CharterFolk Contributor Ariel Johnson – Following My Own Advice: Just Start – A Case Study on Building Advocacy Capacity

Good day, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to have Ariel Johnson, the Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, as a return Contributor Columnist at CharterFolk.

We provide a bio for Ariel below.

Ariel Johnson is the Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, having previously served as chief of staff since December 2021. She brings more than a decade of distinguished service as the lead statewide advocate for charters and education reform in Illinois, a litigator for the Chicago Board of Education, and former teacher.

Ariel leverages her commitment to education equity to advocate for social justice initiatives and economic freedom for underserved communities. As the first in her family to obtain a degree from a four-year university, she is keenly aware that access to high-quality education can shift generational narratives. She brings strong policy, advocacy, community, and legal expertise to her work. She enjoys building diverse coalitions and directing strategies that impact education equity for all students.

Ariel began her career as a legal advocate for Diverse Learners adversely affected by the criminal justice system and school-to-prison pipeline. She has served as legal counsel in a major school district before finding herself leading political and legislative advocacy efforts for charter public schools.

Ariel received her undergraduate degree from John Carroll University and her law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She was selected as a National Lawyers Guild, Haywood Burns Memorial Fellow and a Surge Institute Fellow. She also serves on the board of the Sharper Moise Foundation, an organization dedicated to the professional development of educators and supporting students with dedicated wrap-around services both within and outside the schoolhouse.

Given recent developments in DC, and Ariel’s new role leading advocacy therein, it’s a perfect time for a return Contributor Column. Let’s get straight to it.

Following My Own Advice: Just Start – A Case Study on Building Advocacy Capacity

Back in 2021, Jed invited me to contribute a column to Charterfolk.

At the time, I was finishing up as Chief of Staff for the charter school association (CSA) in Illinois (which is known as INCS). My call to action back then was, “Don’t wait, just start.” And, I meant that. I still mean it. However, several advocates reached out to ask specific questions about how they could replicate our success in Illinois with much smaller budgets, teams, and capacity. My suggestion was to start small. I encouraged advocates to pick the tactics that made the most sense for their individual and organizational capacity and resist the urge to do everything at one time or compare to larger entities. Little did I know, I’d be taking my own advice so very soon after that column was published.

Eighteen months ago, I moved from my hometown, Chicago to Washington, DC to lead a new organization, DC Charter School Action

… the 501(c)4 of the local CSA.

Nine months into that work, I transitioned to the Executive Director role of the CSA as well. By way of background, the DC Charter School Alliance is just three years old, and is the product of a merger between two long-standing charter support organizations. We serve 69 LEAs and approximately 48,000 students –– nearly half of public school students in the District. In short, this work is new for the DC Alliance team and many of our LEA leaders. 

DC Budget Cycle

The budget season in DC begins early. When most legislatures are finishing up their veto session in November, DC advocates are drafting and sending their budget letters to the Mayor and the Council for consideration. Our letter included the following asks: 

  • Increase the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) foundation level and target funding to most vulnerable students: 
  • Increase the charter school facilities allotment by 3.1 percent: 
  • Create transportation grants to address safe passage, absenteeism and chronic truancy
  • Support educators with a dedicated substitute teacher fund: 
  • Expand equitable access to healthcare in our schools

These requests were in line with what our elected leaders had seen before from the DC Alliance. However, in December of 2022, after three years of no contract, the Washington Teachers Union and the city finally reached an agreement that supports and funds educators working at DC Public School’s district schools. That contract came at a cost of almost $200 million dollars. The School Reform Act requires that school funding move through the UPSFF. When Mayor Bowser released her budget in March of 2022, she included that $200 million for DCPS outside the formula, resulting in significant inequity for DC public charter schools. For our leaders, particularly those who are serving some of our most vulnerable populations, this was an untenable outcome. As the CSA, it was our job to field their frustrations, understand the impact of the budget on their educators, and push them to appropriate action. This was no easy feat. Not every school leader wanted to engage in advocacy efforts. Some feared retaliation and others simply did not have time to engage. With this understanding, my goal was to provide our leaders with as many tactics as possible so that they could choose the best way to activate their community. We know that a large CMO and small single-site or network will not have the same bandwidth, but providing a variety of options means everyone can engage authentically. 

In my last column, I shared three efforts that I believe can shift outcomes when engaging in advocacy: creating authentic family and community engagement to support long-term organizing of our communities, harnessing our electoral power to hold the line for charter schools, and being willing to “say the thing” –– i.e., find those “charter folks” willing to go toe-to-toe with our opposition. 

