Encouraging signs for charter schools out West
Mario Cuomo famously said “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” That was, however, in a kinder age that appreciated nuance. Yesterday I woke up in a cold sweat muttering: You campaign in fear of the “other”; you govern in a state of emergency. But let’s not go there today. Let’s instead summon our inner Mario and take solace in some recent activity in two states out West where a more salutary political paradigm has taken hold, at least with respect to charter school policy. Something akin to: You campaign in sound bytes; you govern in pragmatism.
Cases in point: the new governors of California and New Mexico both ran campaigns sprinkled with anti-charter school sentiment. But both Gavin Newsom in California and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico appointed distinguished educator-researchers to the highest positions in state education policy, and charter school leaders and advocates in both states should sleep better knowing that reasonable approaches to ed-policy are likely to prevail.
In California, Newsom appointed Stanford professor and eminent educator, Linda Darling-Hammond, as the head of California’s Board of Education. Coming on the heels of a teacher strike in Los Angeles that had devolved into an anti-charter mud-slinging contest, the appointment of Darling-Hammond (whom many had hoped would become Obama’s Secretary of Education) is nothing but good news. She is a renowned author and researcher with a solid understanding of the role of choice. One hopes that Newsom’s next round of appointments to the Board and its Advisory Commission for Charter Schools is similarly thoughtful, especially in light of the calls for a rewrite of the California charter school law.
In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham named a former classroom teacher and longtime New Mexico State University researcher, Karen Trujillo, to head the Public Education Department. More telling, however, was the appointment of four deputy secretaries—two of whom have rich charter school experience. These appointments followed the governor’s ending of the state’s standardized test system, saying “... accountability is no longer going to be to punish schools, teachers and students." These words may not be music to the ears of orthodox school reform advocates, but there should be no doubt that they will be welcomed by the vast majority of those who actually work in our schools—charter schools as well as ones run by the district.
There are many reasons that underlie state officials’ pragmatic approach to dealing with hot button education issues, but the one that we should remember every time we feel the sky is falling is this: charter schools are not going away. They are here to stay because they present options to whatever the local school district is offering and because millions of parents have chosen them. Charter schools have been a disruptive force in public education with all the good and bad stuff that comes with that. Although they are often criticized by educators in traditional schools, the very same people will find themselves jumping at the chance to start a charter school because it comes with a promise of being able to fully utilize their talents. Successful politicians understand their electorate and know the attachment of parents to their schools, especially ones like ours that integrate classroom and community.
To be clear, the blue wave that swept Democrats into office back in November presents a real challenge to the charter movement. Charter leaders and advocates across the US are feeling the backlash from “progressives” who have little to no understanding of the progressive roots of our movement. But, where policy is driven by research rather than ideology, we will flourish or perish on the strength of our schools and the strength of our ideas. The best approach for those of us who care about the health of the charter school sector is to tend our gardens. Let’s continually improve our schools, become beacons of light in our communities and demand that our education policy-makers understand and pay attention to the role we play in improving all public education.