Keynote Address: 20 Years of the Charter School Movement

March 21, 2013

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In celebration of the 20th Annual California Charter Schools Conference and Anniversary Celebration, Jed Wallace presented the following keynote address to 3,500 attendees at the conference on March 12 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, CA.

Welcome everyone. Thank you so much for attending California's 20th anniversary charter schools conference. I thought I'd start today telling you about a visit I made about a year ago to the Watts Learning Center Middle School. As many of you know, Watts is one of the shining examples of what the charter school movement is all about, led by co-directors Gene and Sandra Fisher. Watts original campus was one of the first I visited after being named into this job. My wife had taught at 118th street a few blocks away. I had spent my teaching career a little ways north. I'm always eager to see the great things that charter schools are doing in the neck of the woods where I cut my teeth. And then I got there ...

The school - something that the parents of the Watts elementary school had been begging Gene and Sandra to do for years - had been located by the district under Prop 39, not in public schools nearer the original campus that are known to be under enrolled and clearly had space available, but of all places on the back of the 112th Street Elementary School campus, meaning it had literally become a buffer between the district school...and the Nickerson Gardens housing project.

The way that you entered the school was to come down a long alley that runs along the fence of the project. On campus, all around ... was abject brokenness. Beat up temporary buildings, collapsed drop ceilings in the classrooms, bathrooms in wanton need of repair, potholes and cracked blacktop, kids playing kickball in the parking lot because they'd been given no other place to play. No cafeteria facilities whatsoever. Gene and Sandra had brought in these corrugated steel sunshades to stand over some picnic tables so the kids would have a place to eat.

It looked like something you would not see in this country, not in this day and age. And yet, there it was.

Gene and Sandra, as you would expect, showed the same grace and dignity in that situation as they have shown through their entire involvement in charter schools. And at the end of the visit, they gave me a book of poems, this book of poems - which I keep on my desk to this very day. Testimony to the students' experience and a reminder of what I saw that day.

And Gene will tell you, that I was quite affected by that visit. As I said good-by to him, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "So help me Gene, we will do something about this. And if this association can't help this situation, they should get rid of us and find some people who can."

And I turned and walked back down the alley, trying to compose myself, and I wasn't watching what I was doing and I stepped in this big gob of yellow chewing gum, so as I came back by the entrance to the housing project these streaks of yellow goo were trailing behind me. I must have been quite a vision.

And when I got back to the CCSA office, I came jogging in the front door. People were waiting for me in the conference room, but I had to get to the LA Team to tell them what I had seen. And the yellow substance which had before been sticky, had now caramelized and had become slick so that when I tried to turn right, my foot slipped out from under me, and my head went straight into the interior wall, and it vibrated the walls of the entire office. So in a literal sense, this visit to Watts had shaken CCSA to its very foundation.

But I managed to get to Allison's office to talk about Watts and the vow I'd made. Well, I'm happy to report that a few months later through a combination of efforts, many coming from the school itself, others coming from CCSA, and Superintendent Deasy getting directly involved - the District placed the school in a brand new school building.

I was there during the first week of school this fall. The access to athletic facilities and science labs and performance spaces. Absolutely stunning. Gene and I walked around like the Bad News Bears in the Astrodome.

And I tell this story because I think it is emblematic of some larger things that are happening in our movement right as we prepare to embark upon our third decade. The harsh reality that so many charter schools continue to be subject to conditions that are just unacceptable, are neglected, pushed away, or downright undermined by our education establishment. And yet, in spite of that, through perseverance, over time, solutions emerge. Advocacy efforts gain traction. An enlightened person in power like John Deasy sees a problem and does the right thing.

And this school that was clinging to the rock face for its very existence; finds its place in the new order. My hypothesis is that that embrace of Watts is a part of a larger embrace of charter schools that is now in full swing within California. An embrace still fraught with challenge and unfairness, an embrace that still requires resiliency from those within our movement, but an embrace nonetheless.

