So You Want to Start a Charter School?


You have to be Effing crazy.  I should know.  I have helped folks start schools for 20 years.  I run a school incubator, and that line about being crazy is the opening and closing line of my introductory training.  And I am serious.

We don’t have any hedge fund donors, aren’t drinking any free market energy drinks, ain’t privatizing anything, except the immense human costs in trying to start a new school, which comes in unpaid sweat equity from the founders and sometimes a second mortgage.

We are largely Black and Brown folks (and allies), from the communities we serve.  We do this work because we see the tragedy of our children reflected in their eyes and see ourselves, and know we can do better.  We do this work because the system is broken.

Correct that, the system is not broken, the system works the way it always has, to apportion privilege and disadvantage with predictable top dog winners and underdog losers.

It’s hard to find a large district that graduates 60% of Black males, probably impossible to find one that graduates 75%.  You could replace “African American” with Native American, or even Pacific Islanders, special education students, English Language Learners, foster kids or a range of other categories that schools most generally don’t work for in their current form.  Same horrible results.

So yeah you have to be crazy.  For community folks who want to start a school, here’s what you are in for.

First, the planning process is unpaid, usually you need to hold down your day job for the year to 18 months prior to approval while hustling to gather support, do research and design a new school.  Second, once approved you get less money per kid from the State than the District schools do—I know many of you heard different but that’s the reality if you do the research in California and New York City.

You also just have to put up with a lot of BS. Many people whose kids are in private schools or exclusive neighborhood schools want to argue charter privatization with you, and talk about how you are destroying public education.  They have never been to your school, their kids will never go to the schools that your families are often fleeing.  And they actually don’t really know any of your potential parents, unless they are cleaning their house or office.

Their satisfaction with a privileged status quo is used as evidence that things are fine for all parents.  But they aren’t.  I can show you all kinds of graphics around, underperforming schools, where not a single kid reaches the proficiency bar, where achievement gaps yawn, and our most challenged students are disserved.  Some of these are charter schools too.

And really beyond all the crap, you need to be crazy in another way.  You have to believe in something that we don’t often see, you have to dream higher for students and families than they themselves can in some cases.  You need to look at a system where some students routinely and consistently are failed and promise to do much better.

  • ZERO percent of foster kids passed the A-G requirements last year in OUSD
  • 6% of special education students did
  • In NY 2.2% of English Language learners are proficient in 8th grade ELA
  • And less than 7% of special education students are

So you have to look beyond the statistics and imagine a school where you do serve all students, where disadvantaged students have responsive services, and ultimately experience real success.  But as the musician Seal once sung, “no we’re never gonna survive unless, we get a little crazy.”

In this world, where inequity is so entrenched it seems like a natural part of the landscape, and you want to change that through a charter school.  Yeah you gotta be Effing crazy, but we need more crazy, because what passes for a sane and acceptable status quo is fucking bonkers.

What do you think?

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