Friday, Jan. 30, 2009 | Despite being the son of a principal and a schoolteacher, Jed Wallace says he stumbled into teaching to pay the bills. But what started as just a job at a massive Los Angeles elementary school became a passion and eventually convinced him that solutions lay outside school districts in charters: publicly funded schools that are independently run and free from the rules that gird school districts.

The idea germinated after Wallace helped Hooper Avenue Elementary School boost its test scores “overnight” simply by clamping down on teacher and student turnover. Teachers agreed to stick it out at the school instead of climbing the career ladder to more comfortable schools; an area superintendent allowed Hooper to keep enrolling students who had moved a few schools away when a parent got sick or lost a job.

But then a new leader came into the school district and parents were told they had to go back to their home schools. Wallace found himself standing outside the school facing furious families. He calls it one of the worst days in his professional career.

“I said, ‘I will not put myself in a situation where I do not have greater control over my professional destiny,’” Wallace recalled. “And it was clear to me that the charter school movement was in fact that place.”

Fifteen years later he has seen charters from nearly every angle: as a classroom teacher and charter founder, as a San Diego Unified manager overseeing charters, and as the executive director and later the chief operating officer of High Tech High, a lauded system of charter schools that use projects to engage students in their classes and now trains its own teachers. He was tapped in December to lead the California Charter Schools Association, a group that advocates for quality charters statewide.

We snagged him for a quick chat before he took off for the new job in Sacramento.

You first became interested in charter schools in Los Angeles as a teacher. Tell me a little bit about that experience and how it sparked your interest in charters.

I was in Los Angeles and I was writing plays and had creditors on my tail and had no choice but to start earning some more money. And so I went to Los Angeles Unified and asked if I could be a substitute, and they noticed that I had a pulse and said, “Why don’t you take one of these jobs in South Central Los Angeles?” where there were like, 300 or 400 openings.

I came from an arts background and was really attached to issues of social justice. I was really hesitant walking in the door but by day one, day two, day three, I was just hooked. I loved teaching. I loved the opportunity to address these social issues that mattered so much to me in the context of my work. I felt as though my background just enabled me to bring so much to the classroom.

But I quickly realized that the system, the bureaucracy that is really holding back Los Angeles Unified was holding back my classroom, was holding back my school. I was just entrepreneurial by mindset, looking for different opportunities. I did a lot of things within the existing system. But those things didn’t have the staying power. They would get erased as district policy changed. And so I was looking for something of greater permanence.

The real spark for the charter school thing was I happened to be in Japan traveling, reading a book by Alvin Toffler called “The Third Wave,” and had an epiphany about a different school that could be created in the middle of this bureaucracy. And I started writing what I described at a time as a Jerry Maguire. That was the only language I had to describe it.

I came back and I did publish my Jerry Maguire. I gave it out to all the people at the school … and finally someone a little bit more knowledgeable than me took this thing and said, “You know, this is not a Jerry Maguire. This is a charter.” And I said, “What’s a charter?” And then that person started telling me about the seminal figures of the charter movement in Los Angeles — Jonathan Williams, Yvonne Chan, Joe Lucente — who were very key in helping me begin to piece together a new vision of how I could pursue my passion for education and social justice.

There are all these different advantages that people list to charters, but the main thing (for you) sounds like, you can make your own decisions.

Yeah. That flexibility, agility, nimbleness, accountability, responsibility, autonomy, are all things that entrepreneurial kinds of folks naturally gravitate to. If there is anything about the traditional system that I think holds it back most it is lack of agility. A problem emerges today and literally dozens or scores or hundreds of adults will look at one another and say, “What is all the stuff that we have to do to be able to make the common sense decision that needs to be made?” … In the worst instances a kind of unaccountability and feeling of safeness and lack of responsibility creeps into the culture. And I think that in charter schools we in general have a feeling that whatever problems we have, they’re our problems. We made them, but we also have the power and the agility and the accountability to go out and fix them.

Now that it’s a little bit more than a decade into the charter movement, where do you think it has really met its goals and where is it still striving to meet its goals?

Unleashing great potential and capitalizing upon the gifts and talents of educators in California and improving in many, many instances the learning of kids is definitely there. … There is just this idea that maybe, maybe we are on the cusp of doing something that hasn’t happened since Horace Mann invented public education in the first place.

That is a public education system that is accountable at a level that public education has never been accountable, and one that finally postures public education to deliver on its mission, to make sure that this society is predicated on the notion that opportunity will be made equal. There are just so many different ways that society attempts to create that improved opportunity but education gives us the greatest hope for achieving that.

If there is any area where the charter school movement needs to be thinking about improvement or correction it would be in the area of accountability for low performing charter schools.

This is something where during the first few months on the job I want to do a lot of listening. I come with a point of view but I also know I’ve got a lot of learning to do. One of the great risks to the movement is that we replace System A with System A — System A being schools that are just not that accountable, where underperforming schools are protected by the very movement that was designed originally to make sure they didn’t exist.

That touches on a central question for the movement — how do you ensure quality without stifling innovation or recreating the bureaucracy? How do you balance those competing concerns? Where do you see the line being drawn?

I am not convinced that additional regulatory burden for either our traditional public schools or for charter schools is serving any kind of corrective purpose. I think that it only emerges as a requirement when the accountability part is not there. So for me I would want to keep the focus on high levels of accountability, having the charter school movement itself take on the problem of low performing charter schools. And in return for that we keep as much of the regulation as we possibly can from creeping into the space. Hopefully what we do is we make an argument for similar freedom from regulation and constraint being brought to the traditional system as well.

Is it possible to replicate the kind of success that High Tech High has had in a district-run school? What kind of factors would inhibit that?

Thousands of people visit here every year and we hear people say, “I couldn’t do that” because of this restraint or that restraint. And in general we say, “Why not? What specifically is stopping you?” And usually you find out it is a lack of imagination or a presumption of powerlessness that is the main stumbling block. We have countless examples of school across the country now that have taken as much of High Tech High as they can, lock stock and barrel. … We work hard to leave our doors open and be as transparent as we possibly can be.

You’ve sat on all different sides of the table in the charter-district relationship. How does that shape your perspective on the ways in which school districts and charters relate to each other?

My sense is that we stand on the cusp of many school districts beginning to recognize that they have two primary functions they have to fulfill. One is their historic function to field a team (to provide services to students.) In general, what they have done in the past is field a team that is providing the services to 100 percent of the kids. That is not really what the future is anymore. They will still field a team but it is only going to be a percentage of the portfolio. The second function they have to meet is the referee function (of overseeing charter schools they compete with.)

Just like any entities that have competing interests within them, they have to reflect the need for [those interests] to be somewhat isolated. It’s like banking. You want your investment banking side segregated from your research side. … An investment bank that wasn’t separating its investment banking from its research would have a dysfunctional dynamic emerge. And school districts which haven’t yet started to separate those two functions and honor both are going to be challenged for a while.

What are you going to miss most about High Tech High — leaving the school itself?

There’s just so many things to miss about High Tech High. I have said on several occasions that I had the best job in public education in the United States. I’ve said it now for five years. And now I realize I was wrong. I had the second best job in public education in the United States. …When you spend fifteen years in public education, as I have, and also your family has spent their entire careers in public education, for a long time you wondered, “Is hope justified? We talk about it, we agitate for it, but is it possible?” To have this shining, absolutely unquestioned example that hope is justified in our public education establishment is something that I will carry from High Tech High forever — that’s for sure.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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