FREE to Achieve Our Why’s; PUBLIC Because We’re Chartered; OPEN TO ALL Makes Us Even More Public

Good day CharterFolk.

I start off acknowledging some incongruities here.

I said I’d get a post off to you about how our 201, 301 and 401-Levels of work related to Free, Public and Open to All can all be integrated. But my regular work has really spiked, cutting majorly into my time. And this post is turning out to be a beast. So I’m cutting it off and making it only about the 301-Level discussions we have internally about our why’s. I’ll get to the 401-Level in my next post.

Meanwhile, I extend thanks to Mollie Mitchell for her great “CharterFolk on the Move” post from last Thursday. It inspired many new readers to sign up for CharterFolk. So if you’re reading our posts for the first time today, welcome! Great to have you as part of the CharterFolk community.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

FREE to Achieve Our Why; PUBLIC Because We’re Chartered; OPEN TO ALL Makes Us Even More Public

Building on my post from a couple weeks back

… I said that it is very important that we keep our 201 and 301-Levels aligned because it could be confusing or incoherent if we were to say one thing to the general public about our “what” and a completely different thing to ourselves about our “why.”

Fortunately, “Free, Public, and Open to All” can be used to explain both our “what” to the public and our “why” to ourselves.

In using “Free, Public and Open to All” with ourselves, we essentially educate our base that charter schools are not seeking to be “public, public, public,” but are in fact aspiring to be “public, public, and even more public” than public schools have been before.

But before I get to that, let me make one general point, and that is to say that each charter school organization has to decide for itself the degree to which it wants to inject its “why” discussion into the public sphere. Some organizations want to. Others don’t. Those that do see it as part of their mission to educate the public about the importance of their why. But it can be a tough decision because often when we articulate our why we either imply or explicitly state a criticism of the public system, and many organizations don’t want to criticize the status quo because it can provoke a backlash from the system itself.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza warned charter networks to shut up about traditional public schools at a parental meeting alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday night.

Carranza told parents they had the right to make school choices for their kids, but said charters shouldn’t beckon parents by bashing regular public schools.

“Do what you got to do,” Carranza said at a “listening tour” stop at Boys & Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s District 16. “Do your enrollment thing. But don’t talk about our schools. Because our schools belong to the community and we’re going to do what we need to do to support our schools.”

Further, many who know a lot about communications tell us that it can be counter-productive for the charter school world to surface shortcomings happening within the traditional system because it just looks self-serving, and many in the public simply want the fighting to stop.

All that’s understandable. If you don’t want to get anywhere near a visible critique of the public education status quo, so be it.

But for all the reasons that I described in my prior post, don’t let your strategic choice regarding public positioning affect whether your organization has internal discussions about why you operate as a charter school.

Here are some thoughts about how you might do so using “Free, Public, Open to All” as the central frame .

FREE To Achieve Our Why’s

Of course, in terms of achieving our 201-Level objectives, the central point in communicating to the public that our schools are “free” is to underscore that our schools don’t charge tuition like private schools do, reinforcing that our schools are public.

It’s a message whose importance we shouldn’t downplay. Many in the public still don’t understand this about our schools. So we have to communicate it over and over.

But at the 301-Level of exploring our why, a different meaning of “free” comes to the fore, one underscoring that charter schools have the freedom needed to make something that, were it not for the presence of charter schools, literally wouldn’t exist within the public school system.

Usually, charter school organizations get started because their founders saw that there was something missing in the way public education was being offered previously. An example is what Chris Topham described in his recent Contributor Column about the marriage between Waldorf-ness and charter-ness.

Historically, the only Waldorf schools that existed in California, and indeed in the entire United States, were private ones. For decades, many educators working within traditional public schools believed in the philosophy of Waldorf teaching methods, but they had no means by which to bring them into the public education system. So the public education landscape was Waldorf-less despite the fact that many parents would have eagerly enrolled their kids in a Waldorf school had it been an option.

Then the charter school school movement came along, which created a mechanism by which educators and parents could bring something new into the public education system. One of the places where belief in Waldorf-ness was strongest was in Northern California. A few years after California’s charter school law was passed, the first Waldorf charter school – and the first public Waldorf school of any kind in the United States – was up and running.

Add in a few decades of relentless effort from parents and educators like Chris, and Northern California has become home to one of the highest concentrations of Waldorf schools in the world outside their native Austria.

So the original why behind these Waldorf charter schools was not charter-ness.

It was Waldorf-ness.

Charter-ness was just the mechanism by which the dreamed-for why became a reality.

This same dynamic plays out in origin story after origin story in CharterLand.

The founders of High Tech High where I used to work didn’t care very much about charter status. Their why was project-based learning and their belief that a different kind of pedagogy would be much more effective for many adolescents.

Charter-ness was just the mechanism by which their why became real.

Just like charter-ness was the mechanism by which DC Bilingual, whose founders cared deeply about bilingual education …

… got to bilingual-ness.

