CharterFolk Contributor Starlee Coleman – A Rallying Cry:  We Need More Charters

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Starlee Coleman, the CEO of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association (TPCSA).

Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association

I provide Starlee’s bio below.

Starlee Coleman has 20 years of experience turning public policy ideas into laws. Through strategic public affairs and PR campaigns, grassroots engagement, and coalition development, Starlee has contributed to the passage of dozens of bills in state legislatures, Congress, and at the ballot box.

As CEO, Starlee’s role is to oversee the daily operations of the organization and help ensure that TPCSA’s policy recommendations cross the finish line, whether the finish line ends at a Governor’s desk, city hall, on an election ballot, or in the courtroom.

Prior to coming to TPCSA, Coleman founded SchoolForward LLC, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. that advances education reform policies. The firm advises a number of high-profile clients, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Starlee’s work has earned a Templeton Freedom Award for Best Initiative in Public Relations in 2008 and the Spark Freedom Award for Best PR Campaign.

Starlee has done hundreds of media interviews, including formerly having a weekly appearance on the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, Ariz., where she debated current affairs with a leading elected official. She has appeared on nationally-syndicated radio and TV programs, including CNN, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, FoxNews and Fox Business, Wall Street Journal Live, NPR’s 1A, and the Lars Larson Show. Starlee has delivered dozens of speeches on current affairs to civic groups and presented at several conferences on effective communications and marketing strategies and on crisis communications.

Coleman earned her Bachelor of Arts in English at Arizona State University. She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter, and rescue pup.

A Rallying Cry:  We Need More Charters

When state lawmakers in Texas passed the charter school law 27 years ago (with overwhelming bipartisan support), they promised that these new kinds of schools would not only give struggling students a lifeline, but that the infusion of new ideas would push all schools to get better. Decades later, data shows us that they were right.

In Texas, not only do students in charter schools tend to out-perform their district peers in key academic markers, school districts with charter schools inside their attendance zones are getting better faster than the districts without charters in their boundaries. That’s something to celebrate. A rising tide really can lift all boats.

But the hard truth that this year’s state testing and NAEP scores laid bare is that we all have to get much better, much faster. That could read preachy, or it could read as a rallying cry.

Let’s pick the second.

When charters were still in the mind’s eye of academics and policymakers, they were envisioning solutions for the seemingly intractable problem of unequal opportunities and outcomes for less-resourced children. The idea of an autonomous school, with flexibility to innovate and respond in real time to its students’ needs, in exchange for ultra-accountability, was billed as a way (not THE way) to help identify solutions to that intractable problem.

Parents got it immediately. In charters, they saw a path to their children being seen. Being heard. Being loved. By all measures, charter school growth across the country has been explosive. In the five years leading up to the pandemic, charter school enrollment growth in Texas doubled, while growth at traditional district schools was flat. And this was while Texas was trading places with a handful of other states as the first or second-fastest growing state in the country.

Charter enrollment growth has been so steady because parents have seen something in us that we must reclaim. We are the renegades that believed that anything was possible for kids if we just made no excuses for the adults. Parents are drawn to charters because we commit to drawing the very best out of their children. Needless to say, the last few years have not drawn the best out of kids or educators. Everyone is tired and stressed. Regrettable decisions have been made and there’s repair work to be done.  

These are the moments we’re made for. Charters have climbing-out-of-a-hole-against-all-odds in their DNA. That’s what parents are attracted to, even if they can’t name it. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. But it’s going to take getting scrapy – getting back to our roots of real data-driven decision making that causes us to examine all the assumptions we make. That takes a lot of discipline and courage. It’s also going to take the courage to turn away from the zeitgeist if it’s wrong for children (like the push to water down state accountability systems and testing).

We can repair the damage that happened over the past couple of years and then some. But we won’t do it by being timid and risk averse.

One of the risks that we need more of you to take on right now is growth. Children of all backgrounds, in every community, need public school options more than ever. We need more charter schools, and we need you everywhere because everyone is struggling.

I know the politics around charters are difficult now – even in Red States. Gone are the days when we were allowed to “just keep our heads down and do the work” and our friends in high places would make sure we had what we needed. I don’t think the politics will ever get easier for us. I think we can make intentional choices to get better AT politics, and we all should. The very best way for us to get better at politics is to make sure we have all kinds of communities with a stake in charter success.

So, CharterFolk, pull out your map. Take a look at where you don’t have charters today and plant your flag for where else you want to be when the 2024-25 school year starts and let’s go.