Getting it from the left and right, and even worse developments in California and Utah

Updated: Mar 12

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “It’s not paranoia if they’re REALLY out to get you” but I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that all of us in charter school leadership and advocacy feel the specter of a target on our individual and collective backs.

First, a bunch of progressive politicians and activists took leave of their senses and became hell bent on turning support for charter schools into a political wedge issue. This made no political sense whatsoever and was stomach churning for us all. And then the Trump administration started hawking its Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act—vouchers on steroids, if you will—and announced its intention to get rid of CSP in favor of “block grants.” Just ugly national political football—with our schools and all they stand for as the football.

But closer to home things are getting even dicier, especially when it comes to relationships with policy-makers and authorizers. This is where the pain is greatest right now, especially for independent charter schools that don’t have the resources and the lobbyists of CMOs. A number of our member schools are fighting for their lives and this is frightening, depressing and counterproductive. The situation is particularly acute in California and Utah, states with extremely different demographics, politics and charter sectors.

California has 333 authorizers which means there are potentially 333 different ways to evaluate charter school performance and compliance. As a number of districts have become hostile towards charter schools, they are using trivial excuses, such as slight under-enrollment, to deny renewals. And as the appeals process is based on very narrow metrics of academic performance and compliance, schools that are doing extraordinary community work and reaching students with diverse learning needs, are not able to make a proper case for their success. This completely flies in the face of the very reason for the existence of chartered schools.

In Utah the vast majority of schools are authorized by a single authorizer, an entity that is responsible for the oversight of over 100 charter schools. It requires heavy lifting for any organization to properly evaluate school success, especially in a way that honors the purposes of charter schools as engines of innovation. Overburdened, and under pressure from the fallout of a failed school with financial misdealings, authorization in Utah has become overreactive in its role rather than being a trusted partner. It feels to independent charter schools as if there’s a directive to thin their ranks. The CMOs have the clout to fight this stuff off, but the indies don’t, and are under duress.

Changing the national dialogue is a slow process and we all have to do our bit—it’s not an entirely unexpected development. But finding ourselves in the position where we’re struggling for our lives because some authorizers only want to evaluate through the prism of narrow compliance metrics is not what we ever expected.

We all bought into the “autonomy in exchange for accountability” paradigm when we first applied for a charter. It’s time now for authorization to be truly accountable to the purposes of chartering.

by Steve Zimmerman, CPICS Director


© 2020 Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools

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