Accentuating CharterNess; 101, 201 and 301 Levels; Being Clear About the That, the What and the Why; How Free, Public and Open to All Really Boils Down to Public, Public, and Even More Public

Good day, CharterFolk.

I start off today sharing my sense that we may be turning a corner.

Turning away from a time when many of us in charterland wanted to downplay our charterness in order to accentuate our publicness, toward a time when we realize that we have to embrace both our charterness and our publicness at the same time.

We are turning this corner because we’re reappraising trade-offs we’ve experienced related to de-emphasizing our charterness.

The reappraisals are different given the segment of the world we’re talking about.  Today I’ll talk about three:

  • The 101-Level: Our Opponents, and the Reality of “the That”
  • The 201-Level: The General Public and the Importance of “the What”
  • The 301-Level: Ourselves and the Super-Importance of “the Why”

Let’s take them one-by-one.

101- Level:  Our Opponents, and the Reality of “the That

One of the hypotheses driving the decision that many made to downplay our charterness was that doing so might decrease blowback coming from status quo interests. Stop highlighting that we’re different, the thinking went, and that will help to calm things down.

It was essentially reasoning that, if we want fewer us-them dynamics, it would behoove us to stop saying there’s any distinction between the “us-es” and the “thems” in the first place.

Having tried to assert that we’re all just part of one big “us” now for the better part of a decade, we see that the hypothesis doesn’t hold together.

When it gets right down to it, there really aren’t that many charter school opponents. The only ones there are are overwhelmingly self-interested parties wanting to protect their place in the existing order, and they don’t care whether we call ourselves a charter or a giraffe.  They are threatened by any school that operates outside the direct control of the local school district. And they’re going to do whatever they can to stop that school from succeeding and, ultimately, from existing. So keep the blowback coming no matter what the school decides to call itself.

Having seen this harsh reality play out in context after context, a new recognition is sinking in among CharterFolk:

If downplaying our charterness doesn’t decrease blowback in any meaningful way, what’s the sense in even doing it?

Even more than that:

Having seen things up close in the micro …

… CharterFolk understand better the world we inhabit in the macro.

We see that those who oppose us don’t really care whether what they say about us is true or not.  It’s all tactics to them.  They’ll say whatever they want. Even when they’re called out for their deception.

Their ends justify their means.  And their means, their overarching strategy, is to say that charter schools are private schools that do not serve all students.

And they’re willing to spend gobs to create this misimpression in the general public. 

Having seen this dynamic play out now for decades, it’s finally becoming clear why it is that so many in the public still to this day don’t understand what a charter school is. 

It’s not because we’re new.  We’ve been around for decades at this point. 

And it’s not that we’re so difficult to understand.  We’re nonprofits operating schools rather than the local school district.

It’s that there is a societal force with massive resources that is willing to use a significant portion of those resources to attempt to perpetuate a lie about charter schools in order to confuse and delude the public.

That is the charter school communications 101-Level:

Understanding the reality of the “that.”

Which is that there is a huge amount of misinformation and lies about charter schools in the landscape because of the fact “that” charter schools exist.

And no matter how hard we wish that the world might be different, Establishment defenders are going to keep attempting to delude the public.

For as long as our “that” continues to be.

And the only real question that matters is what we are going to do about “that.”

For a long time, there was very little that we could do. Our opponents had so many resources and so much coordinated effort on their side, we had little chance of helping truth and accuracy prevail in the public sphere.

But things are changing.

With nearly four million kids in charter schools, and a better understanding of the messages we can coalesce around, we see a recognition spreading that it actually is within our potential to affect the “that” we all contend with.

But we have to be smart. And we have to be coordinated.

It requires taking things to another level.

I call it the 201-Level.

201- Level:  The General Public and the Importance of “the What

The 201 level is born of an awareness that has come from many polls and from countless experiences we’ve all had in our one-on-one interactions with members of the public, which is that the most important thing we can do to get the public to support charter schools is to get the public to simply understand what charter schools are. 

It explains, actually, why our opponents work so hard to deceive the public. They know that if the public understands the truth, they will become supporters of charter schools.  So they do whatever they can to convince the public that charter schools are something different than we really are.

It also explains why some charter school organizations decided to de-emphasize their charterness.  The common sense intuition was that, if we want the public to understand that we’re public, why complicate things at all by saying that we’re anything other than simply public?

But having done that now for the better part of a decade, we see what happens.  When we don’t stress both our charterness and our publicness at the same time, we create situations where the public ends up not even knowing that our schools are charters.  So we miss the chance to educate the public about our schools.

