Jon Hage: Wishing education reform a Scrooge-like self-examination

Editor’s note: Jon Hage is founder and CEO of Charter Schools USA. This post is the first in our #schoolchoiceWISH series.

Jon Hage
Jon Hage

Now that the education reform movement has grown to nearly 2.3 million students in charter schools and hundreds of thousands more in other reform alternatives, it is my wish that education reformers avoid becoming like the very system we want to transform.

We don’t want to be driven by adult interests. Nor do we want to become just another blob of regulation and red tape filled with political subterfuge that closely resembles the current broken K-12 traditional education system. The Ghost of Ed Reform Past would remind us that the traction the movement gained was due to the unwavering focus of putting students first; serving parents; our fortitude to challenge the status quo; and the determination to compete, grow and replicate no matter how hard the battle.2013WISHLISTFINAL

That wise old ghost would remind us of our nation’s founders, who empowered the individual citizen to control government, not the other way around. Our past reveals hard-fought battles to protect the right of students to receive a great education regardless of economic status or geographic challenges.

The Ghost of Ed reform Present shows us current realities we don’t want to admit. Arguments about who is right are trumping arguments about what is right. Millions of students every year miss out on a better educational option because the progress of reform laws and regulations lags far behind demand, with little outcry or protest from reformers themselves. It’s as if we have our schools now and are afraid to risk fighting the next level of conflict for more choices, more funding and more educational freedom. Tragically, there are millions of students who will never recover from that missed opportunity. Even still, the ed reform movement grows, but only because destiny is set by the potential of our children. We owe it to them to reaffirm that the possibilities of education reform match their limitless potential.

So, what does the Ghost of Ed Reform Future have to say?

That maximizing the possible positive impacts of education reform begins with the reformer focusing on one student at a time. Scrooge woke up to change his ways and find the heart he had so many years ago forgotten. Our movement can’t forget that WE are the revolution!

Our nation can ill afford to slow the progress that has been made. We must reinvigorate ourselves to fight for what’s right while always keeping the focus on what’s best for students. It is then that our future as a nation will be bright indeed. If, however, we allow ourselves to become just another special interest, our fate will be determined for us, our impact limited and our progress repealed. In a generation, we’ll be remembered only as a small temporary movement that tried but failed to change public education. The future is ours to make. We have all the ingredients to make it great.

So, for a future we can all look forward to, I wish for a Scrooge-like wake-up call of renewed intensity and commitment to the fight for student-centered, parent-controlled, school-based freedom across every community in America.

Coming tomorrow: Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.


  1. I find it rich that millionaires complain about teachers and their adult interests.

    Furthermore speaking of a failed system, Charter Schools U.S.A. has been denied expansion in Tampa because of poor performance. It’s the height of hypocrisy that he complains about public schools when the schools he runs despite numerous advantages aren’t performing any better and often times worse than their public school counterparts.

    This guy is a mercenary and if you are using him as your poster boy then the reform movement/err privatization movement is doomed.

  2. Tradtional Public School Teacher

    If all he reforms Hage supports worked then why did the USA rank so poorly on the most recent PISA tests? We have a generation of vouchers, charters, merit pay and other right wing education reforms that have failed. Think about it. The Republicans have dominated education reform for the past 20 years. Conservative, market-driven reforms have been tried but they are failing. They keep pushing these reforms so the billionaires and Bible schools can feed off the public trough.

    • Hi Traditional Public School Teacher, thanks for the comment! When it comes to ed policy, I could care less whether someone is Democrat, Republican, or any other label. After eight years covering Florida ed politics and policy for the St. Pete Times/Tampa Bay Times, the party labels increasingly made no sense to me; all that mattered was whether the person was thoughtful, fair-minded and independent-minded

      There’s no doubt kids in Florida still have a long, long ways to go. But there’s also no doubt they’ve made some of the biggest gains in the nation over the last 15 years, judging by NAEP scores, grad rates and AP performance. It’s impossible to sort out which factors are responsible for those gains. But I don’t see how any fair-minded observer could overlook regulatory accountability measures like school grades, which forced greater focus on low-income and minority students; and a massive expansion in school choice, most of which happened not with charters and vouchers, but through districts.

      One last quick point: School choice is expanding rapidly because parents are demanding it. No one is forced to enroll their kid in a charter, or get a voucher so their kid can go to a private school, or, for that matter, enroll their kid in a magnet school or career academy.

      • Traditional Public School Teacher

        I cannot help but think that one reason for private school growth is that parents are sick of the testing culture in the schools. In fact, one of the dirty secrets is that parents will intentionally enroll their kids in private school during 3rd and 4th grade because there is no FCAT. 5th grade enrollment then goes up when private school kids go back to their neighborhood school. In fact, I believe that every private school that takes my tax dollars ought to have their schools administer the FCAT. It is only fair. Finally, there is no point in charter schools if they are offering the same thing as the publics. There is really little difference so they ought to be better regulated. I would posit that with so little oversight of charters by local school boards (by the design of the laws passed by the republicans) charters really are private. Ask any board member and they will tell you that they have little legal control despite our tax dollars going to them. That is not right!

