Perpetual Beta

I caught up with a friend recently over a beer, we spent a good amount of time discussing a topic we share an interest in: California Charter Law. (I know… *YAWN*)

Here in California, we’ve been experimenting on public school students for more than 20 years using Charter Law, so maybe it’s time to take stock of where things stand.

Go_dog_goMaybe it’s time to rein in the mavericks, to return law and order to this wild west.

We discussed first principles:

What is CA Charter Law solving for?

  • Remediation?
  • Deregulation?
  • Innovation?
  • Differentiation?

Lack of clarity around the objective of Charter law drives much of the bitter debate and confusion surrounding charter schools, and it allows charters to be spawned for just about any reason under the sun.

The way CA charter law is written today, just about anybody can write a charter petition focused on some novel educational theme of their own design and it stands a pretty good chance of getting approved, as long as their application is reasonably complete.

In the case of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, even if an application isn’t reasonably complete, it still stands a pretty good chance of getting approved on appeal from a district. Unlike school districts who have an existing local community, educational program and operating model to prioritize, shepherd and defend, the SCCBOE is a freewheeling authorizer that will put staff behind an unapprovable petition denied at the local level, to whip it into approvable shape. It’s like the SCCBOE is paying their staff to directly compete with local school districts and communities across Santa Clara County.

We discussed semantic limitations:

  1. Charter – what is a charter school? The variety of different charter models is amazing, yet we use the same word to describe them all. It’s just like in the Dr. Seuss book Go Dog, Go. High up in the top of the tree was a dog party, a big dog party. There were big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs, fat dogs, skinny dogs, black and white dogs. But we call them all “dogs.” Some charters may be great, others we know are terrible, others completely online, others in individual homes, some in huge classes, some in small intimate classes, others are strict disciplinarian fortresses, others are downright harmful to children, but we call them all “charter schools” and our policies and politics treat them all pretty much the same.
  2. Status quo – What is a status quo program? It’s not like school districts up and down the state of CA are homogenous, and they change constantly. The curriculum, staff, technology and infrastructure of public education changes, sometimes by a lot, sometimes by a little, but over time, schools evolve and adapt to new students, new circumstances, new staff, new curricula. Saying the “local district” public education status quo is failing our children is weak, uninformed argument. There are many world class public school districts and schools out there – and in fact research shows that the best of the true public schools outperform private schools.
  3. Better education – Yes we all want “better” education for our children, but arguing that the “status quo” is inadequate and we must strive for “better” is a horrible basis for public education policy because it’s simply inarticulate. Any time a reformer says “we must do X, Y or Z” urgently in order to provide “better” education, they should be run out of the room for lack of clarity and specificity. Blindly chasing “better” education is more religion than science, just like all the current focus on “innovation.” We should always be very specific about the unmet educational need we’re trying to address and take aim its root cause. If we can’t articulate a specific unmet need or if we don’t understand what drives the performance gap, we should go away and do more homework until we can.

We discussed moving out of Beta:

  1. Universalizability – This is a basic ethical principal enshrined in American law as “equal protection.” As “schools of choice,” most charters open their doors to serve a select student body that’s not representative of the general population in their neighborhood or district. Ensuring that purportedly “successful” charters educating a select student body are subsequently tested under real world (era: universal, equitable) conditions is key to properly assessing their quality and validity. Notice how Rocketship Education’s performance has fallen as they’ve grown, essentially regressing to the mean.
  2. Outcomes measurement – Our Charter experiment is rich in variety and swimming in data, in part because they are under particular scrutiny, but who among them does really good outcomes measurement? Everyone talks about the “stakes” being so high for our children and our country, so who’s developed the scientifically and statistically rigorous measurement schemes that tell us which of these hundreds of individual charter experiments are working? We should have enough data after 20 years, so let’s see the results.
  3. Giving credit – After so many years running this grand experiment, there must be some successes out there, let’s give them their due credit. There must be some creative and dedicated educators who have achieved what others said they could not. The most comprehensive studies of charter school outcomes tell us there are winners – at least statistically. We can’t continue to run this charter experiment as an in-market beta test forever. Twenty years is more than enough time to identify the winners. Let’s recognize them and leverage them already.
  4. Sustainability – Let’s figure out which of the truly successful models are sustainable beyond the initial heroic efforts of the charter founders. Which schools have shown they can offer a stable, consistently high quality education over time for a student body that changes with each generation of students. Five years of longitudinal outcome data for a test cohort versus a control cohort ought to suffice. If a charter model is well examined, found to be effective and is proven sustainable, we sure want to know about that! Imagine how excited the education establishment would be in Sacramento if this was presented for all to see.
  5. Affordability – Here’s the tough one. The goal of the CA charter experiment was to find new methods and models to improve public education, but some charter programs are clearly more expensive than existing district programs. Many charter programs can only operate with large infusions of private funding, which means they’re just not readily scalable across the state. Which among the successful charter programs or practices can CA actually afford? If a charter program costs 25% more than the CA per-student budget, we need to either call it tragically unaffordable or increase public funding to roll it out. In the end, great educational innovations identified by charters may wind up on a shelf with other educational goodies we’d love to have but only private education can afford.

Failing to analyze our 20 year charter experiment with something like this kind of approach would be irresponsible. An entire generation of CA public school students have been guinea pigs in the charter and high stakes standardized testing regimes, and there’s no sign of a slowdown. Let’s reassess.

To allow the charter movement to continue on its current path is nothing less than allowing the slow growth of a political initiative CA voters twice roundly rejected, namely creation of a system of public education vouchers in which public funding flows unrestricted and unregulated out of public coffers into private, often for-profit, pockets.

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