational redlines they know will screen out kids who need better opportunity most.

Last Tuesday, this article from my own hometown came across my feed.

I debated whether even to waste my time opening it, but being obsessed as I am, I did.

And there was the pattern recognition/confirmation bias on full display yet again:

Some schools in economically disadvantaged areas also sent a large majority of students to college, including Sacramento Charter High and West Campus, both located in South Sacramento.

Sacramento Charter High School is a shining beacon in our town …

…that sends kids to college at amazing rates without screening out anyone.

Meanwhile, West Campus?

You guessed it.

It’s one of Sacramento Unified’s many selective-admissions magnets.

Exactly the kind of thing I encouraged us all to train our eyes on, and to train the public’s eyes on, during CharterFolk’s second month.

When I first selected this screenshot, all I was looking for was an example of a stereo-gram that was in the public domain. I wasn’t in the least thinking about the specific image that was portrayed therein. My objective was simply to try to convey the notion that looking at things differently reveals a whole other world we otherwise wouldn’t see.

And so I took this particular stereo-gram from wikipedia.

But over time, having come back to it now many times since, I realize just how appropriate the particular hidden figure is within this stereo-gram.

It’s not just that there is more to the picture if you can see in stereo.

It’s not just that there is a third dimension.

It’s that, when you finally overcome the structural limitation of maintaining a mono-lensed view of the world, what you find …

… is the shark that circles in the public education deep.

It’s a particularly resonant icon.

A menacing figure keeping alive many forms of historical unfairness in our public education ocean, whether it’s the sharp teeth of educational redlines allocating educational opportunity unfairly, or specially-hinged jaws of educational budget practices that invariably siphon resources away from the kids and families who need them most, or the pure cartilage maneuverability of unaccountable school districts escaping responsibility for their eons of unacceptable performance.

A figure that goes into frenzy when there’s blood in the education equity water, like was the case, so sadly, during our recent time of pandemic.

And finally, a figure that, of all earth’s creatures, like public education itself, has simply not evolved. Most shark DNA today is nearly identical to what it was hundreds of millions of years ago. And sadly, if there is any aspect of modern life that has similarly had its design code held in fixity, surely it is our public education system.

For all these reasons, then, I find the happenstance of there being a shark embedded in the stereo-gram an example of striking serendipity.

With that said, though, I do admit there has been one association with the shark image that I have found troubling to think about.

It’s that in surfacing it as I have, people could improperly infer that we CharterFolk ascribe excess nefarious intent to those who perpetuate unfairness in our public education system.

Because, as tempting as it can be to present all our work as the makings of a Spielberg blockbuster …

… depicting good and evil in very simple terms, the truth we know is far more complex.

And asserting that inequity is sustained by large numbers of people consciously choosing over and over again to do the plainly wrong thing is, in my estimation, a highly suspect notion.

It’s why this photo I came across this week adds helpful resonance and nuance to our consideration of the shark that circles in the public education deep.

It compares the brain of a shark with the brain of a dolphin.

The shark’s brain on the left features virtually no cerebral cortex whatsoever.

The dolphin’s, on the other hand, bears a striking resemblance to the human mind.

And it seems to me, that this is a dichotomy that it would behoove we ed reformers to keep in mind.

Much of the menace that drives a perpetuation of unfairness in our public education system comes not from nefarious intent.

Comes not from cerebral cortex.

Comes not from evolved, conscious thinking.

But comes, rather, in large part, from instinct, from simple self-preservation, from no thought at all.

And what we CharterFolk are trying to do is to push the consideration of all things related to public education into the realm of the conscious.

The intentional.

The evolved.

And, yes, into the realm of higher-thinking.

Because it’s my sense that, aside from a small number who will keep acting from a position of predatory self-interest until the very end, the vast majority, when they’re taught to see what is there, and when they then begin considering things more consciously, we will see them move.

And that’s when we will see the whole discussion at a national level move as well.

Away from a fixation on pointing out one another’s confirmation biases and toward an invigorated effort at shared pattern recognition.

Leading us ultimately to arrive in a circumstance where education policy and practice in our country is no longer driven by an unthinking, solitary menace lurking in the deep …

… but instead is driven …

… by leaping pods of creatures with decidedly more developed minds.

Arcing us across the seascape toward a public education system that much more tightly aligns with what we actually, collectively intend.