        • Dear Traditionalist Teacher—Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

          We’ve surveyed our scholarship families and found the primary reasons they choose non-district schools are safety and values. Too much testing in district schools almost never comes up. Remember, we serve lower-income families and they tend to embrace state standardized testing more than suburban/affluent families, although more affluent families enthusiastically embrace certain types of testing.

          For example, affluent families often fight to get their children into International Baccalaureate programs and IB students participate in six weeks of intense testing every spring. So families’ attitudes toward testing are dependent on their specific circumstances.

          The same holds true for teachers. As an IB teacher, I ignored the FCAT and focused exclusively on preparing my students for AP and IB exams. If I were working in a program serving high-poverty students, I would focus on helping these students master basic literacy skills and rely on the FCAT to tell me how they were progressing.

          I have written extensively about the other issues you raised above, such as current and future state testing requirements in district and non-district schools, and how best to balance regulatory accountability with the accountability that comes from consumer choice. You can find these previous posts here:

          Happy Holidays!

  3. Pingback: Jonathan Hage’s SchoolChoiceWish Void of Candor and Humility | Scathing Purple Musings

  4. I find it interesting, to say the least, that Mr. Hage adduces Scrooge in his article. As anyone who has read Dickens can attest, Scrooge is a selfish, bitter, rich old man who willingly sacrifices the well-being of others on the altar of his greed. That is why the nocturnal visits occur: they are a final attempt to get Scrooge to see that the accumulation and hoarding of money endanger his very soul. Only by putting others first does he have any hope of redemption.

    In citing Scrooge’s visitors, Mr. Hage misses one. He fails to talk about the ghost of Jacob Marley. Perhaps that is because Marley’s words are not amenable to his purpose. After all, they scarcely fall within the beloved business model of education that the charter school movement espouses. Listen for a moment to Marley: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” And further: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raised them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

    That last quote takes me to one of my objections to Mr. Hage’s musings and his reference to the Ghost of Ed Reform Past. Mr. Hage cites the following characteristics as critical to the success of reform: “… putting students first; serving parents; our fortitude to challenge the status quo; and the determination to compete, grow and replicate no matter how hard the battle.” The current “reformers” certainly exhibit the last two characteristics. I seriously question their commitment to the first two but will address only “putting students first”. A study from the Southern Education Foundation (“A New Majority”, October 2013) clearly shows that the issue is increasing poverty among school children along with mismatched funding. (The areas with the highest poverty rates have the least amount of money per pupil.) If Mr. Hage and other reformers were truly “putting students first”, they would address the poverty issue because that is key to educational success.

    Mr. Hage’s Ghost of Ed Reform Present cites no evidence. He simply makes unfounded assertions about missed opportunities. Perhaps this is because the record for charter schools is so dismal that he dare not hold it up for scrutiny. The National Academies’ National Research Council (“Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education”, 2011) reports that “test-based incentive programs … have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.” The National Center on Education and the Economy, in a report (“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”, 24 May 2011) by Mark Tucker states that “much of the current reform agenda in this country is irrelevant, a detour from the route we must follow if we are to match the perofrmance of the best [countries].” As just one example, Florida performed significantly below the average on the latest round of the PISA testing. So much for the alleged “Florida miracle”. Furthermore, the charter school movement has shown no greater success overall – and in many cases less success – than the public school system despite having advantages such as selective enrollment. (You do realize that public schools must educate all children, not just those who “qualify” for acceptance.)

    Mr. Hage’s reference to the Ghost of Ed Reform Future appeals to Scrooge’s transformation, noting that he “woke up to change his ways and find the heart that he had so many years ago forgotten.” So let’s look at what Scrooge’s change of ways and heart entails. Once he has gotten over his initial glee at finding himself alive and with a second chance, the first thing Scrooge does is engage a young boy to buy the largest turkey available and then send the turkey to his employee. The next day, Scrooge plays a trick on his employee but then tells him, “… I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob.” In other words, Scrooge starts paying his employee a living wage and stops enriching himself at the expense of others. What sort of treatment do most “education reformers” advocate for employees (teachers)? Their comments reflect the unreformed Scrooge, and we know that he was on a path to an ignominious and wretched future.

    Scrooge’s second encounter after his transformation and reformation is with the gentleman who was collecting money for the poor. Scrooge makes a pledge that the old man describes as “munificence”. Here we see humanity and concern for people, true beneficence, genuinely putting others first. It was genuine charity (Old French “charité” – mercy, compassion; from Latin “caritas” – esteem, affection) in the fullest sense of the word, not “entrepreneurial philanthropy” that has profit as its end goal.