Here’s how we did that in DC,

Willingness to “say the thing” 

Saying the thing can get you in trouble. Do it anyway! After the Mayor released her budget, we opened with a strong statement

… pushing back on the Mayor for what we perceived as one of the most inequitable education budgets in DC charter history. That statement upset many key players in the sector, including some allies and even a few school leaders. I expected that we’d anger people, but as an association, we have to be willing to take the blowback if it means securing equitable resources for our LEAs. 

Authentic Family and Community Engagement

I want to be very honest here. As a new organization, we are in the infancy of building a parent and community base poised to engage at all levels of advocacy. For those in the same boat, my advice here is to remember that we don’t need hundreds of advocates to start building advocacy muscle. We need a strong group of parent and school community members who can be a catalyst to lead others to this work. You will build your base, but it takes time! However, even with our limited infrastructure, we were able to accomplish the following: 

  • Nearly 100 advocates, educators, parents, school leaders, and community members made their voices heard by testifying at a marathon 14-hour education budget hearing.
  • 470 people participated in our Phone2Action (Quorum) email advocacy campaign, sending more than 25,000 emails to Councilmembers, State Board of Education members, and staff.
  • Many LEA leaders across the sector participated in small group meetings with councilmembers and staff to lobby our policy makers on this issue. 
  • Finally, we launched a digital media campaign lauding our school communities for their hard work during the pandemic.

Because of this community advocacy, we garnered significant earned media coverage from WJLA

“The proposal sends dangerous signals about whether the city is committed to equitable treatment to all public school students.”

Those are the words of Shannon Hodge with KIPP DC during a virtual hearing about school budgeting.

In the virtual hearing, a theme hit over and over again by the charter schools is that Mayor Bowser’s $2.2 billion budget cheats them.

Fox 5

“I have two students attending charter schools in D.C. and two students attending DCPS schools. I cannot imagine that the council would even consider passing a budget that funds each of my child’s educators so inequitably. The difference in what is being proposed to fund D.C. public charter schools versus DCPS is $74,000 per classroom,” says Kelly Smith, parent and COO of Perry Street Prep.

The Washington Post

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said 417 people had signed up by Wednesday morning to speak. “I don’t think we’ve ever had that many folks testify at an education hearing,” he said. “My guess is because this hearing is about the budgets for those agencies, and that there is concern about what the mayor’s proposed.”

… and the DCist.

“I never imagined I would be sitting here now feeling that I was treated differently just because of where I chose to teach,” said Keisha Lewis, a teacher at Friendship Public Charter School’s campus in Woodridge. “My colleagues and I, we teach public school children. Our kids have the same tests, they even have the same days off. This budget makes me believe you don’t value the work that I and my colleagues do as much as you see the other teachers that do the same job.”

As CharterFolk know all too well, we can often find it difficult to secure fair and accurate earned media around our issues, but through our advocacy, the media coverage we generated helped amplify public charter educators’ voices. We’ve also started to develop a better relationship with reporters to help center the public charter school community in the DC education narrative. 

Harnessing electoral and 501c4 power

As a CSA, we know that building robust 501c3 advocacy is critical, but for those of us who have a 501c4 or are thinking about starting a c4, I want to share how you can use this vehicle to build a robust advocacy platform when you don’t have the capacity to community build or mobilize. A 501c4 is political tool, but it is also the vehicle to engage advocacy efforts that are not permissible with a c3. This budget season, our c4 worked in tandem with our c3 to push our funding equity message into the homes of DC voters. 

We also rolled out a series of digital and TV paid media campaigns targeting DC education policymakers.

You’ll note the difference in tone between the above c3 ads and the c4 ads highlighted here.  

The Win

After months of advocacy, hostile amendments, and very tough conversations, the Council identified an additional $15 million for increases to charter school educators’ salaries to be in line with increases provided to their DCPS colleagues going forward. 

Council increased the per pupil, UPSFF by 5.05%, and maintained the facilities allotment at 3.1%. These are direct dollar increases to support public charter schools across the district. This investment increases the total amount budgeted for charter educator salary increases to $73.6 million, bringing the funding for “go-forward” charter salary increases to per pupil equity with the amount provided to DCPS for “go-forward” salary increases. 

As I said before, there are no perfect solutions in advocacy. It’s messy and for those of us working on our perfectionism, this work will test you every day. But, you have to find what works for your organization, community, and school leaders without comparison to others. Give yourself the gift of patience and grace. And, most importantly, remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just start!