What the Dust Bowl Conceals: The Single Most Important Defining Characteristic of Public Education

Good day, CharterFolk.

I start today catching up on thank you’s and acknowledgements.

We certainly have been fortunate to have had a number of great Contributor Columns of late. Bryce’s post on Thursday about how to have the “kitchen table talk” with policy makers was key to understanding how he and the whole team at the Texas association achieved recent important wins for charter schools in the state legislature.

Ditto Ariel’s piece about how aggressive collective action was needed in DC to secure progress on funding equity matters.

You could think of the two pieces as bookends, one explaining how in some situations reasonable discussion around a figurative kitchen table works best, the other showing how sometimes what we need is people marching from figurative kitchens with our collective voice speaking as one.

Effective advocacy strategy is being able to know which approach is needed when.

Then there’s the need for ensuring that advocates have the resources they need to run either strategy effectively. I consider Tim’s post one of the most important books to be held between the bookends. It’s the story of how school members of the association in Massachusetts increased their dues providing their advocacy organization the steady stream of resources it needed to recruit great talent and lay down new advocacy and political infrastructure that has allowed their state’s movement to come through a period of challenge.

Finally, there was Dr. Caldwell ‘s column about how College Achieve in New Jersey was able to generate even higher levels of student learning right through the pandemic.

I think of it as the table upon which the books and bookends stand, for what is the purpose of improved advocacy if it’s not supporting schools that are doing great things with students?

Then thanks are in store to the Daniels Fund for its decision to increase its investment in charter school growth in western states.

It’s capitalizing upon the opportunity in the west that Terry Ryan wrote about in January.

Finding ways to encourage as much philanthropy to come off the sidelines in support of social entrepreneurs is the life’s calling of one in the CharterFolk community. Alex Johnston has been doing so ever since he made the first CAN in Connecticut a couple decades back. Now he’s published a terrific new book I thank him for.

I found it very useful both in terms of helping me think about how to better support philanthropists in the space, as well as to improve my thinking about how to fundraise in ways that resonate even more deeply with donors seeking meaning and impact with their philanthropy. Alex has also assembled a host of resources he is making available on his website for anyone wanting to help move even more philanthropy off the sidelines in support of social progress being made in Charterland and beyond.

Thanks to all.

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

What the Dust Bowl Conceals: The Single Most Important Defining Characteristic of Public Education

Fascinating developments are coming out of Iowa in recent weeks. Many CharterFolk readers are tracking that, after significantly improving Iowa’s charter school law in 2021 …

… which immediately catalyzed new charter school growth in the state …

… Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed legislation expanding Iowa’s ESA program to be available to all Iowans regardless their income levels.

Through the spring, reports began to surface that there was huge interest in the program, far more than had been anticipated in the enabling legislation.

Last week the news came in about final numbers.

Over 29,000 Iowans have applied for the program, over double the number that were predicted by legislative analysts this spring. These are the numbers that are emerging even though full universal eligibility for the program won’t be phased in until 2025-26. So future numbers are likely to be even higher. How many people actually end up included in this year’s cohort is anyone’s guess, but other developments attest to the storm of change the new ESA bill has unleashed.

Previously, I had noticed that the roughly $7600 per student in funding that is available through the ESA program would have provided full tuition at all but a handful of Iowa’s private schools.

But that was before the approval of the ESA program led almost all private schools in the state to increase tuition.

And so the force that has fanned runaway inflation in higher education for decades – government subsidy for all students regardless their level of need …

… is beginning to be felt in K-12 as well.

And lest we forget, Iowa is not alone. Several states across the country are now following in Iowa’s path and have approved universal ESA programs of their own.

So what’s happening in Iowa right now is coming to other places soon.

It lays bare some of the most essential questions confronting public education today.

Including the very definition of public education itself.

And being prodded to consider it again, I find myself being drawn back to a very basic notion:

The single most important defining characteristic of public education is that it serves the public.

It means that, if you show up at a public school, the school has to serve you.

A private school does not.

And when you show up at a public school and there are more people who want to attend than there is space for, the school has to give everyone an equal shot of getting in. In fact, in my view, a public school should put its thumb on the scale to give an improved chance of getting in to those who are typically excluded.

People get all up in arms about programs like the new universal ESA program in Iowa because it doesn’t advantage the disadvantaged, or at least create a level playing field. So the already advantaged stand to benefit most. The governor’s press release lays bare some of the dynamics. Only 40% of applicants come from families who had previously been attending public schools. Some of the families included are low-income families who had previously been scraping by to pay private school tuition, but larger numbers are coming from higher income families, and their numbers are likely to grow in future years as the program evolves into full universality. And, of course, when schools receiving ESA funding are able to selectively admit kids and to charge additional tuition that many families will not be able to afford, the sorting of opportunity along the lines of advantage will only grow.

So, many stand in judgement of this program, and of other similar ones that are rolling out across the country right now.

I understand why so many do.

But I do not.

At least not yet.

Because I am aware that the vast majority of our nation’s public schools are not much more public, if indeed are any more public, than the new reality in Iowa.

Almost every public school in the United States has a manner of admitting students that fits within an overall system that advantages the advantaged.

Through attendance boundaries, district boundaries, selective admissions and funding systems that get more resources to the schools serving the already advantaged.

It’s why I’m so heartened to see that an organization like Available to All has come into existence …

… whose mission is to do something about it. It’s why Andy and I are eager to have the organization’s founders on a WonkyFolk recording soon.

What I hope the creation of Available to All can do is to amplify the conversation that the charter school movement has been trying to push in our country since our inception.

And the further I get into this, the more I realize how important it is that we be crisp on what we believe public education to be.

Because the more we get drawn into all the other conversations about legal statuses and governance conditions, and compliances with this statute or that regulation, the more it obscures things.

It throws more dust up in the air so none can see.

In many parts of the “American Heartland,” an area famous for its historical dust bowls …

… we are seeing emerge a new kind of dust bowl. An education dust bowl.

But these states are not the first to have blown particulate into the sky.

The public education establishment has been doing it for generations, often in plain talk around kitchen tables, as Bryce’s column so perfectly captures.

But if there is anything that’s becoming clear to me, CharterFolk, it’s that dust is going to settle in the years ahead in ways that will better reveal the base contours of our society.

And features on the landscape like charter schools that live out the single most important defining characteristic of public education need to paint themselves in bold colors to make the contrast plain.

So that, ultimately, across all the geographies wherein we attempt to educate young people in our country, be them new ESA programs or more traditional landforms, we stop the sorting of opportunity along lines of advantage and begin putting our collective thumbs on the right side of the collective scale.