CharterFolk Contributor Tim Nicolette – Hope Emerging from Defeat: Lessons Learned from the Massachusetts Charter Sector

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to share a Contributor Column from Tim Nicolette, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

We provide a bio for Tim below.

Tim Nicolette has served as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association since 2017 where he provides strategic and operational leadership for all of the Association’s staff, programs, and advocacy work. Tim joined the Association having worked in both the charter and district public school sectors, with specific experience in education policy and management. Prior to joining MCPSA, Tim served as President of UP Education Network. He also served as Chief of Staff to former Superintendent of Boston Public Schools (BPS) Carol Johnson as well as Deputy Chief Financial Officer for BPS. Prior to working at BPS, he was an education advisor to former Boston Mayor Tom Menino. He began his career as a strategy consultant with L.E.K. Consulting where he was elected Executive Director of Inspire, Inc. Tim serves on the Board of Directors of the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools and holds a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Hope Emerging from Defeat: Lessons Learned from the Massachusetts Charter Sector

A Significant Defeat

In 2016, Massachusetts was the site of what would become a significant flashpoint for the charter sector nationally – Question 2, a statewide ballot initiative that sought to lift the cap on charter public school expansion and allow for the creation of up to 12 additional new charters each year, including in communities in which the cap had been met.

After a tough campaign where charter opponents sowed misinformation and fear, Question 2 went to the ballot box – and was resoundingly defeated.

62% of voters voted against this ballot measure.

The consequences were immediate. Public support for Massachusetts charters plummeted to its lowest levels ever. Political support dropped precipitously, as charter opponents took advantage of Question 2’s defeat and the political changes of the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to make support for charters a partisan issue. Looking to eliminate any remaining political support, charter opponents argued that “good Democrats don’t support charters” – political posturing that would reverberate across the state legislature, where over 90% of state legislators identify as Democrats.

Witnessing this rapid and dramatic shift, charter public schools in the state were discouraged and divided, with school leaders reporting broken trust.

For many, the defeat of Question 2 seemed to signal the end of the charter public school movement in Massachusetts.

Sector Snapshot in 2023: A New Day For Massachusetts Charter Public Schools

Fast forward to today. Public support has significantly increased, with support for charters in the state at pre-Question 2 levels. Political support for charters has grown substantially, including among progressive Democrats.

As a sector, we have been able to translate the increased public and political support to real and meaningful policy wins for kids. In 2019, the state legislature adopted the first facilities per pupil increase for charter public schools in over a decade – followed by additional increases in successive years that have collectively raised charter facilities funding to more than $1,100 per student. That same year, we advocated as part of a coalition that led to passage of the Student Opportunity Act, which revamped the state funding formula for all public schools for the first time in more than a quarter century. The legislation will  increase state funding for public education by more than 33% over seven years.

While not perfect, schools have stronger relationships with each other, and the sector is more unified. Schools’ trust and confidence in the Association has grown as well, with member satisfaction averaging 99% from 2018 through 2023.

Identifying Lessons Learned

How did this happen? What led to this significant change in fortune for the Massachusetts charter sector? And what lessons can be learned from this experience that may be relevant for other charter sectors across the country?

We have distilled this experience into five key lessons.

Lesson #1: A foundation of charter sector strength is the depth of relationships and trust that schools have with the association and with each other.

After Question 2, with the Massachusetts charter sector discouraged and divided, we knew that we needed to deeply listen to member schools.

I went on a statewide listening tour to hear schools’ hopes and dreams for the sector and for MCPSA, as well as their fears and frustrations and what they wanted MCPSA’s unique role to be. Through this listening process, we built a new mission and vision for the Association and a robust strategic plan, co-authored with and ultimately unanimously approved by our member schools.

We took a similar approach to the development of our legislative agenda, listening deeply to members and building a set of policy and budget priorities directly uplifted by them. The legislative agenda was also put before member schools for a vote – signaling that our advocacy priorities moving forward would not be my priorities or the Association’s priorities but rather the priorities of the schools we represent and serve. 

Meaningful input and buy-in from member schools on the legislative agenda enabled us to unleash the power of our school communities. Simply put, when they play a significant role in shaping the legislative agenda, charter school leaders are more likely to advocate for it and to invite their board members, teachers, and families to join them.

Deep, active, and ongoing listening has also been important for successfully designing and implementing MCPSA programs. Through listening to member schools’ needs and continually seeking feedback, our team has been better able to design programs to respond to schools’ needs and strengthen sector quality. This responsiveness to member needs, in turn, has engendered greater relationship and trust between MCPSA staff and schools.

In short, we have found the old adage to be true: change moves at the speed of trust.

Lesson #2: Robust advocacy strategies are needed to build political support and move the needle on charter policies in more challenging environments.

