Why It’s Gotten Even Harder – The Establishment’s Strategy to Destroy Charter Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk. 

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On to the update.

Update Summary: In recent years conditions have gotten more difficult for charter schools because we have grown, and that gave the Establishment an opportunity to run a new strategy consisting of three parts: attacking charter schools; erasing evidence of poor Establishment performance; and blaming charter schools for any other problems in public education. The strategy is grounded in an effort to get focus off the problems that exist within Establishment schools and onto the supposed problems that exist in charter schools. The Establishment has achieved this, not by leading with PR efforts, but by advocating for bills and other proposals that drive a negative narrative for charter schools. While this strategy has been very damaging to us, it is also one that we could learn from as we make our plans for the future.

Today, we focus on why things have gotten even harder for charter schools in recent years. It’s something I alluded to in “How Shmuckheads Dropped the Ball on Vision.

What was it about a decade ago that tipped things from being “incredibly difficult” like they always had been, to the “bordering on impossible” which has become, unfortunately, our new normal …? What led to the change was the fact that we had succeeded. We had grown … and that growth … gave our adversaries the opportunity to run a new and much more effective strategy against us.

That more effective strategy is what I want to turn to today. Plain and simple, it has equated to nothing less than a massive effort to destroy us.

Not to slow us down. Not to reform us. But to destroy us.

It is something that CharterFolk intuitively understand from our experience. Even in places where overall dynamics remain more positive, we see adversaries in the landscape more rabid in their opposition to us than we have ever seen before. Duking it out in the trenches, it can be difficult to see how the pieces of the Establishment’s strategy fit together. My aim with this post is to begin identifying the parts so that we may better understand them and learn from them. If we do, I believe that we will see that we have the opportunity to do to the Establishment what it has been doing to us in recent years, and that would be an important part of charter schools surviving and thriving in the years ahead.

That Establishment’s strategy to destroy us has three parts:

  • Attack
  • Erase
  • Blame

I dive into each below.

Attack

Of all the improved strategies our adversaries have used against us in recent years, the attack strategy has done more to make CharterFolk’s work more difficult than anything else. To understand its impact, it is helpful to remember the early years of the movement when things were not as difficult as they are today. What made that landscape so different from our current one was the fact that all the focus in the public realm was on problems in traditional public schools. Each new charter school in development was a proposal that embodied a sense of hope that problems could be addressed. The reasons for hope were not encapsulated in a billboard or any other PR effort.  They were concrete policy proposals that were advocated for and had to be voted up or down, which created media coverage flowing from the controversy and suspense about whether the charters would be approved. In other words, charter schools were on the offensive, and the Establishment was on the defensive, and it stayed that way for nearly twenty years. Not surprisingly, being on the offensive, we were able to generate significant growth and momentum during that time.

But sometime about a decade ago, our opposition saw that the landscape had finally begun to change. Thousands of charter schools had opened across the United States. This provided the Establishment something large to attack. It was the opportunity it had been waiting for, a chance to get the focus off itself and onto something else by going on the offensive.

How they did so should be very instructive for us. They did it by doing what they do best. They advocated. They did not shoot from the hip.  They chose a strategy very carefully after millions of dollars of deep analysis. It is a special advantage they have – tons of resources to poll and decades of having done it such that they are better at it than anyone else. And that put them in a position to learn something that the rest of us just did not know, or did not understand to the depth that we should have, which was that the public’s support for charter schools was soft.

The first time I was briefed about charter school polling during my first year at CCSA, our pollster told me: “If charter schools were a statewide candidate, you would be undefeatable.” It was shorthand for what a lot of experts thought then, and that created an opening for the Establishment. They had seen the same surface-level polling that we had seen, that maybe 60% or 70% of the public report being supportive of charter schools.  But when they went deeper, they recognized that the vast majority of voters had no idea what charter schools are, and if they could hit charter schools over the head with a sledgehammer, if they could convince people that charter schools are different from what we actually are – basically, if they outright lied about us – they could drive down the public’s support.

