I called this talk, “Learning to live with Success,” because the charter school movement has been enormously successful in DC and I perceive that success is hard to adjust to. Living with success will take learning how to participate effectively in the decisions this city must make if it is move toward a new vision for education of all the children of DC. The motto of the Association is “Working to Achieve a Quality Education for Every Child in the Nation’s Capital!” In fact, however, most charter leaders have been too busy with the challenges of running their own schools to worry much about an educational vision for the whole city. But with success come both the opportunity and the obligation to play on the wider stage.
Charter schools began as up-starts and underdogs. Starting a charter was a brave, perhaps foolhardy act. It took innovative ideas about education, confidence, and leadership skills. Being a charter pioneer also took a bit of a scrappy, in-your-face attitude, a lot of persistence, and a thick skin.
Back in the 1990s when the charter movement got rolling, traditional public schools were failing a big portion of the population—especially low income African American children in cities. This perception of failure had not always been there. On the contrary, universal public education was widely considered one of America’s great strengths and sources of pride. Public schools had been gateways to middle class for millions of Americans, especially those newly arrived in America or newly arrived in cities. Despite segregation, public schools were gateways to the middle class for many African Americans, although those gateways were narrow and had many barriers.
This legacy of success created deep, long-lasting loyalty to traditional public schools and nostalgia for the good old days when all the neighborhood children walked together through a safe neighborhood to a good neighborhood school. This idealized image of the neighborhood school and the even earlier image of the little red school house—like many idealized images of a warmly remembered past—lives on today, even though reality did not always live up to the idealized image.
Over many decades, a host of bad things happened to a lot of big city neighborhoods and undermined both the image and the reality of traditional public schools. The growth of suburbs, automobile culture, red-lining, white flight, black middle class flight, declining population, concentrated poverty, deteriorating housing and boarded up stores, falling tax rolls, crack cocaine and other drugs --all combined to devastate huge areas of major cities and many big city school systems. Affluent areas remained, but much of the middle class was gone. Cities were hollowed out. Schools in big cities were struggling against powerful forces of poverty and neighborhood distress, often fighting losing battles despite heroic efforts of individual teachers, principals, and superintendents. Student achievement and retention rates fell.
Perhaps as a defense against adversity, traditional school systems adopted rigid rules and succumbed to top heavy bureaucracy that stifled creativity of principals, teachers and students.
In DC the hollowing out of the city was deep and more prolonged than many other cities. We lost the white middle class first and then the black middle class. Especially, we lost parents of school age-children. DC population dropped steadily from almost 800 thousand in early the 1960s to 567 thousand in 1998, when it stabilized and slowly began growing again. (DC has gained almost 100 thousand since the lowest point.) School enrollment dropped even more. From 149 thousand in 1969-70, it dropped in half to 70 thousand in 2008-9 and has since risen to 85 thousand. Charters account for most of that growth.
Many cities began growing again in the 1980s, but DC’s population was on a downward path until late 1990s. Middle class flight was extreme. We became a city sharply divided between a relatively affluent (in some parts, extremely affluent) and much whiter west side and a much lower income (in some places, extremely poor) and much blacker east side. The maps of the city by race and income are stark evidence of this divide.
Paradoxically, I believe this extreme hollowing out made it possible for the charter school movement to be so successful here. Things were so bad that some brave school leaders and some brave parents were willing to try something new and scary. We didn’t have Hurricane Katrina that wrecked the New Orleans schools so badly they turned to charters. But in DC the hollowing out of the city was the equivalent of a hurricane. Also, like New Orleans, we had a legacy of segregation in both schools and housing. DC also had a top-heavy central school bureaucracy that made it hard for new ideas to thrive.
Of course, it helped that a congress led by conservative Republicans wanted try choice and competition in education, by which they originally meant vouchers, and used DC as their show case—in the fine congressional tradition of acting like a city council for the District. But if the post-hurricane-like conditions had not been there, school entrepreneurs and parents would not have embraced the charter movement as avidly as they did. Traditional schools were so obviously not working for such a big block of children that leaders and parents had the courage to try something new.
The charter movement had three main beliefs—all extremely important. One was innovation in education—breaking out of the mold, trying new approaches to teaching and learning, freeing school leaders and teachers from bureaucratic rigidity, collecting evidence of how the new approaches were working and using the evidence to improve student achievement. The second was choice—the idea that parents could choose the right kind of school for their children and effective schools with strong leadership would attract parents and students, while weaker ones would lose enrollment and have to improve to stay in the game. And the third, perhaps the most important, was that children from low-income families, especially children of color could succeed in demanding school environments and have successful lives and careers. These were powerful ideas.
Charter pioneers were really brave people. They had to be. They faced all the difficulties of obtaining a charter, finding a building, getting a school started, and making it work, plus a lot of hostility from those who did not want charters to succeed. It was hard to get buildings, even though many DCPS schools were shuttered or way underutilized. It was hard to get public services that traditional schools received as a matter of course, even police protection when local toughs roughed up charter students. Funding was notoriously unequal; supplemental appropriations were passed for traditional schools only. (The plaintiff’s brief in the case now in court amply demonstrates the funding disparities.) Charters were hardly ever at the table when big education decisions were made that affected them, such as the well-intentioned but problematic efforts to mainstream special education students. All these road blocks made starting and growing a charter school seem like a never-ending obstacle course—the extreme kind you have to survive to get into special operations in the military. The legacy of these obstacles remains, although most have been gradually mitigated.
