CharterFolk Contributor Ariel Johnson – Are We Ready to Fight Yet? Don’t Wait, Just Start!

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I’m delighted to share with you an awesome Contributor Column from Ariel Johnson, Chief of Staff at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

I provide a brief bio below.

Ariel Johnson is a Chicago-based attorney and currently serves as the Chief of Staff for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. She supports a staff of fifteen, drafts and lobbies legislation that supports educational equity for underserved communities, builds coalitions, serves as in-house legal technical support for schools, and directs political strategy for the organization’s sister entity INCS Action, the third largest super PAC in the state. This political operation supports high-quality candidates for public office at the state and local levels. Ariel began her career in the juvenile justice space serving as a legal advocate for students adversely affected by the criminal justice and school discipline systems. Her passion for education equity stems from her own experiences as a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago in under-resourced communities. She has an innate drive to stabilize such neighborhoods through education access and economic development.

I’m very excited about what Ariel has to say. Let’s get straight to her post.

Are We Ready to Fight Yet? Don’t Wait, Just Start.

A few weeks ago, Jed painted a grim picture of the disparaging anti-charter headlines picked up by the national media. It seems the new virtue signal for some of our colleagues purports that educators and advocates cannot work toward social, racial, and economic justice while believing in charter public schools as a solution to those very issues. The opposition has established a dichotomy narrative that all but requires us to pick a side. As an advocate of high-quality education, a former child of an under-resourced and underrepresented community, I refuse to be boxed-in by anyone who dares to dismiss the necessity of education choice as an avenue to eradicate systems of poverty or oppression. While many of us may share my view, few of us are ready to put on our gloves and step into the ring with our opponents. Listen, I know it’s ugly out there, trust me. I have been on the other side of disparaging personal attacks, nose to nose with union protestors during state house and senate testimony, and publicly called a puppet of corporate greed on social media. But, I’m still here. I’m still fighting. And, I don’t back down from bullies.

Do a quick Google search of charter public schools and you will surface hundreds of articles with varying degrees of accuracy regarding the sector. However, what you will certainly find is an inaccurate narrative that charter public schools perpetuate inequitable systems designed to hurt the most underserved children and communities. And while the charter public school sector has not been perfect over the last three decades, educators, advocates, and leaders have worked to right those wrongs by acknowledging past mistakes, learning from those errors, and bringing in leadership reflective of the community that schools are serving. These steps have created a pipeline of people who are mission-driven, passionate, and interested in dismantling bureaucratic barriers that do not serve students. However, this is not enough. Opposition for charter public schools is growing, and the charter community must proactively respond. Often when I talk to colleagues around the country, I hear the same things. “We care about kids, but we don’t want to get into a fight with the unions.” Listen, whether we want to or not, we are in the fight. The question is are we going to keep taking hits to face or are we going to block, shuffle, and swing back.

What I am proposing to you is not new. In fact, I am advocating for the same playbook the unions use.

They out maneuver us because they understand patience, play the long game, and invest in community organizing to grow their base over time. Further, they use their electoral dollars to hold elected officials accountable for their votes and actions.

Take this lesson from Chicago. The Chicago Teachers’ Union is arguably one of the most powerful unions in the country. However, this happened over time. Yes, the teachers’ union in Chicago has always wielded its power. Chicago has a history of labor organizing. But, in 2010 when the late Karen Lewis took control of the CTU …

… she established herself as the voice of teachers who felt unheard and unsupported by former decades long mayor, Richard M. Daley. She secured enough wins for her constituency to trust her and believe in her leadership, even when they didn’t always agree with her. In just a decade, the CTU established itself as one of the most well-organized machines in the city and has political dollars to back it up. I am seeing their playbook and legislation pop up all over the country …

… especially in blue, metropolitan cities.

The legislation is getting more challenging to fight. They are not just attacking autonomy, but our funding and very right to exist. I fear that if we don’t begin to work together, find a narrative that resonates, and use our collective capital, then we are going to have a crumbling, disjointed sector.

So, what can we do?

We have power, but we aren’t using it. We already have the pathways to win. Below, I propose three efforts that I believe if collectively executed could shift our outcomes.

Community Organizing:

We have to create authentic family and community engagement to support long-term organizing of families. Remember that organizing is not mobilizing. The definition of community organizing is “the coordination of cooperative efforts and campaigning carried out by local residents to promote the interests of their community.” I can’t underscore enough the importance of the latter part of that definition. We must let communities lead and advocate for themselves without paternalistically dictating what we think a community needs. Further, strong community organizing calls us to find people who make their careers in this work. Often, we hire people of color to organize our parents or communities and think that’s enough. Without proper training, it is difficult to create the systems of longevity needed to sustain the work over time. That means creating the conditions to access strong organizers as you would lobbyists or policy directors.

Harnessing Our Electoral Power:

I can attest that without a strong political operation, the work of holding the line for Illinois charters would be virtually impossible. INCS Action is now the third largest super PAC in the state.

We engage in upwards of thirty races across the general and primary, as well as local City Council races. In 2024, Chicago will elect its first ever school board, with 21-members.

You better believe that we will be actively involved in those races. If you have an appetite for the political work and you think it can support your policy initiatives, just start. Your organization doesn’t need to engage thirty state races to be effective. Start with two or three and do those really well. Electoral work is also more than a 501c4. The c4 is a lever, but don’t underestimate impact of a PAC or an independent committee. I know this work can be complicated, but there are many of us in the space who want to support your organization in this endeavor.

A Willingness to Say the Thing:

While easier said than done, as a sector, we have to find those “Charter Folks” who are willing to go toe to toe with our opposition. The unions write op-eds and show up on news broadcasts with half the data and none of the facts. We can do better than them. We have the data on our side. By and large, charter public schools are changing outcomes for students all over this country and have been for thirty years. We are serving children that the traditional public-school system has failed. We have a trove of alumni who are actively rebuilding their communities because of the education they received. We have committed, mission driven teachers and advocates who have dedicated their careers to the stabilization of public education for all students.

There are no perfect solutions in advocacy. Much of it is trying new tactics and pivoting. Each leader has to find the local tactic that works for their education and political ecosystem. However, if we can strengthen our community base, build real electoral power across states, and find the spokespeople to push back loudly on the misinformation that our opposition freely spreads, I know that we can begin take back some of our power.

Lastly, remember, it’s okay to practice patience with ourselves and our coalition partners, understand this new phase of work takes time, and be willing to get knocked a few times. We are resilient and I am ready to come back swingin’. I hope you’ll join me!