CharterFolk Contributor Allen Anderson – The Intersection of Politics and Education: A Charter Authorization Story

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Allen Anderson, Pahara Fellow and former Board Chair at The Village Academy for Speech and Debate.

Allen Anderson, Vice President of Selection at Pahara Institute

I provide Allen’s bio below.

Allen Anderson is the Vice President of Selection at Pahara Institute. In his role, Allen leads the vision-setting and strategy for identifying, selecting, and developing outstanding education leaders for the Pahara Fellowship.

Allen has spent most of his career leaning into his passion of developing talent in others, building and cultivating leader pipelines, and helping others realize their potential. Prior to Pahara Institute, he served as the Sr. Director of Impact and Culture at Education Opens Doors where he oversaw organizational effectiveness and strategy, as well as talent management and development.

For the first decade of Allen’s career, he served across several leadership roles at Uplift Education in Dallas, TX. Those positions included the Sr. Director of Talent Acquisition where he oversaw all network recruitment, selection, and talent pipelines work, as well as the founding Middle School Principal at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Grand Prairie.

Allen is a 2009 charter Teach for America Dallas-Fort Worth alum, and a graduate from The University of Oklahoma where he majored in Public Relations. He received his masters in Education Policy and Urban Leadership from Southern Methodist University. Allen is a Pahara Fellow, a member of Education Leaders of Color (EdLoc), currently serves on the SustainED Leaders Board, The Village Speech and Debate Academy Board, and is a previous Board Chair for the Teach for America Alumni Board in Dallas-Fort Worth. Allen resides in Dallas with his husband and goldendoodle, and can usually be found biking, running, trying new restaurants, or attending live music shows.

The Intersection of Politics and Education: A Charter Authorization Story

The Authorization Process: A Critical Examination

In an era marked by heightened scrutiny and political contention surrounding public education, charter schools have served as beacons of reform and promise within communities across the nation. By fostering environments of innovation, accountability, and parental choice, charter schools inject vitality into education systems often hard-pressed by bureaucratic constraints and underfunding. Yet, amid the possibilities lies a landscape fraught with challenges: the politicization of curricula, funding disparities driven by political agendas, and the loss of academic freedom under the weight of ideological pressure. These obstacles not only impede the pursuit of knowledge but also undermine the foundational principles of a democratic society built upon the pillars of education.

As a former charter school founder and leader, my passion for high quality school options, especially those that support underserved students, runs deep. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to serve as the Board Chair for a proposed charter school in my home state of Texas. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the number of charter schools in the state has more than doubled in the last decade alone, reaching over 1,000 campuses. With such favorable conditions for charter growth across the state of Texas, I believed our school model would play a critical role in providing another innovative option to the public school landscape.

Not so fast.

Alongside the proposed Superintendent and Board, we launched the school proposal for The Village Academy for Speech and Debate, a K-8 charter school in south Fort Worth. In a neighborhood where there were minimal to no speech or debate options for primary and middle school students, we planned to incorporate these devices into each discipline in order to enhance student learning, perspective, and ability to effectively engage in civil discourse. Given over 70% of the proposed school zip code’s population consisted of people of color, we believed the Board and leadership should be representative of the community as well.

Nine months of strategic planning, community engagement, and many late nights had paid off: Our model successfully passed each round of the rigorous state authorization process, leading to the Texas Education Agency and State Commissioner’s recommendation for approval. We were pleased they were able to see the limitless potential The Village Academy could have on the city of Fort Worth. However, as we entered the final stage of approval with the State Board of Education, we were met with much resistance. The SBOE, comprised of 10 Republican members and five Democrat members, shared concerns that our speech and debate model was not developmentally appropriate for K-8 students, although we believed the need to instill these skills at an earlier age is what set us apart and would allow for more informed and thoughtful citizens. A SBOE member researched The Village Academy’s board members and found several worked for companies committed to diversity and inclusion efforts. He asked how the school would reconcile that at a time when the Legislature just banned DEI initiatives from public colleges and universities. We also sought to collaborate with the Boston Debate League to support implementation of our debate curriculum. Because Boston Debate League’s curriculum is framed as anti-racist, this was deemed to be in direct violation of a 2021 Texas state law that prohibits the teaching of critical race theory. The proposed Superintendent and I left the conversation with the SBOE knowing we took the measurable steps to open an excellent charter school, with a model and curriculum reflective of student needs. We believed we had a winning formula backed by a powerful team of leaders with over 30 years of combined experience founding, leading, and turning around charter schools in Texas. We also recognized that these admissions were trivial; our model was not aligned to the Texas State Board of Education’s views of what constitutes a successful new charter school. Despite the praise from the Tarrant County community, fellow charter applicants, and state leaders, The Village Academy for Speech and Debate charter was denied. 

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

The result was devastating for The Village community. We took a hard look in the mirror over the next several weeks as we considered what might be next. What could we have done differently? Would it have even mattered? As The Village Academy Board was made up largely of people of color and a more progressive stance to education reform, we unfortunately had just experienced a front row view of culture wars in action and the calamitous effect they can have in education.

Let me be clear: Conditions for charter growth are favorable in Texas…but only under certain circumstances. We were not willing to sacrifice what we believe is best for students of color and students from low income communities. That unwavering commitment to values ultimately led to students in the 76104 zip code not gaining access to an innovative school model that could have impacted life trajectories for years to come. I often sit with what those tradeoffs might have been to lead to a different outcome. Now over eight months removed from the SBOE’s decision, I have reflected on a few lessons in navigating charter authorization through complexity and what we might have done differently. My hope is that those across the country who are seeking charter authorization or reapproval can take heed:

  1. Find common ground with key stakeholders: All parties and stakeholders likely want what is best for kids. Identifying shared goals with state boards, lobbyists, and authorizers is crucial. Despite differing visions, finding common ground and language can pave the way forward without compromising integrity. Political identity should not hinder access to a high quality education.
  2. Identify areas of concession: A new charter school option in Fort Worth, Texas could have meant more opportunity for students to pursue higher education and/or additional career pathways. The school vision that is crafted will likely be subject to frequent feedback, pushback, and negotiating. As the approval process is navigated, determine the acceptable trade-offs. Where is the team willing to budge? What are the non-negotiables? Will these shifts lead to achieving the ultimate vision for students?
  3. Leverage community resources: In our decision not to reapply for authorization, we instead chose to support others navigating the application process. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to take full advantage of every resource, including connecting with state charter school associations, charter authorization interview recordings, learning from previous or current applicants, and local politicians who can provide deeper insights into community dynamics.

Our nation’s charter schools’ value lies not only in their capacity to foster academic excellence but also in their ability to cultivate environments where creativity, individuality, and critical thinking flourish. Amidst debates and differing opinions, it is crucial to suspend political differences and unite in the shared goal of providing the best possible education for our nation’s children. By prioritizing collaboration and dialogue over partisanship, we can ensure that every child has access to quality education, regardless of zip code or background. Let us recognize the invaluable role charter schools play in our educational landscape and work together to build a brighter future for generations to come.