CharterFolk Four-Year Anniversary | A New 25x25x25 | No Vision No Voice Revisited | Courage at the Collective in Milwaukee

Good day CharterFolk,

Four years ago today I published my first post here at CharterFolk. Since that time the CharterFolk community has grown into one consisting of many thousands of readers and hundreds of content contributors distributing columns and podcasts every week. It has been an amazing experience to have founded CharterFolk, and I am as excited and energized to be doing this work today as I was four years ago. To all of you who have helped CharterFolk become what it is today, I extend my deepest thanks.

Acknowledging the progress that we have made, I by no means report myself to be satisfied with what we have achieved to date. Indeed, it seems to me, observing the broader charter school landscape, that we could be making even greater progress, generating even more momentum within CharterFolk, much like I believe the charter school movement itself has the potential to be moving forward with far greater momentum.

And I am of the opinion that there is nothing more important that we could be doing for our movement right now than to help it generate a sense of even greater momentum.   

And while I wouldn’t want to overstate the extent to which CharterFolk is emblematic of things happening in the charter school movement generally, I do think an argument could be made that our progress here is something of a barometer for what is happening in CharterLand more broadly.

With that in mind, we set sights for our fifth year at CharterFolk.

The CharterFolk Board will be meeting in a little over a month to consider our ambitions. I am putting together plans that envision CharterFolk achieving a stretch goal of serving 25,000 readers by June 9, 2025.   In order to handle that scope of responsibility, we will need new resources.  One of the most important ways that we secure new resources is through organizational subscriptions, and as it turns out, the volume of resources that we need to bring about our vision for 2025 is one consistent with the need to secure 25 new organizational subscribers.

I imagine some of you might sense where I’m going with this.

Yes, it’s true, CharterFolk. We are considering a new “25x25x25” goal here. 

The original one

… as long-time readers are aware, is that we have 25 state associations collecting $25 in membership dues per pupil by 2025. I remain maniacally focused on that goal because I know that if our movement is going to be successful for the long term, we simply must aggregate the resources that are needed in order to perform advocacy at whole other levels of effectiveness and heft. We have made considerable progress

… increasing the number of state associations that are collecting such resources, but we have further to go, and I will always keep our original 25x25x25 goal a guiding star. 

But into this mix we are contemplating a new 25x25x25 goal, one seeking to ensure that CharterFolk has 25,000 readers and 25 additional organizational subscribers by 2025. Were we to achieve such numbers, we know that CharterFolk, like our essential advocacy organizations, will be positioned to take on our next chapter of work at the level of effectiveness and heft that the moment requires.

So, if any of you are at an organization that would like to become part of the CharterFolk momentum story, we’d love to hear from you. We currently have 13 organizational subscribers, which contribute $5000 annually and provide us contacts allowing us to grow our readership. If your organization might be interested in joining them, please contact me directly at jed@charterfolk.org

Meanwhile, individual readers are encouraged to continue supporting us by providing paid subscriptions as well.  We currently have about 250 individuals providing paid subscriptions which have been so key to our success over the years.

Again, to all of you who have contributed to CharterFolk over the past four years, I extend my deepest thanks. 

On we go.

No Vision No Voice Revisited

The four-year anniversary has given me occasion to revisit what I was writing about in our earliest days, helping me reconnect again with what motivated me to make CharterFolk in the first place.  It grew out of having had the opportunity to visit over half of the states in the country in 2019.  I came away from conversations I had with with charter school people in context after context aware that our movement had lost a sense of shared purpose and that, in some places, we had even begun to wonder whether we are on the right side of history. 

The recurring question I asked during those travels was:

Do you believe that your charter school community has a shared vision for how the growth of high-quality charter schools results in education getting better for all students?

It was a question that opened the floodgates.

Without exception, the answer was a resounding no, which was then followed by a torrent of criticism of the entities, most often advocacy organizations, that they believed were supposed to be articulating and advancing charter school vision.  After letting people vent a while, I would then ask them what they thought that vision should be.

Again, almost without exception, people couldn’t articulate one. 

