A Choice for Walton?

(Warning: The contents of this email may cause disruption to the status quo.)

In the years since he abruptly passed from this earth in 2005, I have often wondered what the late John Walton would say and do about the rolling tide of top down demands and regulation being imposed on charter schools & many of their support organizations. A dear friend, mentor to many, and the energy behind the Walton Family Foundation’s original education reform investments, Walton believed in school choice, because it was the right thing to do. Armed with that power, parents gain dignity and the hope they can make their children’s lives better.

That was once a very difficult concept to sell, yet a united school choice movement was able to repel the attacks from the guardians of the status quo effectively. The result was the enactment of 34 charter school laws in the short period between 1991-1998, among them, the nation’s strongest, then and now. The common goal was laws that provide for maximum diversification and choice. The common enemy was regulation. Not anymore. Today, many so-called reformers advocate for laws that have the clear — albeit perhaps unintended consequence — of putting the government in charge of determining what educational success and failure looks like. They don a mantle of accountability to guard against what they believe – through the lens of often flawed government data – are ineffective charter schools. And yet, when asked what that data actually means or says, they offer conflicting and confusing responses, trusting that the source of data and its interpretation is unassailable. Like when I asked the highly educated chief performance officer of the Philadelphia school district what the state’s growth measure was comprised of (and which is the basis for charter school rankings in the City of Brotherly Love) and she could not answer. Nor did she think it important since the state already had figured it out. Or not.

No wonder student achievement has stagnated again. The steady rise in student achievement from the ‘90s through early ‘00s was credited to competitive pressures of increased choice, which even many system leaders argued gave them the power to make needed changes. Michelle Rhee frequently said after taking the helm of the District of Columbia school system that she could have not achieved performance pay here without the presence of the numerous, competitive options that charter schools provided.

Yet today, the growth of charter schools and the options they afford has plummeted from 13-15% annually through 2009 to less than 8% each of the past four years. An education innovation built on the dual premise that parents are the best guardians of education and that they should be afforded a diverse array of options is being co-opted by a demand for legitimacy and the compelling allure of the status quo. In academic parlance, it is called isomorphism, a new term of endearment for me in my studies, as it explains why a movement created by independent, grassroots roots actors and innovators could now want the legitimacy that comes only with permanent bureaucracy, putting them on a course to become almost indistinguishable from the traditional public school system. And this behavior comes despite only accommodating options for 6% of all US students?

The result? Many who want to engage are frequently discouraged and often thwarted in their attempts to create new schools – unless they are well resourced or belong to a network of widely accepted brands. Take, for example, the Columbia (GA) County School for the Arts, with 1,500 likes on Facebook and demonstrated community support twice that size. After the state’s “alternative” authorizer demanded proof of the ingredients for success and were thoroughly answered with evidence, the new bureaucracy with its 9 full-time staff members are recommending the Commission today deny its application a second time. Operating more like a traditional school district than an independent sponsor, the Georgia Charter Commission has taken on the character of the very government entity that charter schooling was intended to innovate from – in fact, the one where it is housed – the state education department! A look at its website is like a trek through a corn maze, without end or distinction. Sadly this governing structure is recommended by many national advocates as a model, as well as the creation of an “uber-authorizer” which both sponsors schools as well as regulates other possible authorizers! Not only does the evidence among great charter states (DC, NY, IN to name a few) support completely different models, but the science behind chartering tells us effective charters need distance from the system to start and sustain themselves.

Ted Kolderie, the father of charter schools, has often reminded us that chartering is only possible when we have withdrawn the exclusive franchise that districts have, and have enabled new sponsors, which provide diverse offerings, aligned to state standards for parents to choose. This vision is now compromised. Too many charter organizations acting in the name of accountability justify the kind of treatment that the Georgia applicants received. They are also frequently willing to exchange freedom and flexibility for the “opportunity” to have government – both state and federal – heavily involved in that accountability.

Having now observed this from many angles and having heard widespread concern that seems to fall upon deaf ears, I have concluded that the education reform movement needs a re-education. In my notes and files from some 20 plus years I have found many sources for that education, including this video you saw above, in which John Walton reminds us that choice is a mechanism for reforming education. This deeply smart and transformative individual understood what AEI president Arthur Brooks argues is the difference between a complex, and a complicated problem. The most sophisticated computer system can’t accurately assure us that our favorite team is going to win the Super Bowl any more than the best formula for authorizing and accountability will guarantee creation of only the best charter schools. We can solve complicated problems, such as how to fund schools, how to create and apply standards, how to operationalize autonomy. But when it comes to balancing the needs and demands of parents, the problem is more complex.

Parents need to be empowered on behalf of their own children, and their options must be broad in scope. Citizens need to be empowered to create those options and to partner with whomever they choose to support them, with performance based accountability, not regulatory oversight, as the basis for their contract. We simply won’t succeed by insisting that parent choice be predicated on more bureaucratic control of schools.

Isomorphism – eg – making everything look the same – will compel education reform to systemic failure. It must be undone. If you are one of the many who feel this way, or want to learn more, please share your thoughts in reply or tweet your story @jeanneallen. Too much is at stake not to get involved.

As John Walton used to say to me, keep up the pressure.

Wishing you a great new school year – Jeanne