Why High Tech High Couldn’t Operate in Kentucky

Over the last few years I’ve seen considerable interest from Kentucky educators in San Diego’s High Tech High School. For those of you who are unfamiliar with High Tech High, here is a brief description from the school’s website:

“Launched in September 2000 by an industry and educator coalition, the Gary and Jerri- Ann Jacobs High Tech High is an independent public charter school serving 584 students in grades 9-12. The school’s mission is to prepare a diverse range of students for postsecondary education, citizenship, and leadership in the high technology industry.”

In the last few years, more than a few Kentucky educators and education leaders have made their way to San Diego to tour the school, and most of them have returned to Kentucky energized about the possibilities for innovation in public education. I saw such enthusiasm on display again just last night. I was invited by my friend and colleague Dr. Justin Bathon to attend a film screening and discussion for “Most Likely to Succeed” at Lexington’s Steam Academy. The film was fantastic and I highly recommend attending or organizing a screening. The film highlighted High Tech High’s approach, students, teachers, and parents. And once again, Kentucky educators, parents, and students were inspired to transform classrooms, schools, and school districts into learning environments with similar characteristics as High Tech High. I wasn’t surprised.

What does continue to surprise me, however, is that in conversations about High Tech High and education innovation in Kentucky’s schools, there is rarely if ever mention of the fact that High Tech High is a charter school. And I’m perceptive enough to know that for educators and education leaders, it’s more than just oversight. It’s no secret that charter schooling is heresy in Kentucky’s traditional public education circles.

To be sure, there are plenty of charter schools in California and across the U.S. that can’t hold a candle to what High Tech High is doing. But it is absolutely the case that High Tech High is what it is because of California’s charter school law. Its leaders have used the flexibility and autonomy granted to it by California’s charter school law to build a school that bears little resemblance to traditional public schools in California or anywhere else. To miss that High Tech High is able to be as different as it is because it is a charter school is to miss something integral to its success.

Policy makers and education leaders in Kentucky should also realize this: If the leaders of High Tech High School wanted to come to Kentucky to replicate the school or create something similar, they couldn’t. Why? First and foremost, because Kentucky has no charter school law; so they couldn’t apply for a charter to do it. But even if it were current education leaders in a Kentucky school district who wanted to build a Kentucky version of High Tech High, they couldn’t; because without a charter school law, there is not nearly the flexibility for schools needed to pull it off in Kentucky.

Here are a few critical elements to the school’s model which Kentucky school leaders should pay closer attention to:

  • There is no tenure for teachers at High Tech High. Their teachers sign one-year contracts which may or may not be renewed at the end of the year.
  • California’s charter school law exempts High Tech High (and all California charter schools) from school district collective bargaining agreements.
  • High Tech High is authorized by the state to credential its own teachers (the first California charter school authorized to do so). Teachers hired are automatically enrolled in its free, two-year credentialing program. That kind of flexibility gives them the ability to recruit teachers who may or may not currently have a teaching credential, and who may or may not have completed formal training in education. High Tech High (and all charter schools in California) are granted further flexibility with the credentialing of teachers who teach “non-core, non-college preparatory courses.”
  • Leaders at High Tech High exercise an extraordinary amount of curricular and instructional autonomy; the likes of which current Kentucky schools do not have. In fact, a principal or superintendent in Kentucky proposing to alter the curriculum to the extent offered there would likely be laughed out of the state.
  • Leaders at High Tech High exercise tremendous budget autonomy in aligning personnel, instructional, and facilities expenditures with the the vision and mission of the school.

These are just a few of the areas where California’s charter school law has provided the legal flexibility that allows High Tech High to do what it does. There was no magic charter school dust that made the school what it is; but without the flexibility provided by the charter school law, the school wouldn’t exist. Education policy does matter. Kentucky’s policy makers and education leaders who have fallen in love with the High Tech High model would be shortsighted to not acknowledge that it does.

The Washington State Supreme Court’s Charter School Ruling: What it Means and What it Doesn’t

If you have paid much attention to school choice news from across the country, you’ve heard that the Washington State Supreme Court delivered a monumental ruling on September 4th regarding the state’s new charter school law. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s high court ruled that the state’s charter school law (Proposition I-1240) violates the Washington State Constitution. At issue was whether charter schools in Washington may be characterized as “common schools”. This is important in Washington because the state’s constitution requires that state public school funding only be used to support common schools. In its decision, the Court deemed that because the boards of Washington’s charter schools are appointed and not elected, they may not be considered common schools, and thus are ineligible to be funded by common school funding.  

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools in operation. The nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling marked the first time a state court has found charter school funding be be in violation of a state constitution. So as you can imagine, the ruling has sent shock waves through the charter school and school choice communities, not only in Washington, but across the United States.

What Does the Future Hold for Charter Schools in Washington State?

While charter school advocates and parents of children attending the new charter schools in Washington are working around the clock to save their new schools, in the short term, the likelihood of saving them is slim. While fundraising efforts of charter school supporters in Washington and nationally have been valiant, it”s not likely to be enough. Further, if the schools are not tax-payer funded, in my estimation at least, they may no longer be considered to be public schools.

There is no appeal’s process for the court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court has spoken and their word is final. Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court and matters relating to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Supreme Court is as far as it goes in Washington. In short, the Washington state constitution says what the Washington Supreme Court says it says.

All is not lost, however; at least not in the long term. Charter school advocates in Washington intend to revisit the state’s law. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling was that charter schools in the state cannot be considered common schools because their boards are appointed and not elected. Charter advocates are now gearing up for another ballot initiative (Washington’s charter school law came as the result of a ballot initiative) which would amend the law to have charter schools boards as elected rather than appointed. Such a change would likely/maybe/possibly satisfy the Washington Supreme Court. As we saw with this case, however, the Washington Education Association is an extremely formidable foe for charter school advocates. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Implications for Charter Schools Across the U.S.

Outside of Washington state, education leaders, and policymakers, and parents are asking what the implications of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision might be for charter school policy and charter schools in other states. While the Washington state ruling does not apply to charter schools or charter school laws in other states, I do expect to see teachers unions lead (with renewed vigor) campaigns in other states to challenge the constitutionality of charter schools. My guess is the vast majority of those efforts will be unsuccessful, but there is definitely the possibility of success in some places. Charter school laws are different from state to state, and state constitutions have different provisions from state to state. Further complicating the issue is the reality that state courts have different political leanings from state to state; some which lean Right and tend to be more supportive of choice policies, and some which lean Left and tend to be much less supportive of school choice policy.

In short, the Washington ruling doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for charter schools in the U.S. As I’ve said many times and in many places before, charter schooling is now a permanent fixture of the public education landscape in the U.S. The ruling does, however, highlight a potential strategy for charter school opponents in other states. The politics of school choice has always been interesting, and it promises to remain that way.