Thomas Ultican: Petaluma Charter School Lessons
Thomas Ultican takes us to Petaluma, where charter school shenanigans look to bring an unnecessary amateur-run charter school to the community. As always, Ultican has tracked down all the details. Reposted with permission.
A Petaluma Argus-Courier headline read, “Petaluma could soon welcome charter school.” Local prodigy, Gianna Biaggi, had come home to establish the Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders (MGAL). Biaggi had spent the previous year as a New School Creation Fellow at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. She was exited to use her new training to establish a High Tech High inspired school where she grew up.
Petaluma is a unique community with a lot of appeal. In the 1990’s, I was invited to a celebration of the 1968 Monterey Pop Festival’s 30th anniversary hosted by a Buddhist family in Petaluma. Picked up my date in San Francisco, headed across the Golden Gate Bridge and in less than a 40-mile drive up highway 101 we were there. It would be one of the more memorable evenings of my life.
I met a musician named David Freiberg at the party and asked him what bands he had been in that I might know. David responded, “I was in Jefferson Airplane and Quiz Silver Messenger Service.” I was impressed and his Wikipedia page is even more impressive. He was there with Linda Imperial who currently had the world’s number one solo jazz vocal album. Somehow, I ended up in the kitchen with David and Linda where I asked them to sing the spiritual “Amazing Grace.” They gifted me an amazing a cappella performance.
Petaluma is a community of mostly white liberals. The racial breakdown is 70% White, 1.3% Black, 21% Hispanic, 4.4% Asian and 3.3% other. It is in Sonoma County which has a Democratic Party voter registration of 57.7%, a no preference voter registration of 19.2% and a Republican Party voter registration of 17.5%.
Gianna Biaggi attended Sonoma High School in nearby Sonoma, California. In her 2013 graduation speech, she spoke of being a part of the Youth Ambassador’s program and how that led to a wonderful three weeks in Paraguay. She also proudly noted, “Through the support of my favorite teacher, Ms. Manchester, I created the Wolf Club, named after Jack’s [Jack London] illustrious nickname, ‘Wolf.’” She also stated, “With the help of Wolf Club members, Ms. Manchester, and the director of Jack London State Park, I was successfully able to create Jack’s Ambassadors, a program for middle school students that is based off of my experience with the Youth Ambassadors.”
After graduating from high school, Gianna continued down the path of seeking to be of public service and creating for the community. After earning a 2017 bachelor’s degree in international studies from Kenyon College in Ohio, she won a Samuel Huntington Public Service Award and became an Interexchange Christianson Grantee. That took her to Nairobi, Kenya where she created a community library in the Kibera slums and established Sunflower Fellows, a 4-year literacy and leadership program for low-achieving girls attending informal schools.
Gianna’s story about her time in Africa is really impressive. However, Petaluma is not Nairobi. The US education system is sophisticated and staffed by a huge number of highly educated and experienced professionals. Siphoning money from public schools to create a parallel school system negatively affects public school students. It creates irrecoverable stranded costs that drain per-capita resources.
High Tech High Graduate School of Education
High Tech High (HTH) graduate school of education is in a different category than Relay Graduate School or the training provided by TNTP. Relay and TNTP were created to undermine the role of public universities in training educators and to promote school choice. Both organizations have shallow academic and profession depth. Conversely, HTH graduate school was created to teach HTH teachers the school’s brand of progressive education and it undeniably has academic and professional depth starting with founders Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan.
For several years Professor Riordan while a faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education led the practicum seminar for Harvard’s student teachers. He has a wealth of education credits to his name. Professor Rosenstock also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the University of California, Berkeley School of Education. He holds a Juris Doctor from Boston University, and an honorary doctorate from Cambridge College. It was fascinating to learn that while Rosenstock was at Brandeis University he developed a close relationship with Abe Maslow the originator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They regularly carpooled to school.
In 1998, Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan were on a team at Harvard that won a large grant from the Clinton administration to design a new American high school. They traveled around the country looking for existing models when a teacher in San Diego got them exited. So they moved there to study his approach and soon after were offered a job to create High Tech High.
At the time, neoliberal thinking was permeating the Clinton administration and America’s business community. The analysis in Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” was widely accepted as basic fact. Business leaders were convinced public education was failing and market based solutions were the required answer. In San Diego, a 40-person committee of business elites led by Gary Jacobs decided they wanted to create their own independent public school. They contacted Rosenstock for his advice and he explained charter schools.
Gary Jacobs is former director of education programs at Qualcomm but more importantly, he is the son of Qualcomm founder and billionaire Irwin Jacobs. These wealthy San Diegans knew nothing about education, but perceived no problem with experimenting on other people’s children. They appeared convinced that if they hired the right consultant, they could create something new and wonderful that would lead the way to education reform.
