CharterFolk Contributor Joe Nathan – Resources and Allies for Progress in 2021

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today it is my great pleasure to bring you a great Contributor Column from Joe Nathan.

Joe certainly needs no introduction to CharterFolk. He has been providing key leadership going back to the very origins of our movement, and I have learned as much from him as anyone in Charterland. I’ll let suffice how Joe describes himself:

Joe Nathan, PhD, former public school teacher, administrator, parent of 3 graduates of St. Paul Public Schools, 46 year husband of a wonderful retired St. Paul Public School educator, newspaper columnist and director, Center for School

Many thanks to Joe for offering such a thoughtful column. Let’s get straight to it:


Dear Friends and Colleagues:   


That’s what I hope the five questions and resources below will be to each of you – Charterfolk working with and learning from students, families and educators.  These suggestions come from more than 50 years of working with wonderful educators, young people and families, along with helping write, defend and expand charter legislation in Minnesota and more than 30 other states.  If you would like me to discuss any of the matters I present below with a faculty, board or other group via zoom, please let me know.

1. What are you/we doing to promote learning by building on and mobilizing the insights, creativity and energy of youth? 

Sometimes we accept the “deficit model” of youngsters.  We have terrific examples of chartered  public schools that build on the strengths and skills of young people, while also trying to help them learn things they don’t currently know.   

A great place to find examples of “service-learning projects” is at What Kids Can Do. 

Examples of great serving-learning projects abound:

Minnesota chartered high school youth including Lincoln Bacal,  Walter Cortina, and other students and adult allies including Wokie Weah, Marcus Pope, Matt Norris oYouthprise …

… successfully battled the (Democratic) Governor and a state agency for 8 months in 2020.   Students insisted that while a 1939 Minnesota law prevented high school students who had lost their jobs because of COVID 19 from receiving state unemployment insurance,  a federal law provides millions for which they are eligible.  This effort started off as a service-learning project at a chartered public school.   The state disagreed with the students’ research. Ultimately both the Minnesota Attorney General and the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the students were right.

Literally millions of dollars now are flowing to high school youth because of these students’ work.  And in a statewide press conference, the Governor and Lt. Governor praised the students for their persistence.

Meanwhile in Maine,  the remarkable charter founder Emanuel Pariser worked with students from district & chartered public schools to start a “Youthwork makes the Boothwork” campaign.

They did a lot to help produce a smooth running election. 

Many state charter associations have a “Capitol for the day” effort involving young people and families.  That’s great.  But how about student-led efforts to bring state legislators to your school – either virtually or in person?  How about asking students to invite city council members, state legislators and other policy-makers to talk with students this spring? St. Paul’s teacher union demanded that city council members, to whom they had given thousands of dollars and campaign assistance, stop guaranteeing bonds for charter building expansion.  Charter leaders worked with families and students to remind city council members that guaranteeing bonds actually generates money for the city and reduces the cost of borrowing (win-win).  The city council did NOT institute the moratorium that the union demanded. 

2.  What are we doing to reach out  and work with community leaders, individuals and organizations – and make this part of students’ work? 

  • A Denver charter had its students talk with fast food franchises, service stations, banks and other businesses.  They agreed to put up information about charter student projects – just as they put up signs about high school athletic events. 
  • A Philadelphia charter reached out to community groups to develop neighborhood gardens, planted and tended in part by the students.
  • Another charter had elementary students performing plays for senior citizen residents and early childhood youngsters.  Students had very appreciative audiences.
  • Many charters have reached out to local service clubs.  Their students sometimes perform for and speak with these groups.

All of this builds greater knowledge of, and support for, what you are doing.  It also can enhance students’ skills and confidence. 

3. What are we doing to help students, families and faculty to understand the civil rights history from which chartering came? 

From the beginning, we grounded chartering in civil rights principles proposed first by Dr. Kenneth Clark. 

A distinguished  African American child psychologist, Clark was co-author of the “doll test” used by the Supreme Court to help justify its decision in “Brown v. Board of Education. “ By 1968, Clark had become so frustrated with urban school boards that he urged creation of new public schools outside the control of local school boards.  He strongly recommended new “Alternative Public School Systems,” that were created by unions, universities, and other groups. 

He urged creation of  “realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors” to the present public schools. ” This article appeared in the Spring, 1968 Harvard Education Review.  Some opponents of chartering try to tie this idea to Southern Segregationists.  They literally “sputter” when we point out that Dr. Clark urged creation of new, non-sectarian public schools, open to all, outside the control of local boards.

How about having students read about Rosa Parks’ efforts to start a charter during the last few years of her remarkable life? 

The local board turned her down, a reminder that having at least one authorizer other than a local school board is vital for a healthy state policy of chartering.

We share Clark’s view that giving educators and others the opportunity to do new things could help students attending their schools AND could encourage at least some districts to improve. There are examples of districts, such as Boston and Los Angeles, asking educators to create new district options.  In Boston and Los Angeles they are called “Pilot Schools.”