And every missed chance is a small tax we pay in terms of decreased public awareness and support.

And we’ve come to the place where we see that paying that tax has become a price too high to pay.

It’s turning a corner to more deeply recognizing the importance of the “what.”

What the public believes about charter schools really matters.

And we have it within our potential to advance an accurate “what” beyond anything we’ve done before.

But it requires that we rise to the 201-Level, with all of us contributing to the the drumbeat of organizations across the country …

… that are sharing the essential truth that charter schools are free …

… public …

… and open to all.

Not just the drumbeat of many organizations hitting drums in unison.

But the drumbeat of the message itself:

  • Free, dispelling the notion that we’re private schools that exclude kids by charging tuition, and reinforcing the central message, which is that charter schools are public schools.
  • Public, making the central assertion itself, which is that charter schools are public schools.
  • And open to all, again dispelling the notion that we’re private schools that can exclude kids, and reinforcing the central message, which is that charter schools are public schools.

So while our opponents attempt to push their lie that charter schools are private, private, private …

… we repeat again and again the truth, which is that charter schools are public, public, public.

It’s drumbeat that is made much louder when all charter schools stress our charterness and our publicness at the same time.

All in service of advancing our truer “what.”

The essential building block upon which we build an even more important message.

Our 301-Level message.

Not the “what” we say to the general public.

But “the why” we say to ourselves.

301- Level: Ourselves, and the Super-Importance of “the Why

Our 301-Level work, much like our 201-Level work, grows out of a reappraisal of the trade-offs we experience when we downplay our charterness.

Only rather than the consequences of the trade-offs being felt in our interactions with the public, they’re felt amongst ourselves.

Amongst Charterfolk.

Because just as the general public can fail to know that our schools are charter schools when we de-emphasize our charterness, so too can our own people when we don’t have regular, ongoing conversations about the fact that we are all contributing to schools that are both public and charter.

In the early going, virtually every new charter school organization had regular discussions with its stakeholders about its charterness. But in recent years as we have attempted to downplay our charterness in the public sphere, many organizations have had fewer such conversations internally, if any at all.

Then with the level of talent turnover we’ve had in charterland through the pandemic, we stand at a moment when our own people may have less knowledge and understanding of charterness than at any other time in our movement’s history.

It’s another tax we’re paying for our decision to downplay our charterness.

Only this tax is an even higher one than we pay with the general public.

Because when our own folk don’t know that they’re working in a charter, or they don’t understand what makes a charter school unique, they don’t understand how our charterness allows us to make a positive impact on behalf of kids and communities that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.  And not understanding that, our own world begins to undervalue what makes us unique. That can lead us, either intentionally or unintentionally, to embrace things that would make us like all other public schools. 

The rationale basically goes:  “If charter schools are essentially identical to all other public schools anyway, then what’s the harm in being identical?”

It’s a line of reasoning that leads us down the path of merging again into the miasmic one-ness, of embracing again the cookie-cutter, of adopting again the one-size-fits-all.

Thereby undercutting our very reason to exist.

Clearly, that’s a tax that is far too high a price to pay.

Thus we see our world turning a corner to more deeply recognize the super-importance of the “why.”

Because our own Folk understanding why our schools are charter schools really matters.

And we have it within our potential now to advance a why beyond any we’ve advanced before.

A compelling North Star in front of our movement giving us all an opportunity to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

So that we’re more committed to what makes us unique and are more willing to put up with all the ridiculous opposition we have to contend with.

The trick is finding a way to have those conversations with our own Folk such that they align with the overarching messages we advance in our 201-Level work with the public.

Because if we attempt to advance one set of messages with the public and a completely different one amongst ourselves, we risk diluting the effect, or losing coherence.

Fortunately, if we’re smart about it, it’s not difficult to fully integrate our “what” and “why.”

Because when we explore the deeper meaning of free, public and open to all, we find that we’re not aspiring toward schools that are just public, public, public.

We are, in fact, aspiring toward schools that are public, more public, and even more public than any our society has ever had before.

Schools that give absolutely all kids better opportunity, but also make sure that those kids who need better public education most, the kids who are most disserved by our current barely public school system, finally get the great public education they deserve.

The kind of message that makes our Folk proud to be part of a movement that wears its charterness and its publicness on its sleeve.

The kind that ultimately leads many Folk to become CharterFolk in the first place.

The kind, finally, that not only completely integrates our 201 and 301-Levels of work, but in fact propels us on to 401-Levels of impact that are now finally within our reach.

Levels of impact beyond any we have achieved before.

How those levels hang together, I’ll explore in my next post.

Hope to see you here.