Education debates are like urban myths. With every retelling, they gain more traction. Take the debate over charter schools: the battle lines have been the same for twenty years. The charter crowd says they’re the best hope for poor kids. The anti-charter folks call them a plot to privatize public education and accuse them of taking all the top kids and keeping out the most challenging.
The benefit of this dynamic is that it’s familiar. It holds just enough truth that it has staying power. It serves an important political purpose for the storytellers. The problem is that can prevent these storytellers from responding to reality—in this case the real impact of charter growth on traditional districts and schools.
Having held very different roles inside and outside our traditional school system, I’ve had a variety of perspectives on this impact. I started out as a critic of the charter school movement, writing articles on the treatment of students with disabilities by for-profit charter schools. I worked at the district level during periods of rapid charter growth in Los Angeles and San Diego. My wife and I enrolled our children in district schools in Oakland Unified, where more than a third of students are in charters. I’ve led and served on the board of several education nonprofits devoted to improving California’s public-school system. Through these various roles, my views on charters have evolved.
Over time, I’ve learned that neither side has a monopoly on the truth or a claim to the higher ground. There are charter leaders who violate special education law but there are also “traditional” public schools that exclude and kick out students with disabilities. There are charter leaders who flout the rules on enrollment and financial management and there are school district leaders who engage in truly egregious financial and HR practices. When it comes to school quality, the charter and district worlds display the same range from terrible to fantastic.
The actual impact of charters on district finances and programming are much easier to see if you stop listening to the pro and anti-charter crowds. For district leaders in places like Oakland, Los Angeles and Sacramento, tuning out the education reform debate is the first big step in adapting to—and surviving—charter growth.
Tune Out, Check in
Now, I know this is easier said than done. For years, battles for school board control in high charter growth cities have revolved around unilateral opposition to charters or benign collaboration. Opposition is typically framed as the only way for districts to stop declining enrollment and prevent budget cuts. Meanwhile, collaboration is framed as the “right thing to do” because all kids deserve to attend good schools.
With the new administration in D.C., this rhetoric is getting louder and more aggressive. Now, supporting charters means you’re a fan of Devos and Trump. Meanwhile, charter leaders mobilize their parents based on the unlikely premise that failing school districts will send their children back to awful district schools.
In their rush to score cheap political points, both camps sidestep the reality that districts and charters are in a high-stakes competition for students. The truth is that unilateral opposition to charters has never stopped them from growing, just like it hasn’t stopped thousands of parents from enrolling their children in private schools or finding ways to get them into neighboring school districts. The futures of local charters and districts hinge on the same thing—the decisions parents make for their children.
For district leaders struggling with rapid charter growth, the second big step in survival is accepting a reality that most charter leaders have taken for granted. Parents rule and knowing what makes them tick is the most basic survival skill.
Funding. Every child that walks through the doors of a district school brings a pot of money with them. Every time they leave, that funding goes away but the school district’s commitments to employee salaries, benefits and pensions don’t.
In fact, the impact on a district’s bottom line can worsen. In most cases, it is politically impossible for school districts to proportionally decrease their number of employees as their student enrollment declines. When they make cuts, they lay off the employees with the lowest tenure and salaries and the smallest impact on their benefit costs. Even when districts do try to achieve this balance, some costs like pensions and health care can actually increase, becoming more concentrated and dependent on the funding of students who remain.
This process leaves less money for everything else, including the dollars distributed down to the school level to buy everything from computers to art supplies. When school budgets decline, enrichment activities most attractive to parents, like art and music, may be the first things cut. Without those activities, more parents leave, compounding the problem.
Districts caught in this cycle are doomed unless they make decisions with parents in mind and alter their strategy to directly focus on competitiveness. For that to happen, they need to understand why parents pick some schools over others.
This decision-making can be extremely complex and deceptively simple. Some parents prioritize safety or friendships. Some focus on academics, the parent community or something as simple as driving distance. Sometimes it’s just about how much your child wants to go to school and how hard it is it to get them out of bed in the morning.
No one writes fancy education books about the challenges of getting kids to school in the morning. Colleges of Education spend much more time teaching their students about the decisions made in schools than the ones made at home. It’s not surprising that the graduates of these schools spend their time thinking about educators and students instead of parents. While it certainly makes sense for superintendents to think about test results, classroom instruction and principal leadership, leaders in areas of charter growth must shift their attention to parents.
To do that effectively, they’ll have to rethink the conventional wisdom of both the traditional and reform sectors around budgeting, programming, and parent engagement. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss what that means in practice.
— Arun Ramanathan
Arun Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning.