School choice: Charter schools and accountability – Full interview with Derrell Bradford | VIEWPOINT


Derrell: Things are the way that they are
for a reason. You can not agree with the reason, but the
mistake is thinking that somebody made a bunch of mistakes to get to a place where 10% of
the kids are reading on grade level. Rick: Hey, I’m Rick Hess, Director of Education
Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Terrific to have you with us. I got the privilege of having with me today
my friend and colleague, Derrell Bradford. Derrell is Vice President of 50CAN, honcho
of NYCAN, New York CAN, and we’re here to talk a little bit about what you’ve learned
in the world of education advocacy, and trying to fight for things that you think will make
a difference for kids. Derrell: Sure. Thanks for having me. Rick: Hey, my pleasure. So let’s start with this, how do you get into
this stuff? How does one wind up becoming an educational
advocate? What’s that even look like Derrell: I think there are a lot more pass
to get into it that are pretty directed now. I mean, you could a teacher in America, you
can do ed pioneer, something else is like you can do leave. There are lots of different ways to end up
in a job that helps you work in a district, or in a network, or stuff like that. When I did it, it was like I was out of a
job and I was looking for another one. I had been working in New York, I was an English
major, I had been working in publishing for a while, and the magazine I was working on
folded in August of 2001, and then 9/11 happened, literally like two weeks later. And I was looking for a job for like nine
months, and a friend of mine from college called me up and said, “Hey, my dad just started
this non-profit in New Jersey, maybe you could help them.” And I was like, “I’ll do whatever they want
me to do.” And so on April 13th, I think it’s when it
was, 2002, I got on a plane and I went to Milwaukee, and that was my intro. And we toured the district, we looked at schools
participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, we looked at district response to
charter competition and district authorizing, and we talked about how public schools are
getting better there and how families are being empowered. And none of this should matter or could matter. I didn’t have any kids, I still don’t have
any, so I was like, this is kind of cool, but I don’t really get it. But at the same time I grew up in Baltimore,
I had gone to a private, all-boys Episcopalian K-12 school on a scholarship from grade 7
to 12. It had obviously, been the most important
thing that had ever happened to me, and so very quickly I made this connection between
like, this wasn’t my own life, was like, we’re trying to organize the world around the same
principles where you don’t have to win the parent lottery, live in the right ZIP code,
have super rich parents to go to a school that makes you free. And so that was kind of it. And I was the communications guy, I was writing
and fighting, doing websites, sending out emails, putting together little reports, and
I was the deputy working for a guy that was like a father to me, like a strong, sort of
political and communications figure, and he really mentored me a lot, and then he passed
away and I took over for him. So I just kind of moved up and now here I
am today, like the person having drawn the shortest straw. Rick: So were you guys mostly fighting for
school choice in New Jersey at that time, or… Derrell: Yeah. It’s interesting. I look at…so I was there from like 2002
to 2011 at this specific organization, and we were… Rick: All E3? Derrell: E3, yeah. So we were all in on choice, and by that we
meant all of it, but with an emphasis on private school choice for low income families in what
in New Jersey are called the Abbott districts, which are basically, like the poorest districts
in the state, the most sort of industrial. But because of a long series of state Supreme
Court rulings, the richest. So, you know, you’re spending $30,000 a kid
in Asbury Park, or like in the ’20s in Newark. I mean, it’s like the…I’m not saying that
we shouldn’t do that, I’m saying that it’s a lot of money, you know? And so that was like the core issue. But like most things I think, the more you
know, the more you know more. So in the beginning we were just like, first
thing we gotta do is disrupt the system, and then you’re learning about that and you’re
like, but yeah, this is the whole thing about how teachers get hired. And like, what about tenure? I mean, the incentives around this are all
wrong, and it’s like, what about graduation standards? Like we’re giving the same diploma to kids
who fail the exit exam three times, that we give to kids who pass it outright. What does that mean? And then all of a sudden it’s like you have
a more systems view that was always anchored in giving somebody a ticket out a day, but
that got more sort of interesting and complicated over the time the more we understood. Rick: So how do you juggle that? So on the one hand you’re like, look, we wanna
make sure kids get…exercise choice this year, get to a school that works for them,
on the other hand you say, wait a minute, but this stuff is all tangled, there’s teacher…like
teacher systems, and it’s like…and how big are you guys? Did you guys…how many people? Already three doing this work. Derrell: Yes. So in the halcyon days of New Jersey education
reform, we were really blowing stuff up, I would say there were like…all in we were
like 25 people. We had an office in Newark, we had one in
Camden, and we sort of organized around a couple different areas of activities, so we
had a legal effort, we had a coalition that we ran, that helped us lobby in Trenton, we
had sort of a robust communications campaign, and we worked on charter choice and a bunch
of other things. Rick: And so how did you juggle that? Like charter choice, how do you… Derrell: So this is complicated. So we’re always anchored in the thing that
mattered to us, and our signature policy was a tax credit scholarship program for low income
kids. At the same time, we were writing, talking
about, supportive of other things that other people wanted to do. There were two questions that came out of
that. Back in the day it was like, “Will you support
vouchers or private school choice?” We don’t know if we want your help, right? Even if we were the biggest, baddest dog with
the most ability to create the moment for change. And the other one is that there’s a thing
that you care about doing, and the other things you wanna do, and then there are the things
that everybody else will let you do, or will identify you with. So I go to the…my guys were the first people
talking about ending tenure before we had TEACHNJ, which was the tenure reform bill
in…I mean, long before there was an organization set up to deal with teacher quality issues. But the legislators should be like, oh you
guys are the private school choice guys. You know, so it was tough. We did have like a more holistic view, even
though we had a favored lever. The question is whether or not other people
are gonna let you poll anything else. Rick: Did you learn anything about…because
I can easily imagine if there’s folks that say, “Hey, we wanna work with you on teacher
quality, but we don’t wanna be in bed with somebody who’s supporting school vouchers.” Have you learned things, did you learn things
over time about how do you manage those relationships? Derrell: Yes. So there’s an arrogance that’s born out of
the shame of it, basically, because after a while you’re kind of like, look man, I don’t
need your…like I don’t need your blessing to support your issue. You can enjoy my support without me enjoying
yours. And you take that because you have a focus
on doing what you think is right for kids of whatever stripe or flavor that your organization
is built around. And so like getting grade teachers in a classroom
in the absence or in the presence of a robust choice system, is something we were interested
in. So, we tend to be there. What I always hated though was how…and what
I continue to hate, is sort of how dismissive and insensitive it can be when somebody says
to you basically, yeah, I don’t like your issue, but I’ll take your support. Because everybody does these things because
they have a set of values that are aligned with doing them. So, you know, I mean, I support lots of different
types of reform, but I care a lot about private school choice because I went to private school. Like why would I deny that to somebody else? Like that makes a ton of sense to me. And because somebody else believes differently,
I don’t think they’re like less or sort of less worth of participating, or that I should
be more dismissive of what they’re about or whatever, and a lot of the time, like the
private school choice people, you’re the last person that gets invited to the party, even
though you’re the first person bringing the alcohol. I mean, it’s just really like…it’s very
frustrating. Rick: So something you just said, I’ve heard
you speak before about how testeriously you take this work, right? But you just said, look, you also, you can
live with somebody not supporting private school choice, even though you think that
this makes a ton of difference for some kids. So how do you strike that balance? How do you look at somebody who’s opposed
to something that you think is good for kids, and kind of manage that relationship? Derrell: So it’s complicated. I think…so one of the things I try to do
first is really get personality out of it. So people are in organizations that are more
or less risk averse or sort of…I wish…or have more or less affinity for risk. That’s what I was looking for. And in every sector. So like we could be talking about cell phones
or whatever, you get really groundbreaking stuff, and you get really crappy stuff based
on how much risk people have. And a lot of the time people are in organizations
where they agree with your fundamental premise, but where they are doesn’t allow them to do
that. And like, I get it. You know? I think what I’ve been most frustrated about
is that we as a movement or an effort if you wanna call it that, we don’t spend a lot of
time helping people understand that like even the stuff I care about isn’t the only thing
that needs to get done. And so we develop very few reform-minded people
who have broad views of what you need to do. Like success academy doesn’t work unless you
have the mix of parent choice, independent strong authorizing, educators like free to
teach, amazing curriculum, a relentless sort of management approach that you…that is
sort of like from the private sector that’s applied in the non-profit sector. You gotta mix all that stuff up to get this
oasis of amazing achievement, where before you had sort of like a desert of low performance
like 11 years ago even. So most people approach what we do as like,
“Well you know, once we get the teachers right, we’ll be good. Once we get you know,… Rick: Accountability right? Derrell: Accountability, right, everything
is gonna be fine. And I don’t wanna…you know, you can’t build
a house with a hammer. You need a hammer, but you need saws and other
things too. So I don’t know where that came from or why
it’s been that way. That could have something to do with how our
political stripe sort of influence the approach, and obviously like you say in your book, how
our personal experiences inform our approach. But I would love to get more folks who are
like, I need every tool I can to make the world better for a kid on the corner of Newark,
than one tool, one tool alone in like “The Lord of the Rings” kind of way. Rick: So you spent a decade on the ground
in New Jersey working one state, kind of a set of districts, were there a couple of things
that you really learned from that time that shape the way you go about the stuff? Derrell: Yeah. So the first thing I would just say, and Andy
Smarick said this too, and so I’m in no way saying that I think it’s good that this happens,
right? Or that we shouldn’t act the way that we act. But then that things are the way that they
are for a reason. You can not agree with the reason, but the
mistake is thinking that somebody made a bunch of mistakes to get to a place where 10% of
the kids are reading on grade level, you’re spending two or three times the national K-12
average, and nobody seems to care. In that circle are lots of other interests
that are getting met, like college accounts are getting paid, houses are getting bought,
lots of adults are filling up savings accounts, food is getting purchased, and there is some
value to the fact that schools employ people as one thing that they accomplish. The question is always like, when does a thing
have too much weight in the mix, if the goal is to actually educate kids? I mean, I think most people should believe
that the goal of these things is to make sure people actually get educated. We can even fight over what education means,
but I don’t think we should be fighting over whether or not literacy is a good idea, just
like a base line. So I used to look at stats in Newark, or in
Trenton, or in Camden, or in Paterson, or something like that, and I’d be like, “I don’t
understand why the world isn’t on fire.” Like when you know that your kid’s gonna go
to school, they’re gonna go to this school, they have to, and no one that you know has
been successful who has gone to this school in your lifetime, but you don’t think something’s
wrong? They’ll be like, “No, no, no. Everything is fine.” Rick: Do people really say stuff like that? Derrell: So I think there was a sense that…or
there continues to be a sense…it’s actually two things. On the one hand that like things are so intractably
the way that they are, that they must be that way. Like I think we struggle to excite the possibilities
for people, when most of the stuff that we talk about is things that people can’t touch. So even in America, like 90% of Americans
think when you say charter, you talk about a bus you put people on. They’ve never sent a kid to a charter school,
they don’t have a family member, or a friend who goes in and has had a life-changing experience,
and so it’s like…it’s an abstraction. And if you saw the kids in your neighborhood
one way, and then another way a year later, that would sort of change your horizon from
what is possible, and I don’t think we’ve done that well. I think it’s hard to do well. And there’s politics and a whole bunch of
other stuff going on there. So helping people understand it could be better is really difficult. The other part of it, and I think I sort of
see this in my own life. So the first time I went to a restaurant with
some of my friends, and I had stake that was mind-numbingly good, like when I ate it I
was like, “Oh my God, this is so good.” It sort of rejiggered every other stake I’d
ever had. So I was kind of like, I thought this was
the bomb, like, this was terrible. And we…folks of color, which is where I’ve
worked, we talked about this, you know, the problems of education and that unique to cities
in heavily industrial, democratic states in the northeast. But you live in that way for a very long time,
and your view on what is acceptable also changes. And so the notion of…and the ritual of sending
your kid to the neighborhood school is very powerful, and it can override your sort of…like
limbic sense that something should be different, or better, or faster, or whatever. And so both of those things just require a
lot of disruption, and it’s hard to do particularly with lots of folks who again, don’t have tons
of great examples, and have long rituals of sort of underperformance that masquerade as
normalcy. Rick: So you’re now with 50CAN, you’re vice
president of this kind of organization that works with state affiliates in a bunch of
states across the land. How was that different from working in a single
state? Like when you start thinking about this stuff
across a lot of states, nationally, what do you have to be aware of, what changes? Derrell: So it’s complicated. So even as a person who runs one of the states,
I think about all of the stuff I knew about all the chocolate hares [SP] in Jersey. Like, this guy isn’t with us because he’s
in bed with these people. This woman hates us because she does this. I mean, the intimacy of it all, it is just
really difficult to recreate that from a state advocate standpoint. Which is part of the reason why it’s so tough
to switch states. I mean, like the local context, the history
is really, really everything. So it’s just hard to keep…like I have five
states, all of our southern states plus Delaware. And it’s hard to keep it all in your head. It’s interesting…so it’s hard to keep it
all in your head. The sort of benefit of it at least for me
is that working in a state that is very blue, managing a bunch of states that are very red,
I get a really interesting view on the tension between central command and more diaphanous. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for, I think
that’s it. Rick: We could use diaphanous. Derrell: Thank you, I’m trying my best here,
I was saving up all my best vocabulary for you. So that whole view I think is awesome, if
like difficult to wrangle, and it really has changed my view on how I think we should approach
a lot of problems. It’s like, it’s a lot more hands off, and
like the tradeoffs are about how much not awesome you’re willing to have to get more
good of what you want, you know, versus…good versus bad, I think. But the second thing is that the…I get a
sense, I think a better sense of what is being tried to actually stop us. So like every state has these aspects of being
canary in a coal mine. So like you look at Maryland, where I’m from,
and everybody thought it was about charters, and then the governor’s charter school bill
those down, and then the Democrats rip accountability, the whole thing. And everybody was like, “Oh, no-no, charters
are too much.” It was like, “Oh man, what happened there?” So I look at that and I’m like, this is a
playbook that’s gonna get tried in another state with similar circumstances pretty soon,
or like the arguments on Massachusetts charter cap, those are the same things being used
to tank [SP] the OSD, the sort of achievement school district in Georgia. It was all about local control and that kind
of stuff. You know, the anti-testing, opt-out stuff
going on in Nassau County and in Central Jersey. You know, that emerged and then New York did
it and put a lot of money behind it, and you’d see it happen in other states. So like the best and worst part of it is that
you can kind of see it coming, you know, the challenges whether or not you had it off. Rick: And on that Maryland example, is part
of your lesson then that the charter bill actually weakened the fight for accountability,
or what’s the takeaway, what you just said? Derrell: So while people were fighting over
charters, they weren’t trying to kill accountability. So to me…it’s like every discussion or every
negotiation. You don’t go in and ask for the easiest thing,
you go and you ask for the hard thing and you walk back. So most of the policies that I think we call
sort of mainstream now, are the result of people coming in and asking for the world. Like ESA, before there was ESA. Like money in your hand, cash on the table,
you know? Like all kinds of freedom, like any school
can start up, and people are like, “Yeah, that’s a lot much, how about we do charter
schools?” And so obviously charter schools have benefited
a great deal from the tension between a more pluralistic approach to choice, and a more
regulated one that is a step back. But then the next step back from chattering
is accountability. So like all of these things they stack on
one another, so the moment you give up a rung on the outside, the visagods [SP] get closer
to the castle. So again, this is another reason why I think
it’s helpful to have a broader approach about policy, because not only do you need them
all to actually fix a range of problems, you kind of need the tension between all of them