Look at what has happened in just the past year:

This fall we opened 110 charter schools in the state of California bringing our numbers to 1065 in the state. Those schools serve over 484,000 students. That is a growth of 71,000 students in California charter schools - more than 1% of state enrollment coming into charter schools in just one year. We now serve approximately 8% of California's public school students, 12% of African-American students. And the prospects for growth looking forward have never been brighter, with more schools in the pipeline than we've ever seen before, meaning by the time enrollment numbers come around in the fall of 2013, it is virtually certain we will have more than doubled charter school enrollment in just five years.

Areas of the state are seeing an unprecedented concentration of charter schools emerge. In Oakland and Chico, more than 25% of students are now being served in charter schools. In the eight school districts in and around San Jose, 22% of students are in charter schools. 19% in Los Angeles where we now have more than 100,000 students in charter schools. 15% here in San Diego.

In terms of public opinion, California's voters have never been more supportive of charter schools than they are now. Almost four times as many report themselves to be supporters of charter schools than opponents, with voters across the political spectrum - Republican, Independent and Democrat - showing far greater support than opposition. Those underlying dynamics, in combination with new efforts coming from those in our community are beginning to show new results in elections.

In Sacramento last spring, where the county office of education had approved a countywide benefit charter and so was targeted for attack by our detractors, CCSA Advocates, our sister organization set up to be directly engaged in electoral work, ran a slate of candidates and won two out of three including winning by 251 votes the swing race of Penny Schwinn, Executive Director of Capitol Collegiate Charter School.

Here in San Diego, Advocates helped pass Prop Z, a facilities bond that will provide $350M plus to house and grow quality charter schools. In Oakland, working together with GO Public Schools, CCSA Advocates went three for three in November school board races, remaking the school board to be far more supportive of charter schools.

In San Bernardino, Advocates partnered with Students First and others to win an Assembly seat for long-time charter school supporter Cheryl Brown. Folks who know a lot about political dynamics in our capital city have been noting how we have this phenomenal supporter in Governor Jerry Brown and comparatively paltry support in the legislature, and what we charter people need is another Brown in Sacramento. Well, I'm happy to be able to say that, with the election of Cheryl, we showed we were ready to take them literally.

Or just last week, in Los Angeles, literally thousands of charter school stakeholders turning out in support of Monica Garcia, Board Chair of LAUSD and strong supporter of charter schools, helping her receive over 50% of the vote against multiple competitors in the primary and thus securing re-election in spite of having been targeted for defeat by our adversaries, showing that in sections of Los Angeles our support has never been stronger.

And, finally of course, I would be remiss were I to fail to mention how California's charter schools have captured the imagination of policy makers across the nation, inspiring other states to adopt charter school laws and then turning around a little while later to try to get some of our schools to jumpstart charter school growth in their states. I call it the California two-step: send a delegation to see what is possible, and then after passing a bill return to attempt to poach our talent.

But we should really feel deeply complimented by this. Because why are they doing it? Because it is known that if you what you want is the full constellation of charter school excellence, if what you want are organizations that are doing particularly well with low income students, organizations working well with historically underserved populations, turnaround and conversion organizations, the best blended learning models, independent study and credit recovery providers...if what you want is charter school excellence, you go to California.

And it's not just other states that know this fundamental truth, it's whole other nations. Every time I turn around I find out about another charter school sending a delegation to another nation. China, Japan, the Middle East, South and Central America. I mean, really. If the Golden state's export sector was doing as well as our golden charter schools, California's economic doldrums would be over. Many demographers identify 20 years to be the length of a generation.

These achievements that I have just articulated growth, public support, growing advocacy and political strength, and inspiring others across our nation and globe - these are the accomplishments of our remarkable first generation of charter school contributors, people who, in my estimation, came to our movement in much the same way that many come to our nation...

As immigrants. Making a journey. Maybe not so much a physical journey. But more a journey of the mind. The spirit. For some, this journey, this conversion - this charter conversion - happens overnight. For others, it happens more slowly. My own experience - my charter conversion - came in waves. I remember distinctly the biggest wave, the one that fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life.

