California: The Charter School “Redwood”

If there is one other state in the union beyond Minnesota that was critical to the immediate spread of the chartering idea around the nation, it was California.  That’s why I was so pleased that the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) invited me to present at the California Charter Schools Conference March 3-6, 2014 in San Jose.  The pioneering California charter school story in 1992is even more incredible than the Minnesota pioneering story.

My trip started in Sacramento, where I met for the first time with all three California pioneers who made that happen.  What a bond we shared from afar for more than twenty years!  What a joy to visit with now-retired Sen. Gary Hart (left), the Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee who championed the model charter school bill in 1992 through huge teacher union resistance to the desk of Governor Pete Wilson.  Equally fun was meeting Sue Burr, Hart’s dedicated legislative aide who figured prominently in the behind-the-scenes gymnastics that helped the bill get through.  Sue currently serves on the California Board of Education as an appointee of Governor Jerry Brown.  Finally, what fun to see my long-time friend Eric Premack again, the Minnesotan-turned-California-legislative-staffer most responsible for bringing the charter idea to California and supporting Gary and Sue in their efforts.  Today Eric leads the Charter Schools Development Center he foundedin Sacramento.  This is a picture of historic proportions!

The California story is recounted in all its amazing detail in Chapter 27 of Zero Chance of Passage:  The Pioneering Charter School Story. Chartering arose in that state as an alternative to putting a voucher initiative on the ballot.  Premack, Ted Kolderie, and even U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger (a former colleague of Governor Wilson)  all weighed in.  Why was California so important to the chartering story?  I loved the way Eric Premack said it:

Certain states have certain reputations.  Minnesota’s is sort of the “policy hothouse,” where they get to grow interesting things that won’t grow anywhere else or that are very difficult to transplant—sort of “policy orchids” if you will.  But if you can do it in California, then it’s a “policy redwood” –it’s big and undeniable. 

When you say something happened in Minnesota, people say, “isn’t that cute?” and roll their eyes a little with a degree of admiration and with a “it’ll never fly here in …Jersey” kind of reaction.  But when you get to say “Now it’s gone to California, the biggest state in the country and a union stronghold and it was authored by a Democrat and signed into law by a Republican,”….it really gave it a lot more leg, in my experience, in shopping the idea to other states.” 

Today, California has about one-sixth of all charter schools in the nation with 1,130 schools this year.  This is extraordinary—over one half million students!  California’s charter student growth this year over last is 10.3%.  That is one reason why nearly 3,000 people attended the San Jose conference.

One of those attendees was Johnathan Williams, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Accelerated Schools In Los Angeles.   We served together as founding board members of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Johnathan is a true California pioneer; his Accelerated School was the first charter school in South Central Los Angeles, and the first California charter school to be recognized by TIME Magazine as “Elementary School of the Year.”  Perhaps most impressive is the model public/private partnership he created with the Los Angeles Unified School District and California State University, Los Angeles, among other supporters, in building a $50-million comprehensive pre-K to 12th grade school complex in 2003 that served as a catalyst for chartering around the country.

I was pleased to partner at the California conference with Office Depot, which generously provided complimentary copies of my book to visitors at their booth and at my presentation.  I loved signing books at their booth with Paul Martorella (left) and Blair Gould and hearing inspiring stories of charter school leaders from across California (not to mention their devotion to Office Depot—said one leader,  ‘we couldn’t live without you’!)   I never knew the wide-ranging support services and products that Office Depot provides to charter schools, and I love the enthusiastic commitment within the Office Depot team to learn even more about the charter sector.  I’m delighted that we will again partner across the country in New Jersey in April.

California is very much a part of the pioneering charter school story of this nation, yet so few of the state’s charter school leaders and parents know it.  Kerry Flanagan, CCSA Chief of Staff, tells me she wants more outreach to parents to help them become messengers and advocates.    I agree—and am ready to help!