Good morning, CharterFolk!
Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Bryce Adams, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Texas Public Charter Schools Association (TPCSA).
I provide Bryce’s bio below.
Bryce Adams serves as Vice President of Government Affairs with the goal of empowering families with a slate of high-quality public school options. Before joining TPCSA, Bryce led government relations and school service strategies in Texas and the Southwest for Connections Education, now Pearson Virtual Schools. In 2015, Bryce helped establish Arkansas Connections Academy, a virtual public charter school with nearly 4,000 students, which was renewed in 2021 with a student enrollment cap increase.
Bryce has worked a total of eight Texas legislative sessions, including three as a Public Policy Specialist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. In between sessions, Bryce attended the LBJ School of Public Affairs (2012-13) and taught English and debate in South Korea (2009-10). Bryce holds a Master of Science Degree in Public Affairs and graduated from Yale University in Political Science. He lives in South Austin with his wife and their two children.
“The Kitchen Table”
Advocacy requires persuasion, however you slice it – ethos, pathos, logos; outside game (grassroots) and inside game (lobbying); the “carrot and stick” of coalition building and electoral political action committee (PAC) work.
A key part of persuasion is argument selection, choosing the arguments you do (and do not) want to make and the values they impart. While this typically changes based on audience, some of the most powerful arguments resonate across audiences.
If you’ve seen “Mad Men” you’ll certainly remember Don Draper’s moving sales pitch for the Kodak Carousel: “[T]here is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”
The sentimental image that grabs me is “The Kitchen Table.”
The Kitchen Table is significant to lawmakers because “Kitchen Table Issues” are the ones that matter to the average family. The Economy. Safety. Healthcare.
For everyone else, the Kitchen Table is a stand-in for discussions on big family issues – how will we pay our bills, are we saving enough for retirement, and where will our children go to school?
Until recently (meaning the last couple decades), there wasn’t much of a discussion on that last point at all – unless you could pay for private school, your kids went to the school in the neighborhood you could afford to live in.
Early in our legislative session, a staunch charter opponent asked during my testimony, “What is the grand plan for charter growth and expansion? […] I don’t understand what the end-game is.”
It’s a deceptively simple question because there are goals, but not necessarily a grand plan.
Our Education Code says charters should aspire to “increase the choice of learning opportunities within the public school system” and to “encourage different and innovative learning methods.”
But there is no quote-unquote Masterplan to guide which charter school goes where. We have charter innovators, we have communities who want them, and they find each other.
Decentralization is the point.
So here was my Kitchen Table response:
“What I want to see happen is that every family can sit down at the dinner table and have a variety of different public school options, all of which are high-quality, and decide based on where the student would fit best.
I want, when I am making this decision for my son in a couple years, to go tour the local independent school district (ISD), to go tour a couple charter schools, maybe tour a magnet school, and then my wife and I sit down and say ‘This is a tough choice; all of these are really good schools’ and then we decide. But it’s based on the student, my kid, not based on which school is closest.”
Here’s why I think this is a persuasive answer:
- Aspirational – there is a clear goal, and while lofty, there’s no reason it can’t happen
- Optimistic – we should decide among multiple good options
- Universal – every family should have this decision available to them
- Noncompetitive – traditional public schools are included, not written off
- Empowering – we as parents decide, not outside decisionmakers
- Individualized – we decide based on our kids’ particular circumstances
As an aside, this is also why I love our “two-school” families for advocacy and testimony. Parents with one student in a traditional public school and another in a public charter school have made student-centric decisions based on individual fit, and still find significant value in the traditional public school system. It’s relatable (kids are different!) and forces a deeper discussion beyond “districts/charters are good and the other is bad.”
I was also asked whether I was also saying “that regular public schools […] are not filling any of those needs?” No way!
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that at all. [In Texas] 93% of public school students attend their traditional public school, their ISD. I think that’s the backbone of the public school system in Texas and always will be.”
We have to root for them like we wish they’d root for us.
But sitting in 100+ hours of committee hearings also provided plenty of time to contemplate the arguments that charter opponents were making. Beyond the myths, misleading data, and general combativeness – which were very frustrating – they also just weren’t very persuasive.
Basically, too many reflected the opposite of my bullet points above.
- Contentment – the traditional approach generally works so we should generally accept it
- Pessimistic – we will all be worse off if anything changes
- Exclusionary – local elected boards reserve the right to restrict access, and in fact need to do so for their own planning purposes
- Competitive – a family choosing another school hurts us and should not be allowed
- Disempowering – families do not have the expertise to choose wisely
- Centralized – our schools can be all things for all kids
End of Session, we had a hearing on inter-district transfers, basically that traditional public school districts would publish their number of available seats and allow students from other districts to enroll.
I’ll take no stance on ESAs/vouchers here, but in my mind, this was a huge opportunity for the districts in opposition to be for something and preempt the ESA/voucher discussion. It would go something like this:
“We are proud of all the new options we’ve built over the past two decades, including intra-district transfer programs with transportation, academies, Early College High Schools, and charter partnerships. All of these options come with the guardrails that are fundamental to the public school mission, like academic accountability, financial transparency, and non-discrimination.
There are some instances when a family might want to change districts, like a closer school or a family with a unique situation. We’d like to work on the specifics, but this is a reasonable idea and is yet another reason to oppose ESAs/vouchers.”
That is … not what happened. What the Committee and audience heard instead:
“Students could suddenly choose to attend larger area schools that have more resources and opportunities available.”
“What if a Severe & Profound child from a neighboring district whose parents went to school in my district want to bring their child to my district?”
And then, Quiet Part Out Loud:
“We also want to make sure that it fits in with our culture and the culture we are trying to build […] People choose to live in the houses they live in. […] We’re talking to realtors and we’re making sure realtors know what’s going on in the local school district, so, when you buy a house you tend to know where exactly you’re buying, what the school district is, and you’re prepared for that to be the case when your children are going to go to that school district.”
The rejoinder from the Chairman was as sharp as it was incisive, “That’s very similar to what we heard last night [from the districts!] and what everybody’s concerned about private schools.” He was saying, wow, here are the public schools now justifying the very practices and mindset they just railed against – rules for thee but not for me?
The outlook and persuasion I consider here is necessary but not sufficient. There’s a really key point made by my boss, Starlee Coleman: there are no magic words or incantations to suddenly unlock support for charter schools.
Changing legislators’ minds also requires appealing to elected self-interest (your constituents are watching and want this), verifiable performance (independent data demonstrate positive results), and above all, shoe leather and hard work.
But when it comes to persuasion, it’s not a bad idea for charter advocates – and skeptics – to start at The Kitchen Table.