The education model they embraced was similar the progressive education ideas first suggested by John Dewey at the beginning of the 20th century. Problem based education was their focus. It was reminiscent of the experimental school developed by Corinne Seeds at UCLA.
Tufts University Education Professor, Kathleen Weiler, wrote Democracy and Schooling in California: The Legacy of Helen Heffernan and Corinne Seeds. She shared,
“Helen Heffernan and Corinne Seeds were nationally recognized as leaders of the progressive education movement and were key figures in what was probably the most concerted attempt to put the ideals of progressive education into practice in a state-wide system of public education in the United States.”
Heffernan was the California Commissioner of Rural and Elementary Education between 1926 and 1965, and Seeds was the Director of the University Elementary school at UCLA between 1925 and 1957.
Professor Larry Lawrence worked at the Seeds school under Jonathan Goodlad. He observed that when the charismatic Goodlad left in 1987, the school floundered. When Heffernan retired, the progressive education movement in California slowed and reversed. After meeting with HTH founding principal and CEO, Larry Rosenstock, and touring one of the schools, Professor Lawrence concluded that when Rosenstock leaves, the HTH system will falter.
Professor Lawrence also questioned the quality of the school’s math education. A science professor from Southwestern Junior College regularly complained during committee meetings I attended about how unprepared for college academics the incoming HTH students were.
As appealing as progressive education is, there is some reason it has never blossomed.
Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders (MGAL)
In November 2020, the Sonoma Index-Tribune ran the headline, “Local grad to launch new all-girls high school in Sonoma County.” The article began,
“Gianna Biaggi is a Sonoma Valley native and a graduate of Sonoma Valley High School. She is currently a New School Creation Fellow at High Tech High, an education charter school incubator in San Diego.”
Evidently nothing developed with the girl’s school but a few miles away in Petaluma she found a lot of support for her new school idea. It helped that the new Superintendent of Petaluma City Schools, Matthew Harris, is a pro-choice former Teach For America corps member.
Gianna is a well liked local girl. She was able to quickly gather 50-people willing to have their names added to a supporters list on the new MGAL web-page.
Included on the supporters list were Iliana Madrigal-Hooper, Commission on the Status of Human Rights; Dr. Matthew Long, Santa Rosa Junior College, Petaluma Campus; Dr. Lena MacQuade, Sonoma State University, Women’s and Gender Studies and Rob Riordan, President Emeritus, High Tech High Graduate School of Education. It seems that the main motivation for several people on the list was doing a favor for Gianna.
On August 24, 2021, Gianna formerly submitted her 800 page charter petition to the Petaluma City Schools board. That is when the delusion was pierced. The district staff came back with a powerful rejection recommendation that included:
“The charter school presents an unsound educational program for the pupils to be enrolled in the charter school.”
“The petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.”
“The charter school is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community in which the school is proposing to locate.”
“The Petition submitted is for the establishment of a district-operated ‘dependent’ charter school. … First, as a dependent, District-operated charter school, MGAL could not legally operate in most private facilities. School facilities for public school districts are highly regulated as to location, condition and safety, and the kind of space available in the local community does not meet applicable legal standards as dictated by the Field Act.”
The board voted unanimously 5-0 to turn down the charter petition.
A Few Observations
One of the major flaws in charter school legislation is that people with minimal background in teaching and administering schools are allowed to petition for charters. This has resulted in horrible schools like KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Yes Prep with their test prep and “no excuses” agenda.
In Petaluma’s case, Gianna Biaggi seems like a well intentioned bright young women but she does not have the experience to start and run a school. However, a dependent charter is an intriguing idea. It is a charter that is created by a school district to operate within and be governed within the District’s family of school options. It must follow all state facility laws. Shouldn’t all taxpayer funded schools be required to provide the same level of safety as a public school?
Deborah Meier has long been an advocate of progressive education and smaller democratically operated schools. In 1974, she founded Central Park East and latter the Mission Hill School in Boston. These very successful programs have made her more open to charter schools because of the possibility for developing smaller progressive schools. It seems like the dependent charter school model could be a path for this kind of development. That explains her willingness to serve on the advisory board for HTH Graduate School of Education. However, she also believes schools must practice and model democracy. She has written, “We can learn a lot from charters about autonomy, but not much about democracy.” (Public Education Page 164)
An illusion underlies the “public education is failing” meme. It has been propagated relentlessly by corporations and billionaires ever since the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk.” That publication was based on misunderstood statistics and sold a belief that schools were failing. A study at Sandia lab seven years later showed that not only were schools not failing but that they had been delivering steadily improving test results if you compared apples to apples. The whole premise of “A Nation at Risk” was based on misguided bad scholarship.
Birthed in the bowels of the 1950’s segregationist south, school choice has never been about improving education. It is about white supremacy, profiting off taxpayers, cutting taxes, selling market based solutions and financing religion. School choice ideology has a long dark history of dealing significant harm to public education.