It was after my second year of teaching. I was visiting a friend from college who was working in the American embassy in Japan. And we needed a landmark for meeting in downtown Tokyo that was unmistakable. So he suggested, of all places...Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Yep. And so there I was in the KFC, probably a half hour early with my journal. I was writing a play at the time and thought I'd spend some time on it. But for some reason, different ideas started coming to me. Not about the play, but about the school where I worked. About how we could make the place better. And I began to write ...

And the way things worked back then in the Tokyo KFC, whenever a person came in or out, all the staff would line up behind the counter to bow and say thank you. And I was in such a fog that I had no idea how much time was passing. So every once in a while I would jump up from my table to go outside to see if John had arrived and before I went out the employees would all gather to bow. And I would find that John wasn't there yet, and I'd come back in, and there they were, bowing again. And I'd plead with them not to but then just hurry back to my table to keep on writing.

Because the words had started coming faster. A recognition of the way things were:

Acknowledging the frustration that my colleagues and I felt not being able to provide the quality of education we knew was within our potential. A vow to take to take control of our destinies and to become successful. To not repeat the failures that had happened in that neighborhood for generations. To not continue using the excuse that we were simply doing as told. But successful. Colleagues who can look ourselves in the mirror and say we made a difference.

A vision. What could I see?

A phenomenal school...

And after a while, this thing I was writing, I started calling it my Jerry Maguire. Until one day a friend read it and said, "Jed, this is not a Jerry Maguire. This is a charter."

And I said, "What's a charter?"

And the rest, for me anyway, was history. I was thrust out into a current which swept me along to this very day...

And I carry with me a great sense of gratitude for that experience - both because I value immensely having had the opportunity to work on something so rewarding. But also because going through the experience has helped me recognize in others when they are going through it as well.

And there are so many of us. Hundreds. Thousands. I see them everywhere I go.

Steve Goode at Five Keys Charter School, a school located in the San Francisco County Jail spreading into other areas of the state...

  • Jonathan Dean at O'Farrell, a conversion school going through a tremendous renaissance here in San Diego...
  • Malka Borrego at Equitas in Los Angeles, one of our incredible BES schools in Los Angeles growing into a CMO...
  • Virginia Steward at Tracy Learning Center, one of the more innovative schools I've seen
  • anywhere making plans for growth in the central valley...
  • Jim Kennedy at Extera, a school showing how project-based learning can work for the children of Boyle Heights...
  • Monique Daviss at El Sol Academy in Santa Ana, a dual immersion school with a fully integrated health clinic...
  • John Glover at ALPHA schools in San Jose, one of California's remarkable new blended learning organizations...

Each of these leaders who I visited just in the past few months, and so many others just like them, this almost manic explosion of creativity, explaining excitedly their programs, gesticulating animatedly, showing me artifacts, describing plans for the future, uncovering new discoveries each and every day.

It's the same experience I had begun to come over me all those year ago in Japan...all ample evidence that the creative energy behind our movement is only accelerating.

And yet, my sense at this moment, on the occasion of our 20th anniversary, this natural moment for reflection and looking forward, is that we are beginning to understand that even more is being required of us.

Ray Kurzweil, one of the most important thinkers of our time, talks frequently about how people can look back and recognize that various things - computing power for example - have grown exponentially over time. But when those same people look to the future, they can only imagine arithmetically. And the difference between our ability to imagine only the arithmetic while needing to prepare for the exponential is one of the great challenges confronting our age.

We in the charter world, for all our creativity and optimism, are not immune. We can look back and see that charter enrollment has been doubling every five years, and yet how many of us are really prepared for the strong likelihood that this doubling will happen again over the next five years, and again in the five years after that such that by the end of our third decade we could very well have two million students, nearly a third of all students in the state of California, attending charter schools?

My sense is, not enough of us. Not yet.

And if we go out into the world expecting the challenges of our third decade to be identical to those of our first two, if we go out expecting to encounter the same sticky problems that have held us back before, we may very well find that they have caramelized. And we could find our feet sliding out from under us, hitting a wall, being shaken to our very foundations.

And so, as we enter our third decade, I offer three areas where I encourage us to begin accelerating our progress as we prepare to go exponential.

First, I encourage all connected to our movement to do all we can to shift ourselves away from thinking about ourselves as a niche. Because, frankly, there are some luxuries associated with being a niche that have to be relinquished as we travel down the path to New Orleans, a place where the vast majority of public school students are served by charter schools. Are we in California going to get to New Orleans overnight? No. Will we have the same level of market share in every community in California that charter schools have in New Orleans? Probably not. But will we in many locations have to grapple with many of the same difficult "end state" issues that have surfaced in New Orleans? Yes. And this means thorny issues that you don't have to deal with at the same level as a niche - special education, expulsion standards, attendance patterns and others - will have to be looked at with a new set of eyes.

Fortunately, we in California are showing that we are up to the challenge. In special education, for example, we have seen in just the past four years over 350 charter schools become LEAs for purposes of special education, and in the process have become responsible for serving absolutely all students. As this change has happened, we are seeing that charter schools are serving a larger number of special education students and a wider range of disabling conditions, which has led to many Californians being called to New Orleans to provide assistance there. This shows that California has it within our potential to proactively develop the answers to end state solutions as we prepare to go exponential.

Secondly, we are going to have to think differently about accountability. And this is an area where I know not all in the room agree with the direction the Association has taken, but, in my view, the possibility of going exponential only further compels us to continue this work, indeed to intensify it.

And here is why:

For so long, the central proposition has been that charter schools are given an extraordinary level of autonomy in exchange for embracing an extraordinary level of accountability. But what happens when most schools become charter schools and are given a level of freedom that is no longer extraordinary but has become commonplace?

For me, one of the great questions is whether we can keep a high bar in front of ourselves, not in exchange for something, but simply because we think it's best for kids.

Again, fortunately, I believe that charter schools in California are showing that we are on the right track. Something that is not well understood about the last four years is that, amid all the growth and success of California charter schools, 124 have closed. And of those with data, nearly 50% were performing in the bottom tenth of all public schools in the state. Think of that. While some have said that the public will never tolerate the difficulties associated with holding schools accountable, here in California, a large number of underperforming charter schools have closed, and the movement has taken it completely in stride.

I believe that this shows that we are up to challenge of modifying one of our central propositions - of helping society navigate the transition from thinking that accountability is something extraordinary that should apply only to the few to an assumption that accountability is something very ordinary that should apply to all. And in so doing we would demonstrate that charter schools are in fact prepared to go exponential.

Third and finally, we are going to have to begin thinking differently about our role in advocacy and politics. I know, most of us got into the work in order to serve kids, not become involved in politics. I know I certainly did. But those who are watching closely can see that, in spite of the progress that we have made, we still have so much further to go.

Think about it. Just two years ago, Tom Ammiano ran a bill calling for a cap on charter schools in the State of California and that bill passed the Assembly on a 45 to 29 vote. Or this fall, LAUSD school board member Steve Zimmer called for a moratorium on charter schools in Los Angeles, and last week won re-election in spite of heroic efforts by many within our community and others. The harsh reality is that, in spite of all our progress that we have made, with people like Ammiano and Zimmer, our movement still has political adversaries from A to Z.

And we know that for the well-being of our movement, we need to populate the alphabet with elected officials who will make the healthy policy environment charter schools need to thrive for the long term.

But this isn't just about us. It's about something bigger ...

Because over the past twenty years, we, perhaps more so than any others, having had to struggle day after day, year after year, now decade after decade for fair treatment for our students, we have seen up close and personal what so many in our society have not - how political dynamics are not set up with the interests of children first. We have seen, again and again, how the protectors of the status quo have had boots on the ground in communities across California and enormous political resources available every election cycle, a unique combination which has enabled them to hold back desperately needed education reform for decades. And we have seen how different advocacy organizations have emerged at different times with different parts of the puzzle - a little funding here, some grassroots there - but no one has had it all...until now.

