CharterFolk Chat #10 – Kim Smith, Returning to First Principles

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am delighted to share with you a CharterFolk Chat with Kim Smith.

As always, you can access the chat at Youtube, but I’m excited to share that readers can now also listen to the chat through Spotify and Apple Podcasts, where you will find links to all previously recorded CharterFolk Chats as well.

During the interview, I introduced Kim as follows:

As CharterFolk know, Kim Smith needs no introduction in our world. She is as responsible for as many good things in our movement as anyone I know. Nearly 20 years ago [editor’s note: it was actually 23 years ago] she helped found the New School Venture Fund which was among the most influential early organizations in the charter school movement, which became responsible for the support of many other organizations that have had huge impact. After founding New Schools, Kim went on to create Pahara, another huge impact organization within the charter school movement and education reform movement, which helped us develop great new talent, helped us diversify our talent, and helped us as a movement become more sensitive to the needs of the communities that we serve. About 18 months ago, Kim made a transition to her next phase in life which I am really curious to hear about. But before we get to that, I am just going to underscore my own personal gratitude for all that Kim has done. There are very few people who I have learned as much from, and who I have found tone right and perceptive in setting after setting after setting. There are also very few people who I am as intimidated by to interview as Kim Smith. So I’m really thrilled to have you here with us this morning. Thanks, Kim, for being here.

I’ll add that in my recorded introduction, I left out her “oh by the way” accomplishments of having helped found both Teach For America and Bellwether Education Partners, two additional organizations that have had enormous influence on efforts to improve public education in the United States.

During our conversation, Kim was as insightful as she always is. I hope CharterFolk will have a chance to hear the interview in its entirety. For those of you interested in a thumbnail summary, I provide a few highlights below.

  • Kim starts off reprising a comment she heard Don Shalvey share during an earlier CharterFolk Chat about how a decade at an organization is about the right “shelf life.” Having spent that amount of time at Pahara, now seemed the right moment to make a transition which she has used to get new perspective on the work.
  • At the 11 minute mark, Kim recounts the “first principles” that drew her to charter schools earlier in her career. She also talks about how charter schools’ first principles allowed them to avoid the “epic fails” that many school districts experienced during the Covid crisis.
  • At 23:30, Kim talks about the systems-level drivers we can be using to accelerate improvement of public education, including carefully designed voucher programs and policy proposals to dismantle redlining attendance boundaries and other inequities in the system. She also shares how we might find new allies within public education to help us drive for more foundational reform.
  • At 28:50, after acknowledging the fact that our movement has made great progress in our early decades, Kim identifies one of our shortcomings to have been failing to articulate a vision for a compelling new end state for public education.
  • At 31:20, Kim describes some of the conditions that were in place over a decade ago that led her to conclude that an organization like Pahara needed to be made.
  • At 34:40, Kim brings up the critical need to develop deeper levels of partnership with the communities that we serve, which will give us the standing we need to push through the bolder reforms of public education that many parents are now demanding.
  • At 38:30, I ask Kim within which context, charter or otherwise, would she be most inclined to start a new entrepreneurial endeavor if the central objective was to create bold new innovation.
  • At 43:30, Kim points out the critical need to reunify education reformers whose first focus is racial equity with reformers whose first focus is creating innovation.
  • At 48:30 Kim addresses CharterFolk directly, acknowledging how draining it is for charter school leaders to play defense against massive opposition, while also innovating and getting done the critical things that parents and students need. She then challenges philanthropic partners and advocacy organizations to create the policy ecosystem that would allow CharterFolk to refocus on the incredibly difficult work of improving education.
  • At the 54 minute mark, Kim offers a parting thought about a study she came across earlier in life that she uses to frame “the how” of our work in ways that consistently resonates deeply with others.

It was a great conversation. Many thanks again to Kim for taking part in this CharterFolk Chat!