What to Do in an Era of People Losing Even More Faith in Public Schools

Good day, CharterFolk.

Open rates here at CharterFolk stay in the 45% to 50% range, which in comparison to industry benchmarks remain encouragingly high. I thank you all for your continued support. And we keep seeing new growth in readership coming to CharterFolk. New organizations are signing up for organizational subscriptions. We’re also having several respected people agree to serve on the CharterFolk Board who want to help us grow readership even more. I’ll have more news after our next board meeting at the end of the month.

One thing that is coming down the chute for sure:

Amy and I made a promise to one another eight years ago to walk the Camino for our 25th. We’ll be doing that in the second half of September and October. So I’ll be posting less frequently then, if at all. In my absence, we’re planning to double-down on Contributor Columns to keep a steady stream of content coming out. We already have most spots spoken for through November 1, but a few remain open. So if you have an idea for a column, please ping either Kerry at kerry@charterfolk.org or myself at jed@charterfolk.org. It would be great to be getting even more voices out into the CharterSphere.

If any of you want to join our awesome group of paid individual subscribers, we would very much appreciate it. Our costs keep rising as we grow. So we need additional resources to keep up. And if you’re interested in an organizational subscription, please contact either Kerry or me directly.

I said in my last post, that I would follow up with 301 and 401-Level ideas related to Free, Public and Open to All. A pile of work fell on me last week. So I need a little more time to get that one done. Meanwhile, other matters arose last week that cry out for commentary. Let’s turn to them now.

Losing Faith

I come from the R.E.M. generation, so the idea of people losing religion …

… is not foreign to me.

Even still, I found this headline jarring:

Apparently 40 million fewer Americans attend church these days than 25 years ago. The article calls it “the largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history.” The article speculates that in many towns across the country there may be as many churches up for sale as there are single-family homes.

A companion article at the Atlantic explores how the de-churching phenomenon is playing out in Lincoln, Nebraska. The writer grew up there and makes the observation that none of his childhood friends still go to church.

Even in Nebraska, apparently, such forces are at work.

A day earlier, this piece came out at the Journal which also referenced Nebraska.

My first thought, having never seen a rendering of the cornhusker capitol before, was of its striking resemblance to …

… City Hall in Los Angeles.

A google search revealed that, in fact, both we’re built in the 20’s when art-deco was all the rage. Both were among the tallest edifices of their day. In Los Angeles, municipal staff only took up four of the building’s 28 floors when it first opened. But civic leaders wanted something big enough to match the city’s aspirations. And they would grow into it over time.

The Journal editorial board was interested in other matters, namely the corrosive impact of teacher unions spending massive money to protect their monopoly. In the editorial board’s view, the Nebraska story was just yet another example of what the unions always do.

That was not, CharterFolk, my read of the situation.

I thought the same thing I was thinking when I read the Atlantic article:

This is happening in Nebraska?

The NEA is having to spend big money in Nebraska?

That is decidedly not something the NEA has had to do in the past.

The news is that is has to do so today.

The news is that, as surely as you find sanctuaries for sale across the Great Plains these days, so too do you find teacher unions having to spend precious resources to protect its turf in places it never has before.

Including Nebraska.

So, the places where the NEA has spent resources historically it won’t have the same funding for in the years ahead, which will have ripple-through effects in every place that is not Nebraska.

The Atlantic article point outs that, while church attendance is plummeting, Americans aren’t necessarily losing faith in religion itself. They still find understanding of spiritual matters as important as ever.

It’s that they’re losing faith in their churches as the places to access it.

And so a rough beast is finding its hour come round at last.

A corollary in our world seems intuitive to point out:

We are in the middle of one of the largest concentrated changes in school attendance in American history.

And it’s not because Americans are losing faith in education itself. They still know how important it is for their kids to get a good one.

It’s that they’re losing faith in their schools as the places to access it.

So an hour of reckoning is coming round at last.