By which Five Keys

…got to offer its completely different approach to education for incarcerated youth.

By which Freedom Prep

… achieved the freedom it needed to bring about its why – improved educational opportunity for the Memphis community it cares so much about.

Quite literally, without “freedom,” there would be no “Freedom.”

Just like there wouldn’t be all the other new educational opportunity that has been created within the charter school movement over the past 30+ years.

Part of the value of the charter school movement is that it makes educators and parents free to create something new.

Prior to the presence of charter-ness, no such freedom existed.

It’s because, sadly, if there are any entities in modern life that do not have the freedom they need to succeed, it is our public schools.

Public education, like the students that Five Keys serves …

… is behind bars.

Bars of statute and regulation and district policy and collective bargaining arrangements and stifling bureaucracy.

Amazon reports that the 2017 California Education Code is 2534 pages long and weighs 5.6 pounds.

Meanwhile, a popular version of War and Peace is 1296 pages and comes in at 2.8 pounds.

Proving that state education code is about two times longer than interminable.

And since 2017, California’s ed code has only continued to grow such that it now no longer fits into a single volume.

Add in the three 800-page volumes of federal code that apply to public education.

Not to mention the mountains of regulations that have been crafted in every state to implement statute.

Then come the binders-full of policies and procedures that all school districts have to adopt to conform with those regulations.

Which are topped off, finally, with collective bargaining arrangements that The Center for Reinventing Public Education estimated to average 206 pages, with some of the biggest school districts like Los Angeles Unified having agreements that are nearly twice as long.

It was the recognition that public schools are constrained by mountains of excess restriction that helped give birth to the charter school movement in the first place. Before the nation’s first charter school law was even passed, newspapers across the country extolled the virtue of charter schools as an answer to the bureaucracy that was stifling the nation’s public schools.

Bill Clinton, one of the charter school movement’s most compelling early communicators, talked constantly about the excessive constraint that held back traditional public schools.

The charter school movement, which I have championed since 1992, is growing. When I took the oath of office as president, there was one charter school in the United States, a public school organized by teachers and parents within the school system but freed from many of the bureaucratic limitations that are on so many schools. In 1996 there were seven hundred. There are now about a thousand, meaning we’re well on our way to our goal of having 3000 by the year 2000.”

Indeed when policy makers in the UK created their version of charter schools, they chose to name them “free schools” …

… so as to emphasize that they were designed to be free of the constraints that hold so many other schools back.

It’s this freedom that allows Five Keys to combat two forms of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The one we all know about.

As well as a second one.

The pipeline through which excessive regulation and bureaucracy encase public schools in a prison of operational incarceration.

Today, decades after the creation of the nation’s first charter school laws, it can be easy to lose sight of the freedom that is at the heart of the movement.

The first priority for internal discussion is to simply recognize that, were it not for this freedom, every charter school organization in the country literally wouldn’t exist. And there is a massive status quo that would prefer to see our schools go away, or at minimum to have our freedoms so curtailed that we cannot continue offering programs that differ from what is found behind the one-size-fits-all bars that the rest of public education so sadly sits trapped behind.

The second priority is to spend time discussing the parts of your organization’s program that, were it not for the fact that the organization is a charter, would be at risk, and then to strategize ways to make sure that your organization maintains all the freedoms it will need to continue succeeding for many years to come.

It’s appreciating the flexibility and the empowerment that allows Waldorf charter schools to achieve their Waldorf-ness and every other charter school to achieve their “nesses” too.

Including your own “ness,” whatever it may be.

When we have “the why” conversation often enough and deeply enough, the essential truth comes through:

Charter-ness is not our why.

It is the freedom by which we achieve our why.

PUBLIC Because We’re Chartered

When “Free, Public, Open to All” first came out, my first thought was that it was mis-ordered. I thought it should have been, “Public, Free, Open to All,” leading with our central assertion, which is that charter schools are public schools.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I recognize the smarts behind putting “Free” first.

We exist first to be free enough to achieve a why.

But as soon as we’ve recognized that, we need to recognize also that we were not set up to be free without qualification.

Otherwise we would just become private schools.


Ours are the schools that are designed to strike the balance between being free and public at the same time.

So we put the two words together at the beginning of our what and why.

It’s why Clinton was always careful to point out, like he did in the speech I referenced above, that charter schools operate “within the public school system.”

In the rough and tumble of education politics, many will claim that there was never any such agreement about charter schools. But as Ember Reichgott Junge pointed out in her recent op-ed at The 74

… charter schools were always intended to be public, and any close reading of the movement’s originating documents, like those archived at the National Charter School Founders Library

… clearly demonstrate that fact.