So they set about designing their sledgehammer, not a PR campaign, but a series of policy proposals designed to get the focus off the failings of the traditional system and onto our supposed failings.  Not bills designed to pass, but ones meant to drive a narrative, like bills calling for charter schools to comply with public meetings requirements or conflict of interest standards.

Do you really think our opposition gives a darn whether charter schools comply with open meeting laws or conflict of interest standards?

Of course they don’t. The last things they want is for those bills to pass.  The longer the fight drags on, the better. That is why on many occasions when it would have been easy to actually enact a change in law – surgically eliminating for profits, for example, or advancing a clean bill on public meetings – they pivoted quickly to make sure the bills never passed so they could keep their lie in the public sphere. And once they had a meta-narrative going through their advocacy efforts, they then layered in their radio spots and websites and all their other communications efforts.

In June of 2017, after 16 years of having not updated its policy position on charter schools, the NEA finally released a new policy.

At its heart, it had nothing to do with open meetings or any other reform of charter schools. It was about getting what they had always wanted: a moratorium. Within a month, many state teacher unions across the country and the NAACP had all come out with new policy positions aligning with the NEA’s call for a moratorium.

Across the country, attacks continue along these lines to this day. Our adversaries fight to get them included in national party platforms and presidential campaign policy statements. Not a day goes by without another bill being surfaced, a new regulation being proposed, or a new district resolution being drafted. It has represented one massive effort to get the focus off the Establishment and its shortcomings by running policy proposals focusing on our supposed problems. It has been incredibly effective, and more than any other single thing that we have had to contend with over the past decade, it has made charter school work even harder than it has ever been before.

Erase

Attacking is all well and good.  But how do you keep the focus off yourself when there is just so much evidence of problems within Establishment schools?

Well, you get rid of the evidence, of course.

Like the school performance data that used to be much more robust in states across the country.

Now, I realize I am becoming one of the dinosaurs around here, and I know how many in our movement have big concerns with standardized testing, but I also remember what it was like before student performance data came along. I was a teacher before there was any evidence in the landscape that Establishment schools were badly underserving kids, and I saw how the presence of new data dramatically changed the discussion. I am not going to say that I supported all the things that ed reformers tried to do with all the new data. A lot of it was misguided. I am not in favor, nor was I ever in favor, of state or federally mandated targets for growth and pre-determined interventions for schools missing targets.  Nor did I ever think it was a good idea to mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to test scores. But was having evidence regarding school performance a hell of a lot better than what we had before, virtually no data whatsoever?

Absolutely it was.

But by around 2010, the Establishment saw the misuse of the data was providing an opportunity to get rid of the evidence altogether.  A bizarre troika of teacher unions, Tea Party activists …

and suburban parents …

https://washingtonmonthly.com/2016/03/31/the-tea-partyteacher-union-revolt/

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/suburbia-and-its-common-core-conspiracy-theories/385424/

… came together to allow the Establishment to pull off what it had been wanting to achieve for decades: a widespread reduction in the amount of student performance data available to the public. Today in most states, whereas before we had testing data for grades 2-11, we only have data for grades 3-8 and just one year in high school. And we think that’s going to be enough to have any true sense how our schools are doing with kids?

Of course not, and that’s just the point, because Establishment protectors have long recognized a striking phenomenon regarding the public’s beliefs about public schools:

The less the public knows, the more the public likes its public schools.

Indeed, in the years immediately around the mothballing of California’s Achieve Performance Index (API) system, CCSA’s polling showed a significant increase in the percentage of voters who reported that the state’s public schools deserved an A or B.

Now, of course, there were myriad factors going into the public’s changing views of public schools during this period, but the general point holds. The Establishment knows that eliminating poor academic performance data contributes to the public thinking there is less wrong with public schools. And the less the public thinks anything is wrong with Establishment schools, the less there is reason to embrace significant reform, like the growth of charter schools.

At a school level, if there is no information available about how schools are underperforming, it becomes much more difficult to identify problems warranting the creation of new charter schools. This is something I wrote about in No Vision No Voice.

What is the one thing that New York Chancellor Richard Carranza and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio say charter school leaders simply may not do? Highlight problems that exist within traditional public schools. 