4. What are we doing to communicate with members of Congress, who can make it easier or far more difficult for chartered public school students to operate effectively? 

More than 110 of us, ages 17-90, signed a letter to the Biden Harris transition team urging thoughtful use of school choice, along with other issues discussed below.  (Please let me know if you’d like to sign it.) We’ve already received a very positive response from a transition team member. This week we are sending it to members of Congress.  We’re following up with requests to talk with Congressional staff.  We should be promoting a positive view of empowering families via public school choice, including chartered public schools.  

We should also be raising tough questions with members of Congress about the person who has been nominated  to be Deputy Secretary of Education.  The San Diego NAACP has urged that she not be confirmed. 

They describe her as a  person who has treated many African American and Latino/Latinx students and families badly, among other things having  “a historical pattern of allowing the excessive suspension and expulsion of Black students in San Diego.”  Critics point out that achievement gaps have remained largely unchanged since she became superintendent in  2013  She’s also a person who helped lead legislative efforts to prevent any outside authorizers

… an approach that would severely restrict the number and range of charter public schools. 

Meanwhile the new Secretary of Education-Designate is a person who seems open to a variety of approaches. 

We’ll see, but he is NOT any of the people that the anti student, family, anti educator anti student empowerment  “regressives” promoted for the job.  That’s in part a victory for the Freedom Coalition, led by among others, Margaret Fortune,  Ricardo Mireles and Howard Fuller and the National Parent Union led by Sheri Rodrigues.

This is an important victory.  Not a final victory – because they don’t exist. But far from what the strongest opponents of family and student empowerment wanted.

5. What are we doing to help faculty and families understand the charter idea?  In his critical 1990 essay, Ted Kolderie wrote, “the states will have to withdraw the exclusive.” 

By this, Ted meant that state legislators should withdraw the “exclusive franchise” legislators gave to local boards, to determine what public school options, if any, students, families and educators would have. 

Ted Kolderie

Minnesota already had done this by creating a  statewide school serving students with hearing impairments.  And in 1985, six years before adoption of the nation’s first charter law, the Minnesota legislature created the Post Secondary Enrollment Options.   PSEO allows high school juniors and seniors to take all or part of their course work on college campuses or on-line.  State funds follow students, pay all of their tuition, book and law fees. In Minnesota, we insisted that chartering was a freedom and opportunity for educators, students and families.   We pointed out that chartering was consistent with basic American principles:

  1. Opportunity to create something new and potentially more effective, at least for some; so long as
  2. People using the freedom were willing to be responsible for results; and
  3. People using the freedom were willing to operate within some limits.

You can see many of these ideas discussed in my 1983 book Free to Teach: Achieving Equity and Excellence in Public Schools.”  

Then Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee read the book and asked me to coordinate a National Governors Association project published in 1985. The NGA Report was called, “Time for Results.” 

Alexander wrote in the chairman’s introduction that the Governors “are ready for some old fashioned horse-trading. We’ll regulate less, if schools and school districts will produce better results.” This, of course, is one of the central principles of chartering. We never suggested that all public schools created by chartering would be great, any more than all newspapers or magazines or blogs created because of freedom of speech would be great. (This is one of the reasons that authorizers were included from the beginning in chartering).  Unquestionably some people have used the chartering opportunity badly – something we need to both acknowledge and oppose.

Of course, challenges remain.  So here are 6 questions – and reactions are welcome.  

  1. Can we please agree and commit to offering opportunities to young people, to work for a more just world as part of their learning?  Can we agree every school should offer what’s called service-learning, which combines classroom work and community service? Can we agree that part of the role of educators at every school is to help youngsters – starting at age 4 or 5 to identify issues they can work on, and help them work constructively on them as part of the learning process?
  2. Can we please agree and commit to looking carefully at the impact of the schools and organizations in which we work and learn to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes?  Can we agree that not only students, but also families need to be a part of advocacy and assessment  of schools?  Can we agree that federal programs helping to create public school options need review and revision?
  3. Can we agree that a critical role for schools is to help youngsters learn how they are smart, what their individual gifts and talents are, and help young people develop those? Can we value and honor a wide range of skills and talents, including but not limited to the arts and applied technical skills?
  4. Can we agree we should and will learn from the most effective schools, regardless of their governance?  Can we reach out to others in our state and country, and encourage other educational institutions, Early Childhood Post Secondary Education, along with foundations and government agencies to learn from faculty, students, leaders and families in these schools?
  5. Can we agree that helping prepare the next generation of leaders is a top priority, and that some of us have a lot to teach the rest of us about this?
  6. Finally, can we do all this with joy, thanksgiving and openness? Can we recognize that even those with whom we most vigorously disagree sometimes have good ideas and valuable insights?  Can we acknowledge and respect the fact that we do not always agree, but there are some things many of us can work on together?

Thanks to each of you who have taught me, and many, many others.  Thanks to each of you who have made a huge difference in the lives of others.   Reactions welcome.

With you for expansion of opportunity and promotion of justice,