Advocacy Investment as Collective Self-Care | The Highest Impact Advocacy Grant We’ve Seen in Years | The Potential of 25x25x25

Good day, CharterFolk.

I thought I’d get off one more post before taking a break for the holidays. Aside from our Year in Review which I’ll send sometime next week, this will be the last you hear from me until 2022.

I wanted to pick up from where we left off on Monday, when I focused on the tax that advocacy places on our movement and when I encouraged advocates for advocacy to be sensitive to the fact that many in our movement are simply overwhelmed right now.

Today I’d like to focus on smart investments we can make to lighten our collective load.

As it turns out, some of those investments are in advocacy.

Stories coming out of three states demonstrate.

We start in Pennsylvania where charter schools serve over 170,000 students and where in recent years we have seen the movement come under nearly constant attack …

… from an openly hostile governor.

The state does have a charter school association (CSA) …

… its “Coalition,” which is led by a CEO, Lenny McAllister, who has extensive experience in politics and ed reform.

But, because Pennsylvania’s charter school community has not come together behind its CSA in a unified way, and because even those that are members provide no more than $3/student in annual dues, the Coalition has very little capacity. The organization has just two staff members, with one almost entirely focused on the administration of a federal CSP grant. The organization has no regional presence and no internal communications team and has not developed a 501c4 organization or any other political infrastructure. That leaves Lenny and a contract lobbyist to try to fend off all the attacks that are coming against charter schools in the capitol. The lack of unity and resources has contributed to a revolving door of leadership and a general state of instability across the organization and the broader movement.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles up the 95 in Rhode Island, tiny Rhode Island, we find something different.

It’s a state whose charter schools serve just 6500 students, 1/26th the number of kids served by Pennsylvania charter schools. And yet, despite their small size, Rhode Island’s charter schools have their …

… “League,” led by an Executive Director, Keith Oliveira …

… who has been at the organization for eight years and over that period has been able to establish a 501c4 organization and other political infrastructure and to assemble a strong team of contract lobbyists.

In recent years, Rhode Island’s charter schools have been subjected to some of the most challenging advocacy conditions in the country. In June of 2019, the Johns Hopkins report came out …

… describing the appalling state of public education in Providence.

It led to the state taking over the Providence school district …

… and developing a plan to expand the number of high quality charter schools in the city …

… which led to all the typical backlash …

… and a push for a charter school moratorium …

… which the League and its allies have been working hard to hold off.

Now, is my point that the League has had all the capacities that we would have wanted to take on the full scope of the advocacy challenge that befell Rhode Island in recent years?

Of course not.

But we did have a viable CSA with an experienced leader supporting a cohesive charter school community overseeing a stable advocacy organization that had developed critical abilities in time for a crucial moment, enabling the CSA to help the movement come through this period of challenge unscathed.

And how did this come about?

Because absolutely all of Rhode Island’s 20 charter schools are members of the League and they contribute, on average, over $30 per pupil in annual membership dues, giving the state’s sector a heft of advocacy presence that many other states orders of magnitude larger have yet to develop.

This is what is within our reach when charter school communities recognize the potential of the 25x25x25 proposition.

We become decidedly un-tiny, even in the places where our enrollment is smallest.

And in places where our enrollment has grown, we become huge for kids and families in ways their states have never seen before.

It’s the true ability to defend ourselves and to advance our shared interests, demonstrating what investments in advocacy really are: a collective investment in self-care.

And yes, as I wrote on Monday, our advocacy proposition is always going to feature a dependency on voluntary collective grassroots action, and that is always going to be a tax on the movement.

But in many cases, having a strong CSA at the ready will allow us to prevail without having to rely quite so deeply on the collective action strategy, thereby reducing the burdens that will be placed on schools.

I’ll say it again: Investments in advocacy are collective investments in self-care.

That doesn’t mean that conditions are identical in every state. I fully acknowledge that Pennsylvania has conditions in place that are distinct from those in Rhode Island, and those conditions may pose unique challenges to assembling CSA strength. I could easily rattle off a half-dozen characteristics of the Pennsylvania movement that make it different from Rhode Island.

But here’s the thing:

While each state is unique, it is also true that there are many patterns that apply across states.

One trend that we are seeing come into place right now is that many state charter school communities are making greater investments in collective self-care. That is why we have seen that, in just three years, the collective investment in advocacy being made in state associations by members has almost doubled, from $13-14 million in 2019, to a projection of $26-27 million next year.

We now have nine states where membership dues are at least $15 per student, and climbing, and we have another eight states that are either at or closing in on $12 student. These increases in dues are providing organizations the base capacities needed to develop political infrastructure. By my accounting, we are approaching having 20 CSAs that have established or are in the process of establishing 501c4 partner organizations and other political capacity, a huge increase in just the past few years.

Just as important, increased membership revenue is providing our CSAs the reliable resources needed to go out and get top talent to fill key advocacy roles. When great people come onboard CSAs, that it turn instills greater confidence in members, which leads them to be more willing to share additional resources. A flywheel effect begins to take hold. Advocacy strengthening begets further strengthening.

This is what we are at the beginning of right now – a flywheel effect that could lead to improved collective self-care across the entire national charter school movement.

It’s something our schools can do on our own. It’s also something our funders can help us get done more quickly and effectively.

Let’s look at just one more state example, this one more directly comparable in size to Pennsylvania.

New York’s charter school sector, like Pennsylvania’s, serves about 170,000 students.

In my opinion, one of the biggest stories happening in charter school advocacy right now is happening in New York. A few years back, just 18% of charter school students in New York attended schools that were members of the New York Charter School Association.

Heading into 2022, that number has grown to 70%.

The association charges $15/student in annual dues. 50% of 170,000 students times $15/student, you can do the math.

This strengthening happens at exactly the moment that New York is skyrocketing in terms of its importance to the national charter school movement, with a new mayor who is supportive of charter schools …

… with a huge new philanthropic investment coming out of New York …

… with big questions looming about the level of support that charter schools will have from the new governor …

… and a recently remade legislature.

What a moment to have a strengthening association on the rise.

How did its ascendency come about?

Well, through effective new leadership, of course …

… and through a membership that recognizes that the time has finally come to build structural advocacy strength.

But it also came through the assistance of incredibly smart philanthropy.

A few years back, right when the association’s leadership began really driving for increased membership, what did a highly strategic funder do?

It gave the organization a matching grant for any additional membership dues that would come into the organization, thereby giving the CSA’s leadership a new compelling case and lever by which to bring the community together. A few years later, and we now see that a several hundred thousand dollar philanthropic investment has been leveraged into millions of additional dollars likely to persist for years to come. It’s the single smartest philanthropic investment in charter school advocacy that I have seen in many years. And it’s one that could be replicated in many other places right now.

Like in Pennsylvania, for example.

But even if philanthropy isn’t available in the commonwealth right now, it isn’t a reason for members to hold back. Keith and the charter schools in mighty tiny Rhode Island showed that investments in collective self-care coming from a charter school community serving just a few thousand kids can make a massive difference.

Imagine what that difference would mean in Pennsylvania where charter schools serve 26 times as many kids.

Imagine what it would mean across the United States where charter schools serve over 500 times as many kids.

This is what is within our potential, CharterFolk. A massive investment in self-care which would magnify our force on behalf of all kids and all communities across the country.

It’s why I’m excited to have seen as much progress as we have on 25x25x25 over the past three years and it’s why I look forward to even more in 2022.