CharterFolk Contributor Brittany Kinser – Harnessing the Power of Advocacy: A Catalyst for Change in Milwaukee’s Education Funding

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Brittany Kinser, CEO and President of City Forward Collective.

Brittany Kisner, President / Executive Director of City Forward Collective

I provide Brittany’s bio below.

Brittany Kinser has spent her professional life as a teacher and education leader, and currently serves as the CEO and President of City Forward Collective. After teaching in both Chicago and Japan, Kinser helped launch the IIT Math and Science Academy in Chicago. Starting in 2012, Kinser joined Rocketship Public Schools as an Assistant Principal in California before moving to Milwaukee to serve as Founding Principal at the network’s first school outside of California, and later as Executive Director of Rocketship’s Milwaukee region. Kinser has also served as President of the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Eastern Illinois University, a master’s degree in Designing Science Curriculum from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Columbia University Teachers College.

Harnessing the Power of Advocacy: A Catalyst for Change in Milwaukee’s Education Funding

In early July, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed a new state budget into law. This bipartisan legislation enacted a historic funding increase for Wisconsin’s students.  Through this deal, public charter schools will receive a per-pupil funding increase of more than $2,500, and private schools will receive an increase of $2,000-$4,000 per pupil – schools that have served nearly half of all Milwaukee students and historically received 25-35 percent less per-pupil funding, on average, than traditional district schools.

This incredible milestone of $140 Million+ in new school funding for Milwaukee schools would not have been possible without the tremendous work of a broad coalition of families and parents, school leaders, charter and private school board members, and many other civic and business leaders.

The road to this historic, gap reducing change to our school funding formula began over two years ago when we began an ambitious endeavor to amplify the voices of parents. During the 2020-21 school year, while I was chair of the Milwaukee Charter Advocates, we partnered with City Forward Collective and Rocketship Public Schools, to take the initial step of inviting parents to a Zoom meeting to shed light on the funding gap in our education system.

Armed with knowledge and a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by their children, these parents were then trained to share their compelling testimonies. Their voices were heard for the first time during a listening session organized by the governor during the 2021 budget cycle, specifically focused on education and conducted via Zoom in light of the pandemic. The governor later acknowledged that it was the first time he had heard directly from charter families, recognizing the power and potential of parent engagement. Parents continued to meet with key legislators during the budget cycle, sharing their testimonies and asking them to support a funding increase.

Although we ultimately did not win funding during that budget cycle, we learned a lot and built some stronger advocacy muscles, marking the beginning of a journey to empower parents, equipping them with the tools to advocate for change.

When I joined the City Forward Collective team as executive director in 2022, our organization was involved in a range of educational initiatives, but we recognized the need to shift our strategic focus and tackle the systemic funding disparities that schools were facing. Over the course of three months, we worked diligently to refine our strategy and build our capacity to engage, mobilize, and organize families in Wisconsin.

We dedicated our small team’s efforts solely to closing the funding gap, aligning our strategies, and leveraging all available resources to achieve that goal. We also directed the attention of our school partners towards equal funding as our singular collective priority, even when other worthy matters such as special education and K4 funding demanded consideration. By refining a compelling common goal, we overcame the barriers that often hinder collaboration among stakeholders, and we consistently remained on-message throughout the entire process.

Throughout our journey, five key lessons emerged that we would offer to other organizations addressing similar challenges.

1. School leaders — and our relationships with them — were key to engaging a broader community of supporters

We believed that we had to first start by building stronger relationships with school leaders. I knew firsthand from my time as the founding executive director of Rocketship in Milwaukee that school leaders not only had the direct experience of managing the harsh realities of running an underfunded school, but they also were key to bringing together entire school communities: from the families, staff, and board members.

The school leaders continued to share that the funding gap was making running their schools and networks unsustainable. After meeting with many school leaders one on one, City Forward Collective brought them together to share our revised strategy and our plan to put a laser focus on addressing the funding gap.

We emphasized the importance of school leaders’ involvement in rallying their communities. We received excellent feedback from school leaders, who recognized the urgency of the funding gap and the need for collective action.

2. Schools needed us to both help build their capacity, and then serve as an accountability partner, as they mobilized their families

To support the efforts of school leaders, we provided mobilizing grants and required schools receiving funding to have dedicated family liaisons who would participate in meetings and conduct school tours. These liaisons played a crucial role in ensuring that other families also understood the legislative landscape and knew how to effectively engage with legislators.

Just like a goal-driven principal seeks to rally their school community, we incentivized engagement by recognizing those in weekly emails who successfully signed up the most parents. This approach encouraged school leaders to be actively involved and hold their staff accountable to the same goals.

3. We needed to broaden our coalition of advocates

We leveraged the momentum from our deepening relationships with school leaders to engage their board members – who often hold positions as business and civic leaders in the community. We partnered with a local Fortune 500 company to host a kickoff meeting, inviting school leaders to bring at least one board member or other key supporter, ensuring a strong turnout. It was inspiring to see over 100 individuals in attendance, demonstrating their commitment to addressing the funding gap. We shared information on the issue, encouraged them to help fund the organizing efforts of the family liaisons, and urged them to reach out to their legislative representatives.

As our work moved to the Legislature, we then partnered with allies outside of Milwaukee, who were able to amplify our messages with elected officials in their communities. Schools like The Lincoln Academy in Beloit and One City Schools in Madison were critical partners in our efforts. We benefited from the active role played by long-time advocates for Milwaukee charter schools like Tim Sheehy, the head of the Metro Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce. And, of course, the singular voice of Dr. Howard Fuller — as both a long-time advocate, the chair of the WI Charter Advocates and a convener of a broader coalition of Black leaders — was a vital force.

4. Amplifying our messaging through strategic communications

Additionally, we leveraged various communication channels to raise awareness. We revamped our website, launched email campaigns, disseminated educational materials and facts, created legislative profiles and videos, and utilized digital platforms. Throughout our campaign, we worked to ensure our messaging was brief but compelling, and we supported our messengers to ensure alignment.

5. Leveraging the CFC Action Fund

Our separate C4 advocacy organization, CFC Action Fund, engaged in ongoing lobbying and political efforts, reaching out to key leadership and local legislators. We invited key decision-makers for school tours and meetings with parents, ensuring they understood the impact of the funding gap firsthand. And we engaged in the political side of the work as well — hosting events where school leaders, board members, and decision-makers were able to directly engage with each other. School leaders were able to equip supportive legislators with compelling stories, which they in turn were able to share with their colleagues and weave into the floor debate on the final bill.

Closing the funding gap for charter schools in Wisconsin is not only a matter of equity, but also a means to ensure that all students have access to the quality education they deserve. Transforming education funding in Wisconsin is far from over, but through the power of parent advocacy, we have begun to shift the narrative. Empowering parents to be agents of change has unlocked a wellspring of voices that demand justice and equity in education. Together, we can forge a path towards a brighter future for Milwaukee’s children, one where every student has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.

Key Statistics from the Two-Year Advocacy Campaign to Change Milwaukee’s Education Funding

$140 Million+ Total amount of new funding for Milwaukee schools

4,500+ Emails sent from 600+ individuals to elected leaders – including more than half of all emails received by the Joint Finance Committee

2,000+ Parents trained and empowered on the issue of unequal funding and took action!

87 Votes in the Wisconsin Legislature in support, including bipartisan majorities in both the Assembly and Senate

15+ Mentions of our parents on TV (CBS 58), radio (WUWM), and print (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)