Throughout the last nine weeks at TCSA, I’ve met charter leaders from around Texas, visited schools implementing innovative student-centric models, networked with reformers from throughout the country, attended a fundraiser to support high-quality growth, and overall gained a greater appreciation for the work that we collectively do for students and families. And while these experiences have been incredibly enriching, eye-opening, and frankly enjoyable, I have frequently found myself reflecting on one thing.
130,000 is the number of students desperately waiting for a seat to open up at a charter school.
130,000 is more than the population of Abilene, Texas.
130,000 is 30,000 more seats than the football stadiums at the University of Texas, Austin or Texas A&M University.
130,000 students attending a school that does not meet their needs, does not engage them intellectually, or that does not help them learn, grow, and develop.
As I prepare to be a father and review the data around my neighborhood’s schools, I am left frustrated. Why should my children or anyone else’s be pigeonholed into institutions of mediocrity? Why are less-affluent families on the other side of the highway being forced to send their children to chronically underperforming schools? If we fundamentally believe that choice, that having skim, 1%, and 2% milk are good choices to have at the store, why are our children not afforded the same opportunities to attend a school that best meets their needs? How do we ensure generational success when tens of thousands of Texans, and millions of students across the country, lack access to not only basic everyday needs like food and shelter, but also the opportunity to enrich their minds?
There are no clear and easy answers. There are no magic wands and no overnight solutions. In order to face the challenges of education in our state and country, there must be a basket of solutions working in tandem. We must not only support high performing schools and help under-performing charters get better, but also increase the quality of teacher training, provide incentives to teachers to stay in the sector, provide better balance for employees, and equitably fund schools. Within our movement, we must better leverage collective demand for increased efficiency, identify opportunities to collaborate and innovate, share waiting lists to schools with decreasing enrollment, and do a better job of advocating for and lobbying with our parents and families.
Additionally, in order to meet the demand of these 130,000+ students and families, it is imperative that charter schools grow and expand with quality. While the large networks in our state have aggressive plans to grow and serve more students, I believe the greatest untapped potential is among small to medium sized schools and networks in our state. Charter schools with data-driven approaches, high-performing and highly-satisfied teachers, and who are changing life trajectories for students and families must broaden their impact. That may mean doing what is hard, coming into conflict with local school districts, or rethinking how the school has operated in the past.
At the same time, we must innovate and identify, promote, and encourage new visionaries to actualize and start their own charter schools. Just as charter schools began to rock the boat within the education sector 20 years ago, we now must experience and embrace another generation of change. While some of our schools have traditionally served under-resourced populations, we must create space for schools to meet a greater diversity of families. While this may be controversial, middle class families and families living in suburban neighborhoods should have options to attend a charter school if they so desire AND if that charter school is high-performing.
For established schools, that may mean some level of disruption, or some level of discomfort. Rather than shutting the doors and hunkering down, ask what these new operators are seeking to do and support them. There are more than enough students hungrily waiting to attend a charter school, so let’s not fight amongst ourselves for students and families. For newly awarded or those seeking approval from the state, be bold. Continue to push the envelope, think long and hard about how things might be different, and demand a seat at the table. Provide rationale about why a population is not being served-well and find ways to meet those needs.
Charter leaders interested in growth and charter hopefuls looking to start should know that they do not walk alone. Bruce Marchand and I, along with all of TCSA and our collective resources and networks are side-by-side in this journey. Let’s find ways to provide more access and better options to students and families. Let’s not be intimidated by the 130,000 students on a waiting list, but rather fueled to do what’s best for kids. I know I am.