Perhaps most alarming, several people said that it wouldn’t even be constructive for the charter school world to articulate a vision publicly because all it would do is make matters worse.

Those conversations more than any other single thing was what motivated me to create CharterFolk, and they led to four of the earliest columns I wrote here.  This week I looked at them again, and I was happy that, in my opinion anyway, they seem to have aged pretty well.

In the first, No Vision No Voice

… I laid out that it is not possible for our movement to have a strong collective voice and drive an overarching public narrative for our movement if we do not have a compelling vision articulating what we’re collectively headed to and why.  And I posited that we have lost a sense of vision because, for a variety of reasons, we have stopped talking about the problems that exist within district public schools. And without us being able or willing to articulate our critique, we undercut our very reason for being.  Because if there are no problems in public education, there is no reason for charter schools to even exist.

In Where Boneheads Dropped the Ball on Vision

… I argued that we originally had a strong vision for the charter school movement – creating “bastions of innovation,” as Bill Clinton used to say – that would demonstrate the possible.  But then the charter school movement grew so much that we started having systemwide impact, and our vision never evolved to describe what that systemwide impact should be.  Having no answer, we essentially grew silent, undercutting our ability to drive narrative.  Even worse, having no answer, we ceded the answer to our adversaries who were more than happy to present charter schools as one massive selfish gesture making public education worse for everyone else.

In A New Vision for Charter Schools – Greatly More Public Education for All

… I laid out one possible vision that the CharterWorld could coalesce around, which is that, as the charter school movement continues to grow excellent and equitable new schools, we simultaneously push the broader system to evolve to become more excellent and equitable as well such that all of public education improves.

Finally, in My Worse Mistake

… I talked about how bad it has been for our movement to have given up on the importance of converting district schools to charter status.  Without that as a priority, we essentially present the charter school movement as one massive replacement strategy rather than a tool that, in addition to allowing many great new schools to get started, also allows existing schools to become better. It ends up pitting the charter school movement against teachers and principals in district schools rather than actively seeking to include them and support them and honor them in our ever-growing big tent.  

An error I made in this last post was to stop my analysis at the school level.  Yes, we want individual schools converting to charter status, but what is supposed to happen to school districts as charter schools grow?  What are they supposed to evolve into? 

The answer, of course, is that we don’t envision a future where school districts disappear.  What we want is for school districts to evolve into CMOs so that they are provided entrée into the new education world we are creating.  And yes, to have not articulated how that is supposed to happen, and to have not developed attendant policy proposals that would allow such evolution to proceed, has been one of our biggest mistakes given how much systemwide impact we are having.

At our recent WonkyFolk recording Live at the Charter School Growth Fund

… I fielded a question about what entities are supposed to be creating vision for the charter school movement.

It was a great question.  Because I certainly don’t think it is the role of CharterFolk to be creating such vision.  We can point out the critical need for vision.  We can surface ideas.  We can stimulate thinking.  But ultimately, in terms of developing and advancing shared vision across all the stakeholders in the charter school movement, no entities can do that with the same credibility that representative advocacy organizations can. 

Membership organizations. 

Members and funders with skin in the game coming to agreement within carefully created structures of shared decision-making. 

Organizations at a national, state and local levels.

And I would say that I have never been more optimistic than I am right now that we have organizations at all those levels ready to bring forward the new vision that our movement needs. 

We have a new visionary leader coming to our national organization. 

Many of our state associations have grown greatly stronger over the past five years and stand poised to articulate and steward such vision like never before. 

And I would report the same about city-based organizations.

We just have to take the next step.

Courage at the Collective in Milwaukee

This past week, I’ve had occasion to connect with one such place at a city level doing exactly the kind of courageous work we need to be doing.

As many MidWesternFolk are already well keyed into, the situation in Milwaukee Public Schools is a societal tragedy.

For years, charter schools in Wisconsin were structurally underfunded relative to district schools by several thousands of dollars per student.  Last summer, progress was finally made at a state level …

… but then the school district narrowly approved a new local tax referendum that excluded charter schools. 

So the funding delta has widened again considerably.

When the district proposed the new referendum in such a way as to exclude charter schools, the City Forward Collective, an advocacy organization in Milwaukee, publicly opposed the new tax. 