The growth and success of the charter movement could not have been predicted fifteen or even ten years ago. Who would have thought: 63 Schools, 100 campuses, 44 percent of enrollment? It is good news for the future of the city is that there more children in both systems—total enrollment is growing. Charter schools are very diverse and their enrollment reflects the city—except that it is low on the white and affluent. Achievement measured by proficiency and graduation show charter averages consistently above traditional public schools, although both sectors are improving. Especially heartening is the observation that charters tend to be especially effective in improving the skills and retention rates of at risk children. Measurement of school quality is difficult but is improving with experience. Secondary school leaders now recognize that they need to look beyond graduation and college acceptance, to how well prepared the students are to succeed in higher education and careers.
It is also heartening that schools with demonstrably higher student achievement are the ones that are growing. The skeptics of choice said parents, especially parents with low-incomes and little education themselves would not be able to choose good schools for their children. They were wrong. Parents can choose and they choose well.
National studies have recognized these successes, and so has the local community. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has made clear her commitment to success in both sectors. In Jenny Niles, we have a highly qualitied Deputy Mayor for Education, who has been a charter leader. DCPS has sought help from charter leaders in improving failing schools. There is talk of DCPS seeking chartering authority.
All-in-all this is a record of surprising success for the charter movement, of victories against heavy odds and serious obstacles. You should be really proud of what you have achieved as individual schools and as a movement. You have cause for celebration.
BUT the difficult part is learning to act like winners and shoulder the responsibilities that go with success. The citizens of DC and their elected leaders face major strategic decisions about the shape, structure, and priorities of the whole school system going forward. The charter movement is now in the somewhat uncomfortable position of being in the winner’s circle, which requires helping to think through the choices that face the city with respect to public education and playing a big role in deciding what to do. You are successful leaders with potential political power—parents and teachers, principals and staff associated with nearly half the students in the city can hardly be ignored if they choose to be heard. More important, you have the energy and momentum that goes with having achieved success against serious obstacles. That makes you natural leaders in the next phase of achieving more effective schools for all the students of the District of Columbia.
This new role will take an attitude adjustment. As I listen to charter school leaders, I am often amazed at how beleaguered they still feel—as though the whole enterprise were still under fire and might collapse at any moment. They are used to clawing their way up and fighting off threats. I am not saying that all those threats have entirely gone away. But it is time to get out of the defensive crouch, stand tall, and act like the winning team that you are.
So what are the strategic decisions that the system faces? Let me start with two that are NOT on my list:
- Funding equalization. I believe that battle is close to over and will be won by the forces of equal funding, either in court or in the political arena as the charter movement learns to use its political clout. I was cheered to hear Mayor Bowser suggest talking about resolving the issue. That is good news. The Association never wanted to sue the city and tried hard to avoid a law suit.
- Calling a halt to new charters. This is a policy without inherent appeal; it smacks of closing out promising new ideas. It won’t go anywhere.
But here are two much harder issues that the city must grapple with:
- Advantages of choice v. ideal of the neighborhood school.
There is tension between two very appealing concepts here. One is the vision of a really good school of right in every neighborhood serving all neighborhood kids. This vision is appealing because it provides certainty and continuity for parents (no lotteries and wondering which school is best) and it provides a focus for community activism and support. The other is the vision of choice. This vision is appealing because it allows for matching the school to the special interests and abilities of the child (arts, languages, science, etc.) and it provides a way to get the kid out the neighborhood, away from gangs and negative peer pressure. Trying to do both—the course the city now on—strains resources and risks creating too many small schools with limited offerings. Some compromises will be necessary so that both ideas can flourish, but they will be very hard to craft. Solutions could be different for different ages of students.
- How to measure and foster high quality education and student achievement.
Achieving quality education for all children requires on-going progress in measuring quality, sharing the measures with teachers, parents and officials, and the public and using them to improve teaching and learning. No one defends over reliance on test scores—even with development of better tests, but the hard work is in development measures of character development, leadership, innovation, cooperation, and other desirable elements of a quality education.
The Association has long recognized the importance of communication and collaboration involving both traditional and charter sectors of DC’s public education system. The “Charter School Leadership Position on Education Sector Planning for DC” expressed the charter sector’s receptivity to participation in this dialog. Mayor Bowser and Deputy Mayor Niles have both warmly endorsed the idea in principle and their intention to appoint and work with the DC Cross-Sector Collaboration Task. Now the charter movement has to seize the opportunity and prepare to play a strong constructive role.
For DC charter sector to continue to thrive and help lead DC education, it needs a strong, membership organization that can both advocate for charters and represent the charter movement in a constructive dialog between the sectors. The Association is that organization, but it needs the full participation of all charter schools. Ramona Edelin is a terrific leader, but she can’t do it alone. She needs more staff and resources to be as effective as we need her to be. The Board is dedicated and hard-working. It has energetic new chair and you are about to elect new members. But they need your full support.
I know I am preaching to the choir right now. The people in this room are the Association’s most dedicated supporters. But we need everybody on board. Get out and recruit non-member schools to join the association and help the Board find additional resources. With the whole charter movement working together we can raise the effectiveness of the Association to a new level and be ready to seize the opportunity and responsibility that your success has won.