CharterFolk Contributor Lea Crusey – 2024 Can Be the Year the Charter Community Saves This Country

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Lea Crusey, a cross-sector social entrepreneur with experience in the public, private, and non-profit sectors spanning the country, over the past 20 years.

I provide Lea’s brief bio below.

Lea has taught in California and Singapore, lobbied in Iowa, Nevada, and Missouri, knows more than many about parking, public policy, and political fundraising, and now advises education technology startups. She has served on several non-profit boards and, since 2021, has chaired the DC Public Charter School Board. She is an alumna of Teach for America and is a member of American and Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) Educators Community.

Lea now lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two school-aged children.

2024 Can Be the Year the Charter Community Saves This Country

Hear me out on this. As we all know, a charter is an agreement: a legal contract between an authorizer and a charter school’s board, with the promise to meet goals in exchange for the use of public dollars to educate students with a unique program and budget (and most often, personnel) autonomy, and with regular reviews toward periodic renewal.

And there’s the kicker: rather than enrollment by geographic assignment or application (in the case of magnet schools), parents opt into a charter, shifting the power dynamic toward families and away from bureaucracy or real estate.

COMPLEX SYSTEMS REQUIRE MAINTENANCE

Charter schools are complex systems, grounded in each school’s mission and core values, as well as overall founding principles which (I assert) can be distilled to: (1) knowledge matters; and, (2) every child is innately endowed with limitless potential and adults bear the responsibility to foster that potential.

When each part of this complex system works in harmony, amazing things happen. These successes are cause for celebration and is at the heart of why there has been bi-partisan support for nearly thirty years to make it possible for so many charters to open in so many places. For some, it validates a “market-based” approach to education; for others, like me (a charter parent), it’s the liberatory promise of agency for parents and educators to innovate and respond to parent and student needs.

But, as anyone with a car knows, parts need regular maintenance, or the system can fail. We can all call to mind examples when a part of our promise fails – whether due to malfeasance, insufficient oversight, or challenging exogenous conditions – and a school falls short of its promises to its students, sometimes even having to close its doors.

There’s a lot going on in a complex system and charters are not immune to broader forces: the economy, the labor market, politics, etc. Further, systemic inequities abound: a single-site school leader of color confronts far more intense headwinds than a white leader, students and parents navigating special needs options, or families face transportation challenges outside of densely populated urban areas. Whatever the cause, such system failures offer a reminder that a complex system contains a host of moving parts, and we need it all working to…work.

SIMPLE IS NOT SIMPLISTIC

But we are made for this: the charter promise is for those who live the adage that simple is not simplistic. And this is where we are in a position to save the country.

It is simple to believe that learning matters and that every child has limitless potential. It is simplistic to suggest that enabling conditions alone guarantee success for students, when actual instruction is delivered by extraordinary educators who meet students’ needs, whatever they are. It is simplistic to suggest that more resources alone yield improved outcomes, and it’s downright inane to imply resources are unnecessary. It is simplistic to suggest that growth is all that matters when students will need to read and count in order to access a life of choice and independence (let alone building intergenerational wealth amidst ever present legacies of systemic racism).

Now, let’s get back to 2024 and our country: representation at the consent of the governed (democracy) is simple but achieving it has never been simplistic, for a country whose economy was founded on enslaved labor. A more perfect union will not be achieved with one election, nor with one political party prevailing over another. Effective GOTV is necessary but is hardly sufficient to deliver the kind of government that will provide effective constituent services, keep the air clean, foster global peace, and mitigate the effects of volatile weather events.

Funders and grantees investing in polling over actual proximity with actual voters is an example of simplistic action: outsourcing what is otherwise more difficult, but more meaningful: walking and knocking on doors, engaging in real (and, perhaps at times, uncomfortable) conversations with friends and neighbors that reveal the nuance of why someone votes or acts. Just like real teaching and learning is hard work, real civic engagement requires us to roll up our sleeves and do real, hard work. Both, and.

Our work as citizens in a representative democracy is ongoing. If you believe in the promise and potential of a charter school – whether or not there is one in your city or state, whether or not you are paid directly or indirectly by a school or a foundation to support one – you bear some responsibility to make sure that complex system is working. The next time someone in your personal social circle denigrates a charter school in conversation…engage. Bring it up with Congressional candidates (“Will you support the CSP so that more families who can’t afford to move to a better school district can choose their own school that is accountable to their child’s success?”). If you don’t have a school nearby, send a donation to one (especially one that lacks a larger network, every bit counts).

LET’S DO THIS

Let’s recommit in 2024, in pursuit of a system that works, toward that more perfect union. Let’s break from the vacuum of the small into the world that so desperately needs the innate genius of the young people we have the privilege of educating. Culture wars, the rise of authoritarianism, and political polarization are frightening, but I must step into this year with hope, optimism, determination, and love.

If we meet this moment, it will be because we can harness the intellectual honesty that drives us to make possible that divine spark of a thriving learning environment, and continuously improve this complex system over time. I think we can do this and hope you do too. We can be daunted by the challenges of the present moment, or we can show up and face them.