What happens when charter schools really can not do it on the same budget as public schools…..

Please note some things: (1) The blame is on the ‘adults’ (teachers) in this example and all the extra people Aspire required to suss out money (2) Aspire originally started out by stating they would STAY in CA….I guess they will be changing what they are really looking to do as a non-profit. Based on The Lion’s Aspiration from 2004 marketing materials, the ultimate goal was TO TIP CALIFORNIA. (3) Aspire found out that public schools (all the ones who just can not up and leave CA as the students are HERE) really are struggling with budgets.  Aspire PROMISED they could do better than any other public school in CA based on same finances, which is why principals were allowed to ‘manage’ their budget.  (4) It is almost impossible to believe the ‘need’ is more substantial in Nashville then Central California but apparently poverty is different(ly) funded in Tennessee.

Rosa Parks did something special in 1955. Most people would say it was something BIG.  In 1955, in my home state of Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. It was small action that rippled far and wide. When she got on that bus that day, I’m sure she knew it would be important, but most people (maybe even her) didn’t realize how important.  What she did was HISTORIC, and when we look back at the times we’re in now at Aspire, we will say the same thing.  What may appear merely important, is BIG. And it is for all of us—especially the 12,000 students we serve together and the team around us every day.

We are expanding beyond California, and we’ll first go to a place where the need is deeper than most people can imagine.  Memphis has one of the highest concentrations of poverty and one of the lowest performing school systems in the country. The work we will do there will make another loud statement to everyone who cares about kids, our country, and the foundation that our public schools represent for the future. It will be as loud as the statement we’ve made in CA from Sacramento to LA, from Stockton to the Bay.  Our kids aren’t the issue.  Nor is it “our schools.” We, the adults, need to serve them better, and eliminate all of the obstacles that keep us from doing exactly that.

When I think about our work today, and the 12,000 lives in our care every minute, every day, I know that this action– going to Memphis—is bpth small and BIG.  Going to another state will make another loud statement about what we know is possible. It will ripple far and wide, much like the ripples that moved across the South and our country when a 42 year old Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.  What started with a small action, moved to a boycott, and grew to be a BIG movement that literally moved our country.  I don’t pretend that our schools in Memphis will be as historic as that simple action on cold day in Montgomery in 1955—but it will be important. It is historic for our organization, and it is BIG…even though for some time it will feel small.

This decision to expand to Memphis is part of a much bigger, longer term process to take control of our future. It sets us on a new path; a path that is as focused as ever on our kids here at home, and a path where we will be—over time—less at the mercy of a state that’s lost its way and forgotten that our public schools dictate our future. I want to share a few of the reasons why this small step, is BIG and IMPORTANT in many ways for all of us…both in the near term, and the medium term.

In the near term:

– Keep the funding we have that pays for the support our schools and our students share: today these funders pay for about $5M-$6M per year in support of our schools and our kids. From counselors to college classes, from coaches to our Residency program, from our Godzilla team to our payroll team, they pay the bill that our schools can’t afford to pay. With this decision to open schools in a place where public funding is sufficient to pay for the support they require, we can serve more students and likely keep this private funding in place.

– Keep growth opportunities for our team: many, many people in our organization are interested in new professional growth opportunities, whether it’s a chance to be a mentor teacher, a coach, a lead teacher, a principal, or a role at the Home Office.  When we continue to grow, these opportunities are created.  The chance to continue to grow, and take on new and different things, grows with our organization.

In the medium/longer term, the expansion is just as BIG, and IMPORTANT:

– New ways to get help for California, based on new and national impact:  with growth in a national hot spot for education reform like Memphis, we enter into a new realm with our supporters.  The highest performing, large CMO that leads in so many ways (us), is now part of a team in a place where policy, funding, federal, and state policy are aligned to do incredible work for kids—redefining what it means when we say “serve all kids well” and actually make strides towards doing it.  Coupled with the incredibly deep need in Memphis, and the history of a place known for an assassination that shook our country, and decades upon decades of poverty, racism, and “forgotteness,” it is a historic confluence of events. With our presence there, we have the ability to ask (and expect to be heard) for new ways and new sources of HELP for California.  One important one is what I’ve called “paying down our mortgage” or at least refinancing it.  Because we are able to help create great schools where our impact will ripple far and wide, we have our best shot to get a bold request filled…refinance “our mortgage” for our schools, and help us take dollars we pay today in interest payments, and give it to our team.

– Attract more funders, because we’re doing work “nationally” in more than one state: the fact that we are present in another state puts us on the national radar in a compelling way that may not seem appropriate given our success and scale in California—but it is real.  This national level of work helps us attract new partners and funders.

– More oars rowing, not the same boat…but a bigger boat: Just like our long time strategy in California, when we open more schools we’re able to offer more and better support for everyone. Think about Godzilla, our IT team, and others. When we were just a few schools, we didn’t have these things—ask the 7 and 10 year Aspire veterans and they’ll tell you.  Until this budget crisis, serving more students well meant better support for every school, and over time it meant the support our schools received cost even less.  Growth over time, in Memphis, will make this true again.  Over time we can shift to raising money for what we want for our kids, not just the basic needs we know they (and we) have.  This will take time, but it will again be true.

So what does all this mean for pay and compensation, James? Plain and simple, it’s unclear.  But know this—I go to bed every night thinking about our team, our sacrifices, and our determination. And it makes me ever more determined to make progress.  This remains a top priority, and our commitment to 75% of every dollar and recovery going to compensation remains strong (the last 25% goes to rebuilding our reserves). Over the next few months, we’ll get more clarity on projected funding rates for this year (yes, we still don’t know), and for the next school year. As soon as we know what they are, we’ll know what they mean for compensation.

To close, I am incredibly proud of what Memphis represents for all of us and our kids in every Aspire school.  It is a small, IMPORTANT, and BIG thing…all at the same time.  Like Rosa Parks, we are sitting down in the front of the bus…and the ripples from this decision will be both direct and indirect for all us, and for our kids.  Wait and see.   Here’s to all of us, and the work we do every day in spite of the odds and the challenges.  We’re changing futures and life opportunities for thousands…together.

And together we can, and will continue to do exactly that.

James Wilcox

Updated 25 April 2012: