Allowing school districts the final word on charter schools is dumb
August 24, 2018

In news of the weird, the American Fast Food Council has elected a majority of its board from a pool of current and former Burger King executives. Among the first to complain are industry lobbyists for competing for food chains including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Yum Brands (owners of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell).

I’m kidding.

Only education systems would be dumb enough to put an entity in charge of approving and regulating its own competition.

Case in point: the San Jose Unified School district has thwarted the attempt of Promise Academy, a technology-driven charter school serving low-income students, from opening its doors this year.

It’s a convoluted story to tell, but the gist of it is Promise Academy jumped through all the required hoops, including getting signatures from 300 prospective parents signaling their interest in enrolling in the school. After other attempts to kill the school failed, SJUSD escalated sabotage to an unusual level.

Here’s how EdSource reports it:

What the district did next was unorthodox, if not unprecedented: It telephoned parents to verify that they signed the document and were indeed interested in enrolling. Between disqualifying parents who didn’t fully fill out the forms, striking from the list parents they couldn’t reach and determining that other parents weren’t committed, the district pared the list to 72 — below the 80-student threshold that Prop. 39 requires for a district to provide space to a charter school. It denied the request.

Promise sued San Jose Unified. “The majority of families are low-income families of color and many have undocumented relatives or they are undocumented. They felt intimidated and it gave them pause as to how to respond,” since many had children currently enrolled in district schools, Johnson said.

San Jose Unified Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon said many of the signees had children in other charter schools with no intent to enroll their children in Promise — and supplied affidavits to that effect to the court.

On June 14, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thang Barrett ruled the district overstepped its “limited” authority in determining the level of families’ interest in enrolling. Promise had a financial incentive not to overstate its need, since it would have to pay rent for unused space if enrollment came up short, he wrote.

On its face, the story is just dirty, but it’s made worse by the fact that the school leaders and prospective parents are among those rarely afforded opportunity lead and learn.

The founder of Promise Academy is Mississippi-born Anthony Johnson who before entering education played minor-league baseball for the Washington Nationals. He has an Ed.D  from St. Mary’s University and experience with leading successful school turnarounds.

And, yes, he’s black, and male.

I’ve written before about our need to stop paying lip-service to the need for black males in education, and for the system to stop throwing tire-puncturing spikes on their road to serving children who need them as role models.

Yet, in San Jose, as elsewhere, it’s hard out here for a bruh. The institutional power of districts to prevent black educators from opening schools should embarrass all who do it.

Ok, a brief disclaimer: This doesn’t me that black skin and a college degree instantly gets you a free pass to lord of the lives of children.

However, it does mean if your application is legit you shouldn’t be shut down by institutions with longstanding records of failing children (SJUSD has some high performing schools, and also middling to low-performing black students).

The neighborhood where Promise Academy was set to open is said to be an education desert with parents who know it and want something different.

In an Oped Johnson says a conversation with a working-class father who wanted better options inspired him to embark “on a journey with hundreds of parents to design and open Promise Academy, a free public charter school to serve low-income students in downtown San Jose.”

Johnson’s “journey” included enduring rejections from public bodies at two lower levels before being unanimously approved by his last stop, the State of California.

He says:

…over the past two years, our efforts have faced stonewalling and political manipulation from some of the same people who are supposed to be fighting alongside us to better serve the children of San Jose.

It began when the San Jose Unified School District responded to our charter petition by calling the 300 parents who’d signed it and questioned their interest in the school. With many parents unable to even call back before the last-minute deadline, the district argued parents weren’t engaged and tried to invalidate their signatures. But our parents persisted, the hearing was held, and our dream inched forward.

[…]

District staff called our parents to see if they’d really signed our petition. Many of our parents are low-income, or immigrants or speak only Spanish. You can imagine what it was like to receive confusing and alarming calls from a government agency. They were intimidated, to say the least.

Shutting down a black man. Spooking immigrant parents. Blocking opportunity.

San Jose, a curse on your overpriced houses with brown lawns.

Mark this as another story proving Burger King should not regulate the food industry, and school districts should not have power over their competition.

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