In the wake of Question 2, some elected officials told us that they wanted to support charter public schools but that they were concerned that if they did so, they would lose their jobs. This highlights a critical learning that has been essential to our work: we must change the political incentives so that elected officials understand that it is not only politically viable but politically advantageous to support charter public schools.

For MCPSA, this lesson led to several changes. In a new, more challenging environment, historic strategies of lobbying and pitching positive news stories were necessary but not sufficient. We integrated our historically bifurcated advocacy and communications teams to focus on rebuilding public and political support in a unified way. We made significant investment in and expanded our public affairs capabilities, including grassroots mobilization, use of digital advocacy tools, and deeper and broader relationship building with legislators. We created a sister 501(c)4 organization (Advocates for Massachusetts Charter Public Schools) that would allow us to directly change the political incentives for elected officials and engage in electoral work.

Importantly, all of this work was in service of building relationships with legislators, increasing political support, and ultimately advancing a legislative agenda that would improve outcomes for kids in all public schools – including charter and district.

Lesson #3: Playing the long game and investing in capacity building is worth it.

In the wake of Question 2, it was apparent that change would not be created overnight. It also became clear that if all we did was strengthen the Association, our sector would not be able to successfully navigate the unique set of challenges catalyzed by Question 2.

We decided that we needed to work toward long-term goals of building charters’ capacity and strength – both to deliver high-quality programs to students and families and to engage in necessary external work to rebuild support for our sector.

We expanded our School Supports team and increased the professional development and support services to our schools, focusing on leadership development and board governance support. Schools have reported that they deeply value these supports and that they have helped them to be more successful.

Our expanded public affairs team launched a robust community of practice for school-based advocacy and communications professionals, offering weekly professional development opportunities to ensure our schools possessed the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully advocate. 

With schools empowered to take action, we then partnered with schools to bring about change. We created programs to mobilize our school communities and amplify the stories of our families and students. We invited schools to become active partners in building deep, authentic relationships with elected officials.

We would not have achieved any of our political gains or policy wins without this broad capacity building focused on what we would need to be successful in the long-term.

Member schools agree that the capacity building has been effective: in our most recent annual member survey, 100% of members agree or completely agree that “MCPSA has been an effective partner in working with schools to advocate for the member-approved advocacy agenda” and 100% of members agree that “MCPSA has been an effective partner in providing their staff with relevant and effective professional development opportunities.”

Lesson #4: Collective strengthening requires collective investment.

2021 was the last year of my first strategic plan at MCPSA. Throughout that year, we worked closely with, and listened deeply to, member schools to learn lessons from that plan’s implementation, to understand schools’ current and future needs, and to assess how the external environment could change through 2025.

Ultimately, this process resulted in the development of our second strategic plan, which members unanimously approved in November 2021.

There was one problem: the cost of the strategic plan left MCPSA overly dependent on philanthropic funding for implementation.

Rather than leaving our ability to implement the new strategic plan solely dependent upon philanthropy, members voted overwhelmingly to increase their dues by 50% – a testament to members’ “skin in the game” and the ultimate vote of confidence in the new plan and in the MCPSA team.

Member schools’ decision to significantly raise dues underscores a fundamental fact: we will either rise together or sink together.

In the current environment, it is wishful thinking to believe that strong charter sectors will just happen or that individual schools or CMOs can be immune from the broader challenges facing the sector. 

Whether you are at a charter school, a CMO, a charter school association, a charter support organization, are a charter partner or funder — we need each other if we are going to successfully rise to the challenges and provide the quality of education that students and families deserve.

This leads to the final lesson learned, which is…

Lesson #5: State charter school associations can play a vital role in strengthening the charter sector and are uniquely positioned to make a difference.

My hope is that you have seen the value of the role that MCPSA has played in the revitalization and strengthening of the Massachusetts charter sector.

We are but one example of a truth that is being born out in multiple states: state charter school associations (CSAs) are critical for strengthening charter sectors across the country. CSAs are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference in strengthening charter sectors.

  • By definition, CSAs must understand member school needs in a given geography; this enables associations to connect members with resources or partners that meet their needs, deepening trust and partnership.
  • CSAs’ relationships with charter school communities provides a direct base of stakeholders – 3.7 million students across 7,800 schools and campuses, more than 12 million alumni, and 206,000 teachers – all of whom can build relationships with elected officials to advocate for a quality education for all kids.
  • Membership dues provide recurring revenue streams to associations, a key differentiator among education advocacy groups, and an important signal that we are not going away.
  • As CSAs largely represent schools statewide, across numerous and diverse legislative districts, they are able to advocate on statewide issues and effectively activate constituents across a given state.

While every state faces obstacles unique to their local context, the lessons learned in Massachusetts demonstrate that continued progress is not only necessary but attainable. We can build support and achieve important outcomes for children across the country. Together, let’s continue the work of strengthening the charter sector and increasing access to high quality education opportunities for kids