    Yes, there are problems with public education, but teachers and the public school system are not the ones who need a visit from Marley and the Ghosts.

    • Hi Mr. Marley! Thanks for the lengthy comment! You’ve given us a lot to think about. I’m on vacation so I’m afraid I’ll just have to make one quick point in response to the “Florida miracle.” I don’t know any “ed reformer” who’s ever used that term, or any ed reformer who doesn’t acknowledge that Florida students, as the PISA and other results show, still have so far to go. But there’s no doubt that over the past 15 years, Florida students have made some of the biggest gains in the nation in terms of NAEP scores, AP results and grad rates. Those gains have come largely because Florida’s low-income and minority students have gotten more academic traction than their peers in just about any other state.

      No, it’s not enough. And we should continue to try and be as thoughtful as possible about the what next steps should be to keep moving the needle. But shouldn’t we all be proud of the progress that’s been made to date? And shouldn’t be honor the students and teachers who are responsible by, at the least, recognizing how far they’ve come, in such a short time, under unbelievably trying circumstances?

      • Hello, Mr. Matus. You might want to look at the following:

        – an article from the Washington Post:

        – an article from EducationNext:

        While I have not been able to track down an original quote from Mr. (Jeb) Bush, numerous sources, including Reuters News service, note that he has used this term in his presentations. However, please also note that I did not ascribe the term to anyone in particular; it is, however, in widespread usage.

        Until 2009 there were significant gains by Florida students on the NAEP. I do not have information on AP results and graduation rates; perhaps you would provide sources. I do note, however, that the ACLU sued the State of Florida in 2009 over poor graduation rates. ( I would also be interested in your source for the statement about low-income and minority students.

        I thoroughly agree that both students and teachers who are responsible for the gains should be honored; there was nothing in any of my comments above that implied otherwise. To the contrary, one of my points was that the “Bob Cratchits” (teachers) ought to share in the profit being made by groups such as Mr. Hage’s Charter Schools USA. Or to put it in other terms:
        “For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.” (1 Corinthians 9:9-10)
        “For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” (1 Timothy 5:18)

        In addition, the discussion needs to include an analysis of all factors to see what caused the jump in performance. For example, some commentators have noted that concomitant with the rise in scores was the practice of holding students back in the third grade. By removing lower-performing students from the testing group of fourth graders, there would naturally be a jump in scores. An additional year in third grade would further prepare these retained students for better performance in the fourth grade a year later. Please note that I do not consider retention a bad thing per se. Not all students develop at the same rate; what needs to be removed is the stigma associated with needing extra time to master the material, especially in the lower grades. All factors need to be taken into account.

  5. Hi again Mr. Marley, I couldn’t agree with you more about looking at all factors. It’s definitely tough, if not impossible, to sort through all the potential factors for Florida’s rise, and determine which ones had the most positive impact. I think there’s room for legit debate there, on third-grade retention and everything else. But too often the line from “ed reform critics,” and I hope I’m not painting with too broad a brush, is that Florida’s gains are minimal if not a mirage.

    I’m familiar with the Answer Sheet post you cite, and the Reuters piece it links to. I was a journalist for 20 years, eight of that as an education reporter in Florida for the St. Pete Times/Tampa Bay Times. Over that span on the ed beat, I paid closer attention to Florida’s academic results, how they changed over time, and how they compared to other states, than any reporter in the state, if not beyond. The Reuters piece was among the most shockingly cherry-picked stories about Florida’s education system I’ve ever seen, and, in my humble opinion, was an insult to Florida’s students and teachers. Again, I’ve never heard Florida “ed reformers” use the term “Florida miracle”; it’s a term I’ve often heard by critics of those reforms to dismiss the progress that has been made.

    Florida did hit a NAEP lull for a cycle or two, but again made some of the most statistically significant gains in the nation according to the 2013 results:

    Florida’s low-income and minority students have indeed been the driving force behind the gains, as the chart attached to the above link shows. Between 1998 and 2013, Florida’s low-income students are No. 1 in gains on the 4th-grade reading test, and No. 2 on the 8th-grade reading test. Despite the common refrain from critics that Florida’s academic progress has been limited to the early grades, NAEP, AP and grad rates all show that to be a myth.

    Here’s a link to the most recent College Board report on AP results: … Over the past decade, Florida is No. 2 in growth in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed at least one AP exam. That’s not participation; that’s passage. And while I don’t have time to break the stats into subgroups for you, there’s no doubt the gains are the result of Florida’s much-criticized push to open the doors of AP access to poor and minority students who didn’t fit the traditional AP profile.

    Here’s a link to the most recent Education Week Diplomas Count report: … According to the most recent data analyzed by Ed Week, Florida is No. 2 in grad rate progress.

    • Thank you for your response, Mr. Matus, and the information on AP and graduation rates. I will look at your links when I have the opportunity.

      Wishing you a Merry Christmas. May all the spirits you receive be ones you want.