How are you supposed to highlight problems in local public schools if the data you use to do so is taken away? Maybe that’s why City Council Members in New York accuse De Blasio of wanting to eliminate testing in order to hide poor performance.

https://nypost.com/2019/12/18/councilman-city-hall-wants-to-nix-standardized-testing-to-hide-school-failures/

What better way to obscure the fact that the District has 140 schools that are performing absolutely dismally?

https://nypost.com/2019/12/17/over-140-nyc-schools-have-grades-with-90-percent-state-exam-failure-rate/

So erase, erase, erase.

And if you can’t erase it altogether, render whatever evidence is left in the landscape unintelligible so that no one can make sense of anything, which is what a lot of the multiple-measure fad has become: nothing more than thinly disguised gobbledygook.

https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article202515644.html

Almost as good as erase, erase, erase …

Obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate.

Anything to keep people from being able to focus again on the failures happening within the Establishment.

Blame

Finally, we come to those problems in public education that just can’t be erased or obfuscated.  What does the Establishment do about those?

It scapegoats, of course.

What are the two things that you need to run a scapegoat strategy?  First you need an “other,”  something in the landscape big enough to blame. After our growth, charter schools had certainly become that. Secondly, you need ignorance, a broader lack of understanding about what has really happened, so that those who want to blame the other are able to do so credibly.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, ignorance on matters related to public education is in striking abundance. Often we see the blame game played on fiscal matters because many public school funding issues are so green-eye-shade (just check out any big school district’s annual budget), that there has been a society-wide glazing over of eyes. It results in a level of ignorance that primes the scapegoat strategy. Couple that with the fact that most district solvency problems grow out of irresponsible behavior that the Establishment has engaged in for decades, and various parties will do just about anything to avoid their roles in these messes coming to light. You end up with a perfect storm of conditions leading to charter schools getting blamed for just about any financial challenge you find in public education.

https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/wp-content/uploads/ITPI_Breaking_Point_May2018FINAL.pdf

https://www.dailynews.com/2019/01/21/its-wrong-to-blame-charter-schools-for-lausds-mess/

http://americanschoolchoice.com/dont-blame-charter-schools-for-philadelphias-money-problems/

https://www.metrotimes.com/news-hits/archives/2016/07/18/study-the-proliferation-of-charter-schools-in-michigan-hurt-traditional-districts

The examples go on and on …

But the blame-charter-strategy plays out on a much wider range of issues than just fiscal matters because school districts have so many things that they need to attempt to escape blame for. And as it relates to public education, our society has developed a massive case of collective amnesia.  We cannot remember long enough to identify how a problem in public education came about three weeks ago, much less three decades ago, and charter schools have now been around for nearly 30 years. It makes conditions ripe for the Establishment to do in the 2020’s what it could never have done in the 1990s or 2000s: to create a new narrative that charter schools are not a response to the failings of the traditional public school system, but are the maker of those failings.

Problems in special ed these days?  It was all hunky dory before there were charter schools.

Facilities?  There weren’t dilapidated buildings before charter schools came along.

Poor academic performance?  Kids were learning so much more back in the day.

Each blame initiative, again, not just some PR effort, but an opportunity to use the same tactics the Establishment uses within its attack strategy.

Doing what it does best. Advocating.

Advancing moratoria resolutions that public officials have to vote on.

Going on strike.

Running new bills.

All supporting their narrative that charter schools are to blame.

Attack, Erase, Blame.

It is a three-part strategy that simply would not have been viable to run against charter schools when our movement first began, but it is one the Establishment has pivoted to with great impact over the past decade. And it has ended up making the work of CharterFolk even harder than it has ever been before.

But it is also something we should consider very instructive, because for all the challenge that the strategy has placed upon us, it also points a way forward for us. At this moment of reflection in the history of our movement, my belief is that we have the potential to improve our advocacy efforts patterned to some degree after what has been done to us. In so doing, we would take something that was intended to destroy us, and turn it into a force magnifier for our movement that could propel us into even higher levels of momentum and impact in the years ahead.

Just how we do so are thoughts and ideas I look forward to surfacing and debating and refining with all of you in the weeks and months ahead here at CharterFolk.

In the meantime …

Just keep going.