Until this moment, when we have 1065 charter schools in every political jurisdiction in this state, with the parents of the 485,000 in charter schools willing to get active in their local communities, with thousands of charter school board members and funders willing to provide significant financial resources ...

We recognize that this very movement is assembling all the pieces needed to become the long hoped for counterweight. And the question becomes whether all of us in this room and within our movement are going to do the heavy lifting required to take that potential and turn it into a reality. I mean you, and you and you will you run for office yourselves? And if you can't run, will you help us cultivate the people who can? When they decide to run, will you rally around them, volunteer on their campaigns, make financial contributions, and encourage other stakeholders from our community to do the same. In short, will we all do the to do the extra heavy lifting that will be required to go exponential.

This is why our political sister organization chose its name very carefully. CCSA Advocates. CCSA-A. CCSA squared.

A constant reminder to ourselves and to all within our movement to lean against our natural tendency to think in linear terms, a constant reminder of our ultimate destiny, which is to go exponential on behalf of all California students. The challenges and opportunities in front of us are no doubt immense.

But, in closing, I have to tell you that I've never been more confident that we will rise to the occasion. I have said before that the greatest strength our movement has to offer is the people who are contributing to it. But I've realized of late that's not quite right. Our greatest strength, our greatest reason for optimism, is the passion and abilities of those who are on the way.

Something that was reinforced that day I made my visit to Watts. Listen to Dykia Williams, 7th grade student at Watts Learning Center Middle School, from the book of poems the Fishers gave me during my visit to the school.

Watts Life

As I look around and see those black and while buildings

The pain in a mother's eyes because she can't provide

This is my life and I'm taking control

I will be successful

Not the lady who sells her soul

Not the lady whose man tells her she has to do as told

But successful

I will not follow in a lady's footsteps that doesn't care about herself But the lady that can look at herself in the mirror and say, "I'm beautiful"

What do I see?

A beautiful Queen

Can't you see her ... maybe after school, waiting to meet someone ... in a place comparable to where I started my journey all those years ago...setting aside whatever it was that had her attention. And suddenly, the words come over her. And she writes. A statement of who she is. A vision for what can be. And her commitment to getting there through taking control of her own destiny.

Folks, it's a charter. The very definition of a charter. Dykia represents the second generation of the charter story. The ones to whom we will be passing the torch, an even more remarkable generation than what came first. And together, working across generations, we will be successful. Not the movement that over time grows to care about adult interests more than student interest. Not the movement that changes to protect every school regardless of how well it's doing. But successful.

Not another example of partisan and ideological bickering, but a place where Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, rural and urban folks, affluent and not, and every race and ethnicity found anywhere on the planet come together to reinvent what I believe is our country's most cherished civic institution: public education.

Not for some kids. Not for some regions of this state. Not for some demographics. But for all.

And in so doing we can send an unmistakable signal to this cynical age that we live this age that believes that our societal problems have become so entrenched as to be unsolvable, that believes that our government and civic institutions have become so corroded with perverse incentives and special interest that they can never be righted that in fact our society's most vital institutions can remake themselves in ways the times require.

This is what is within our grasp as we embark upon our third decade of work: a transformation of the part of society we work within, and a beacon of hope for the rest. We at the Association see ourselves not as the scriveners of this story.

We see ourselves more as the ones ensuring that the quills and parchment are there in front of you. Ones that make sure the inkwells never run dry. A key friend when the first draft is ready for a first set of eyes.

The assembler of the anthology. The binder that brings the pages together under a shared cover, so that amid the explosion of creativity happening among a stunning abundance of scribes which in the moment can be thought of as going in myriad directions, from the most proper perspective can be seen to be parts of a massive common unfolding story, one I believe to be, perhaps, the most important narrative of our time. It is the Association's great honor is our great serve you. And as I was taught by those kind people behind the counter at the very beginning of my charter journey all those years ago, and on behalf of all Associated with CCSA, I bow to you all and say thank you very much. Keep going. You inspire us all.

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