to defend all of them. Rick: So last question, when you’re working
with folks who are newer to this stuff, who are trying to get their minds around it, or
trying to negotiate all these complicated things we’re talking about, a couple pieces
of advice you find yourself giving over and over? Derrell: Yeah. So the number one one lately is, there’s the
way you think the world works, and there’s the way it actually works, right? So, particularly when…so we have an advocacy
campaign, like a fellowship that we call YouCAN. So if you’re just a person who wants to make
some change in your community, you’re in that. And it’s 25 people, and I teach 2 classes
for them. One is on sort of like race, and lens is on
race. So I do some stuff on Black Lives Matter,
some stuff I’ve written on my black life, which matters a great deal to me, and like
J.D. Vance, because these are kind of two different lenses on the same problem, and
trying to bridge those and build some sensitivity about them. And the other one is about policy change,
and what we think you should do. And that social movements are inefficient. They’re sort of necessary, but insufficient
is what I really…they are inefficient. And that normally the way stuff gets done
is at least get together and they do it. Like there was nobody focus-grouping people
on broad market in Newark to find out if they wanted to keep their doctor. When healthcare was getting done, people were
like, “We’re doing healthcare, you know?” So I really just try to ground people in the
fact that the world is not sort of mythically organized around what’s right, it tends to
be mythically organized around what’s doable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for
what’s right. So, that practical thing is there. The other thing, particularly with the current
politics that we really, really work on, and that I really trust the people, is that you
have to figure out what matters most to you. So, I’m an ed reformer first, I happen to
be a very conservative Democrat, and so I vote in Democratic primaries. But my feelings about what I do in education
are informed by the fact that I’m Democrat, but they are not ruled by it. So like I care about equity because I care
about fairness, and the little guy, and the little black guy who lives in the city. And lots of people aren’t that way, and I’m
not gonna say whether or not…you know, they’re like, the politics matter to me first. I’m not gonna say whether or not I think that
is right or wrong, I think it is right for some people and wrong for others, but I think
that people have to figure out whether or not they…which one of those matters the
most. Because particularly at this time, I think
if politics matter for you, you should work at the RNC or the DNC. If you care about improving outcomes for America’s
kids, you gotta kind of subordinate that, and I sort of offer that respectfully to people
and they can figure out what they wanna do with it afterwards. Rick: Derrell man, thanks for taking the time. Derrell: Thanks for having me, dawg. Rick: Appreciate it. Hey everyone, that’s the end of our discussion
with Derrell Bradford. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover on Viewpoint, and be sure to check out the rest of our videos
and research from AEI.

6 thoughts on “School choice: Charter schools and accountability – Full interview with Derrell Bradford | VIEWPOINT

  1. Am familiar with public schools in NJ, thanks for working to improve teacher quality and access to quality schools there, Derrell.

  2. You can have all the charter schools you want, just stop giving them our tax money since they don't take everyone.

  3. Charter schools are are one of the biggest frauds of modern education next to gender studies. If you fund public schools you get results. All charter schools do is increase religious backed bigotry and indoctrination and take away more funding from public schools. charter schools have rigged the system, defrauded the taxpayer and studies to get as far as they have. Backed by religious fundamentalism. Goals are different but results the same.

  4. My sister home schooled her 4 kids from grade 1-7. My sister has no formal education beyond High School, yet her kids were all beyond grade level when they entered High School and my niece is going to graduate High School with a Bachelor's degree because she took college course with ease. We spend more on our public education and get less results for the money than many countries.

  5. School choice is a fucking joke. Just because i earn more and choose to pay more to send my kid to private school does not instantly entitle you to get free money to do the same for your kud

  6. I hate how democrats always talk about equity, collectivism, and identity politics. People of color, BLM, blah blah blah. You want people to have better education and better standards? Sure, let's talk about that. Stop making it about race.

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