CharterFolk Contributor Caprice Young – Some Secrets About the Founding Strategy of CCSA

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Caprice Young, Ed.D., the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) Founding CEO and President of the Education Growth Group.

Caprice Young, Ed.D., the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) Founding CEO and President of the Education Growth Group

I provide Caprice’s bio below.

Dr. Young is an experienced transformational executive and superintendent with proven leadership in board governance and C-level roles. Raised in a foster family, she has committed her life to improving education for underserved students just like her foster brothers and sisters. She is the former National Superintendent of Lifelong Learning, a non-profit organization serving schools responsible for 49,000 opportunity youth students in five US states. She also has led three Charter Management Organizations (CMOs): ICEF Public Schools, Magnolia Public Schools, and iLEAD California. Dr. Young’s leadership experience spans multi-state and international operations, instruction, technology, finance, philanthropy, educating high-needs students, and organizations undergoing major transformations. She is an EdTech expert and the former CEO of a subsidiary of a publicly traded fortune 500 company. She received the Coro Crystal Eagle for Excellence in Public Service, the California State University Los Angeles Educator of the Year award, and membership in the National Charter School Hall of Fame. Dr. Young serves on the boards of several organizations, including the Fordham Foundation, the Larta Institute, EverDriven, and She is the former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education (1999-2003) and the founding CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (2003-2008). Education: Ed.D. UCLA; M.P.A. USC; and B.A. Yale University. She holds a Certificate in ESG Investing from the CFA Institute.

Some Secrets About the Founding Strategy of CCSA…

Julie Umansky’s article celebrating the great legal career of Greg Moser inspired me to write this entry about the founding of CCSA because how we define the “CharterFolk” community is at the core of the founding of CCSA. Spoiler: CCSA’s founding was about growing an ecosystem.

In late 2002, a rebel group of charter school leaders, foundation benefactors, and the Charter School Development Center’s founders, with the blessing of Sue Bragato, the supermom founder of the California Network of Educational Charters, or CANEC, (and charter #1 with Don Shalvey), set out to create a new organization with the goal of uniting the 141 charters into a movement focused on growth and quality. I was blessed to be tapped by this team to lead that effort.

Secret No. 1: We intentionally created a board with diverse membership because we wanted to plant the seeds of the initial ecosystem. We made sure the seats were allocated to charter schools, funders, and community representatives. Among the charters, we intentionally recruited representatives of CMO, independent, facilities-based, hybrid, and non-classroom-based schools. They were rural, suburban, urban, and geographically diverse.

We ensured that our staff was as diverse as the students we aspired to serve. In addition to being ethnically diverse, we included educators, journalists, finance folks, lawyers, business consultants, parent organizers, and entrepreneurs. At an early meeting with the first twelve staff members, we reveled in that diversity until someone had the nerve to ask everyone their astrological sign. More than half were Pisces! Yeah, weird.

Secret No. 2: We chose the name CCSA because it was the most boring name we could think up. The charter organization in Colorado called themselves the League of Colorado Charter Schools, and that sounded as heroic as we wanted to be, but we also wanted stealth and institutional credibility. So, we picked a name as dull as all the others in the Sacramento alphabet soup. And it worked. But never forget that the intention was not to embrace bureaucracy but to bend it to the needs of students.

Secret No. 3: We began by uniting the movement. While David Patterson and Candice Lamarche held down the fort in Sacramento, Gary Larson and Julie Cruit (now Angilly) jumped in Julie’s Jeep Cherokee and spent the next three weeks barnstorming the state visiting charters from Redding to Chula Vista. By September 2003, more than 70 percent of CANEC members had voted to join CCSA. We no longer considered ourselves a network. We had become a movement. A movement has a united voice, momentum, and a clear purpose. A movement has the intrinsic power to promote ideals, energize stakeholders, and facilitate positive change.

Secret No. 4: As we traveled, we asked the groups of educators, students, and parents to tell us their top priorities. Honestly, we fully expected the top priority to be getting access to facilities, but it ranked fourth or fifth. Twenty years ago, most people didn’t know what charters were, so, for example, bankers and insurance agents had no idea how to assess the risks charters faced. Schools of education and the state credentialing system didn’t know how to support our expanding workforce. Parents generally had no idea that our schools are public schools, tuition-free, and required to accept anyone. Moreover, many of the founders didn’t realize when they started their schools that they would be required to become so much more than educators. They needed and wanted leadership development in a hurry and back-office services, too. So, the top priorities were much more basic than facilities (which I admit are pretty basic): cash-flow financing, insurance, teacher recruitment, help with compliance, policy advocacy, and marketing to families.

Secret No. 5: If you want to herd cats, be the one with the can opener. As a movement, we raised more than $500 million to grow the number of charter schools between 2003 and 2008. We concentrated much of that funding, by design, in areas where traditional schools were failing academically, overcrowded, and serving historically underserved students. New and existing charter leaders stepped up. No one else wanted to educate our kids, so we grew quickly and quietly without much opposition.

Secret No. 6: We didn’t talk about our growth because we didn’t want to scare anyone. We kept the focus on quality. BUT how do you get the charter schools movement to even define what quality means? Seriously. We did know one thing, unless we could articulate and prove quality from student and tax-payer perspectives, we would be dead in the water politically and would face a more and more difficult political environment. So, we created an insurance joint powers authority called CharterSAFE to fulfill one of the top two priorities requested by the membership—access to reasonably priced insurance. To keep the rates low, the original members of the JPA established entrance criteria designed to include responsibly run schools that could depend upon each other to stay open and manage risks. Those criteria included academic standards (variously defined) on the assumption that schools that had academic success would be the most likely to have stable enrollment and, therefore, the resources to operate well. While the Member Council debated the finer points of quality, quality grew partly because schools wanted lower insurance rates and, with the creation of our financing program, access to cheaper capital and cash flow financing, carrots and cat food.

Secret No. 7: The movement grew with quality not because we started more schools or set down concrete rules of academic accountability (although we did), but because we also grew the ecosystem to support our schools and elevate educators. We used CCSA as a conduit to explain what charters were to vendors that could make money and live with greater meaning by serving educators and students well (and innovatively). That was symbiotic for all, getting charters access to what they needed and unifying a fragmented market into one that could be served more efficiently. The ecosystem came to include parent-organizing community-based organizations, data analytics companies, EdTech innovators, curriculum developers, bankers, accountants, E-Rate suppliers, college recruiters, teacher training entities, back-office providers, grant writers, healthy food providers, and even attorneys following in Greg Moser’s footsteps. A group of schools is not as powerful alone as it is in partnership with the ecosystem committed to the vision and success of those schools. The ecosystem is the secret sauce and a way for people with diverse talents to contribute to the cause. That ecosystem will be on full display at the CCSA conference, March 13-16, 2023, in Sacramento. This brings me to our final origination secret…

Secret No. 8: We are friends, coconspirators, and we pay it forward. School operators may be fiercely competitive, but we back each other up, and we show up for each other.  The conference is a great place to share ideas, learn, teach, and provide and get free advice. The conference was intended to be a place just serious enough to justify being an operating and professional development expense but also a place for bonding. People have to let down their hair and revel in the culture of educational quality and human innovation. It has to be fun because we are people who find joy in purpose. We work hard so our students can dance! As will we!