As Ember points out, we live in a time when people fight over the definition of a public school. Usually these fights come down to arguments about various compliance matters, with status quo defenders attempting to make the point that, if charter schools don’t have to comply with all the requirements that noncharter public schools have to comply with, then charter schools must not be public. Almost all of these discussions are highly-technical, politically motivated and counter-productive to even engage in. They just serve to confuse the public about what charter schools are, which is precisely why our opponents keep recirculating them ad nauseam.

Often the starting point for discussing charter schools’ public-ness centers on how it can be that charter schools are public despite the fact that they are chartered.

That frame sets up the discussion completely backwardly.

Charter schools aren’t public despite the fact that we are chartered.

We are public because we are.

It’s why I often say that one of the best ways to get our own folk to understand what a charter school is is to get them to understand what a charter is.

Those that got our movement going in the first place certainly understood. That is why Ray Budde, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor who first articulated the concept of a charter school in a paper that he published in 1974 and then re-issued again in 1988 …

… laid out in fine detail the role that chartering has played in achieving great public purposes in history …

… including the formation of the Magna Carta, which established that no person, not even the king, was above the rule of law.

He then went on to describe chartering’s applicability to public education, enumerating and elaborating on eight points of comparison. I provide just the headlines below.

It was really a stroke of genius, one recognizing that the chartering mechanism allows both:

  1. The creation of bold new things in education through the introduction of freedom into the system; and simultaneously
  2. The maintenance of public-ness through the charter’s issuance and oversight being conducted by a representative of the public itself.

In other words, it describes from the literal inception of our movement how charter schools strike the balance between being “free” and “public” at the same time.

Each of the eight comparison points deserves its own focus. For the sake of time, I will just choose one.

The last one.

Because it provides the contrast with other public schools which should never be overlooked.

The unique way that charter schools are public allows them to be accountable for results. If we do not achieve results, our charters can be revoked.

Charterless public schools are not accountable and, so, are allowed to go on in perpetuity regardless how well they do with students.

It’s what gives our why an integrity that the rest of the system simply doesn’t have.

We either achieve our why, or we go away.

And so each organization needs to have deep conversations about its why and how it will know whether its why is being achieved.

Which can be done by reading and discussing the organization’s charter, and by understanding what a charter is.

In so doing we come to understand the deepest truth.

Charter schools are not public despite the fact that we are chartered.

We are public because we are.

OPEN TO ALL Makes Us Even More Public

At different times I have said that, in discussing our why, we should recognize that being “Free, Public and Open to All” means that we are public, public, and even more public.

Sadly, the starting point for comparison with charterless public schools is plainly obvious. It’s becoming more recognized every day. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal made the point using this exact language just last week.

Our supposedly public schools just aren’t that public.

They use attendance zones and district boundaries and selective admissions that screen out kids in ways that break down along lines of income and race.

In the end, our supposedly public education system allocates better educational opportunity to those with means, and worse to those without.

And charter schools, unlike charterless schools, don’t.

We don’t have redlining attendance boundaries, nor do we use selective admissions that exclude kids.

In fact, many of our schools have statistical advantages in our lotteries for those who have been underserved before.

Meaning we put our collective thumbs on the collective scale in support of those who need great public education most.

Thus, making charter schools even more public than anything we’ve had before.

Open to All is an important milestone in our long-term quest, which is to evolve all of public education such that it becomes greatly more public than it sadly is today.

As most readers here at CharterFolk know, I write about this issue all the time.

And I’m encouraged to see that language appears to be evolving in society such that a piece in a major publication like the Wall Street Journal posits that our public schools just aren’t that public.

But I remain shocked at how little our society, and even our own world, recognizes this fact.

It’s exactly why I write about it over and over again here. And it’s why I provide examples in context after context about the sad unpublicness that charterless public schools feature.

CharterFolk, go to the CharterFolk search engine. Enter your hometown.

Houston, DC, Newark, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, Oakland, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, the entire State of Connecticut.

The list goes tragically on and on.

Because unpublic-ness is ubiquitous.

It’s cooked into the DNA of our supposedly public system.

And yet, we don’t talk about these things, and so, like we struggle to see the shark …

… that is embedded in this stereogram ….

… so too do we struggle to see the shark that lurks in the public education deep.

And one of the reasons for having internal discussions about our why …

… about the fact that charter schools are “Open to All …”

is to train our eyes.

So that we ourselves can see.

Because when we do, not only do we more deeply appreciate why we are charter schools …

… we give ourselves the critical information we need to explain to others why it’s essential as a society that we have mechanisms by which we help all of public education achieve it’s NESS.


With charter schools being one of the mechanisms with greatest leverage to help us get there.

“Open to All.”

A why.

A shared why.


A why worthy of us all.


As I’ve alluded to several times in recent posts, our 301-Level “why” conversations are not sufficient.

The reason is because they do not elucidate our “how,”

Indeed our “what” and our “why” need a “how” in order to retain integrity.

Our How emerges in our 401-Level work.

It’s what I write about next.

Hope to see you here.