You can imagine the blowback that ensued.

But now, just a couple months after the referendum’s passage, the complete and utter dysfunction of the school district is being made evident for all to see. 

It started with the feds going public with their decision to terminate MPS’s eligibility for Head Start funding due to the district’s wanton mismanagement of the program.

Then evidence came to light that the district had withheld information from voters prior to the election so as to not undermine public support for the referendum.  

That led to the superintendent resigning.

And the district’s comptroller being fired.

Now the state is piling on, cutting off $16 million in special education funding to the district.

So this week, the governor is calling for an audit.  Not just an audit of the district’s finances, but an audit of all aspects of the district’s operations.

And who was it that was encouraging the governor to make such a call?

Why the City Forward Collective, of course. 

The very entity that had been courageous enough in the beginning to issue its critique and to endure all the merciless criticism that came its way in the immediate aftermath. 

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the courage and vision that the Collective is providing than the blog that is being written by it Executive Director, Colleston Morgan Jr.

Writing every week in depth.

On offense.

Demonstrating deep understanding of what is going on in MPS.

Surfacing proactively the financial shortcomings of the district.

Calling out the ridiculousness of the district trying to take back facilities from a high performing charter school in the city.

Calling for accountability for the school district and its top leadership.

At bottom, this is about basic accountability. If issues of this magnitude occurred at a public charter school or a private school participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the school in question would be subject to severe sanctions – up to and including closure or loss of eligibility for public funding. Milwaukee Public Schools should be held to at least the same high standards for financial accountability as our city’s charter and private schools.

Now resulting in the governor making his call.

It’s a shining example of what we are needing across our entire movement right now, at national, state and local levels.

A critique!

Which, yes, could very well result in things “getting worse” in the immediate term. Could very well result in even more blowback coming against us.

But when the critique is demonstrated to be correct, down the road, and often it’s not that far down the road, people will recognize that ours is a voice that should be trusted.

But if we’ve not had the courage to say the thing in the first place, to articulate the vision when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, we never get to the place where our voice rises above the din.

In Milwaukee, no vision no voice is demonstrated to be true in its inverse.

Where there is vision, there is voice.

We are heard.

And if I may be so bold, I would suggest to our friends in Milwaukee to learn from my worst mistake. 

Now that you have people’s attention, be sure you can articulate what the school district is supposed to evolve into.  And do not be sheepish about the fact that we believe it should be to evolve into the biggest CMO in town.

It should operate exactly like charter schools do.  It should have an authorizer that looks at its operations every five years to determine whether it should retain the privilege of operating its schools so that it can finally become truly accountable.

And it should not have one dollar more or one dollar less per pupil than charter schools, including dollars coming from federal, state and local sources.

Nor should it have any special standing as it relates to local school facilities.  It should get access to them in the same way that all public schools should access them, by demonstrating that parents actually want their kids to fill those buildings.

And, finally, we should back our vision with concrete policy proposals.  Take to the Wisconsin legislature bills that would require MPS to evolve into a CMO, a truly accountable, equitably funded provider of education that does not screen out kids by attendance boundary or selective admissions.  And then fight for those policy proposals in the public realm.

The response is certain to be similar to the one the Collective experienced when it first announced its opposition to the referendum – absolute outrage and acrimony.

But over time, and it likely won’t be that much time, people will see the wisdom in it.

Because it’s an idea that is built to last.  Something we could keep out in front of ourselves for many years to come.

Like a North Star.

You know …

Like vision?

CharterFolk.

We are moving into a period in public education when seismic shifts are taking place.  Countless school districts are either already in a condition similar to what MPS is experiencing, or are on their way there.  And new voucher systems are being created across the country which will fundamentally re-shape public education. Some of those ideas will result in more excellence being created and more historically underserved families accessing that excellence than before.  But others won’t.

And so the need for charter school voice has never been more pronounced than it is today.

Nor have we ever been as well-positioned to be heard as we are today.

We’ve just got to be full-throated.

Summoning our inner Colleston.

Such that we finally overcome the challenge of …

… no vision no voice.