The Tableau Comes Together

All these formless ruminations came together in a mental tableau during a dinner we had with family friends this weekend.

One of our hosts works as an office manager for an elementary school in Sacramento Unified. Within a few minutes we were processing the latest from the district:

Superintendent Aguilar is leaving.

Though it was reported to be a “mutual decision,” the reality is that the teacher union has been hellbent on getting rid of him for years.

Last November they won another round of elections.

Seven months later he was gone, with the union celebrating the forced resignation.

But the underlying economics eroding the foundations of the school district …

… have only been made worse by the deal that brought last year’s strike to an end.

So all the promises that were made to increase nursing, psychologist, librarian and staff support positions …

… are proving to have been a ruse.

The only part of the deal that has materialized is the increase in teacher pay.

Leaving office managers to serve as de facto nurses, and to schedule access to the library, and to keep track of when itinerant psychologists will be on campus, and to make due on all their regular duties with even fewer hours of clerical support.

Topping it off is a sense of embarrassment that, in an environment where schools are known to have received huge increases in funding over the past decade …

… an independent monitor is being imposed on Sacramento Unified due to its appalling treatment of the most vulnerable.

As is the case in Los Angeles and Nebraska, the state of the state capitol building that Sacramento is home to provides a tableau:


And bogged down in quagmire.

Literally, the state’s renovation of its own capitol building was delayed for years due to its own excessive regulation.

You think any high-caliber superintendent candidates in their right minds will want to take on the half-demolished quagmire that Sacramento Unified has tragically become?

How a Tune Comes to Define a Generation

Denver is famous for the 24-karat golden dome that graces the state’s capitol building which it is home to.

It is also the place where education reform efforts generated results as gilded as any found in the United States.

But then status quo interests regained control of the district …

…and kicked out the superintendent …

… drawing widespread condemnation.

Thereafter, not surprisingly, DPS found that top talent wasn’t even willing to apply. So they went with someone whose biggest leadership experience had been serving as an interim superintendent of a 10,000-student school district on the other side of the country. Subsequently, the Denver school district, as I have written about previously, has turned into a national embarrassment.

Last month things got even worse as the board was shamed for having conducted its business in illegal secrecy.

Last week, the chorus calling for the mass resignation of the district’s leadership grew even louder.

What did the district’s leadership do amid all this controversy and condemnation?

Voted the superintendent a massive raise!

CharterFolk, if there is any place in the world that should not be rewarding its top leadership with a pay raise it is Denver Public Schools.

And yet they do it before our very eyes.

Not aspiring to the 24-karat-ness of the potential for educational excellence in the Mile High City.

But hunkering down in the very basement of public education.

Leading even more to lose faith in our schools.

Risking the tune becoming so sadly catchy it begins to define a generation.

A Beacon

This week, we learned that great change is coming again to the schools of Los Angeles.

Two of the most union-aligned school board members in the history of the district are retiring. And another faces a formidable challenger with deep roots in the charter school community.

It is a moment of massive opportunity to reverse the fact that Los Angeles, too, has become a place controlled by those who work for the system, rather than by those who are supposed to be served by the system.

The fact that status quo interests are having to focus on Nebraska isn’t in and of itself enough reason to think we have the potential to make massive progress. Goodness knows, defenders of the California Establishment have enough resources to fend for themselves.

But with a current leadership team in Los Angeles whose primary focus seems to be on production values …

… rather than on the substantive challenges that confront the district, it appears an hour has come round again.

My recommendation?

Leave the others to occupy the basement. It is no place from which to project aspirations for education’s future.

Dozens of floors above us wait to be filled in the shining beacon that public education has always meant to become.

A symbol beckoning us toward forms of schooling that are greatly more public than any we’ve had before.

That we aspire to such heights and how we actually intend to occupy them is the great articulation that awaits us.

It’s the vision around which faith in public education will ultimately be restored.