Money and Control|The Ladies Doth Protest Too Much|What We Do When Representatives Aren’t Representative

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I start today offering a special thanks to Raj Thakkar for his great Contributor Column this week.

As CharterFolk know, I’m not sheepish about drawing attention to the financial mismanagement, lack of transparency, and nonexistent accountability that exist in district public schools.

But lest we ourselves engage in our own form of what-about-ism, it’s incumbent upon us that we keep our own financial houses in order. It’s why I appreciate so much Raj having dedicated 18 years of effort to help charter schools become stronger in this regard.

Meanwhile, I thank many CharterFolk who reached out to me to be sure I was aware that a great tribute article to Ramona Edelin was written in the Washington Post this week.

It is indeed a great one.

I mean, CharterFolk, does that one picture just say it all, or what?

Ramona leading the charge, with Jeanne Allen on one shoulder, Jack McCarthy, CEO of Appletree Institute on the other, one step ahead of Shawn Hardnett, Executive Director of Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys and Will Stoetzer, CEO of Ingenuity Prep, with Howard Fuller’s towering figure in the background rounding out the portrait?

Brilliant!

In addition to being an awesome article itself, it’s now resulting in other tributes

… going out across the land.

Amen.

It’s an additional level of respect befitting the enormous contribution Ramona made to the issues we all care so much about.

On Tuesday next week, Joe Nathan will be sharing a tribute to another CharterFolk who made a massive impact and whose contributions have not yet been properly recognized here at CharterFolk.

Thank you in advance, Joe.

Meanwhile, we turn now to a topic that, fittingly, resonates deeply with the lessons that Ramona attempted to impart within us all.

For Ramona, it was always very important that our movement be represented by representatives who are representative. It’s what led her to push so assertively for our advocacy organizations having governance structures that authentically engage and share power with the stakeholders who those organizations serve to represent. For Ramona, that meant that charter school advocacy should be led by membership organizations because such status best assures that representatives of the movement will in fact be representative.

When we are truly representative, Ramona taught us, we are strongest. And so, as we continue aspiring to build ever greater advocacy strength for our movement, so too should we aspire to ensure that our advocacy organizations achieve ever greater levels of representativeness of that movement.

Sadly, our commitment to strive for representativeness stands in stark contrast to many policy-making bodies in our society whose representatives are not anything close to representative. It’s what leads so many of them to make decisions that are not representative of what parents, families, and the broader public really want.

One way we can look at the advocacy challenge confronting the charter school movement is to see that we are seeking to ensure that policy-making bodies overseeing charter school matters become peopled by representatives who are in fact representative.

But the sad truth is that, in many contexts, we have a long ways to go. Just how far has been on bold display in recent weeks in Ramona’s home city.

To some extent it can be downright scary to see policy-making bodies that are so blatantly unrepresentative. It can make us feel like our whole world is at risk when we hear such completely unrepresentative things said about us by people who hold so much power. And we should not sugarcoat this. Policy-making bodies being unrepresentative poses a grave threat to everything we have been working for over the past three decades, no doubt about it.

But on the other hand, as Ramona taught us, those that are not representative are fundamentally weaker. They are not credible. They are not legitimate. And if we do our work effectively and courageously, we should be able to exploit that weakness to get our world to the greater safety and respect that our kids and families and school communities deserve.

But we’ve got to be smart about it. And strategic. And committed over time.

It starts with having a deeper understanding of what specifically makes so many policy-making bodies in our society so unrepresentative, and knowing the levers at our disposal we can use to make things better.

We turn to that topic now.

Money and Control – The Ladies Doth Protest Too Much

As many CharterFolk are aware, Congress and the President passed a budget last week that left Charter School Program funding the same while offering important new flexibilities for use of funding. This is welcome news given that just a few weeks back, the Biden Administration took another swing at charter schools.

For those of you wanting detail on the positive results that were achieved this week for charter schools, I encourage you to check out the National Alliance’s blogpost on this topic.

The other major federal development in DC this week was the fact that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce had a markup hearing on H.R. 6418, the Empower Charter School Educators to Lead Act, a bill that would allow school developers to use a portion of CSP dollars as pre-authorization planning grants.

As many of these markup hearings are, it was long and tedious and not very substantive generally. So I don’t recommend spending much time on it. But the comments from Representative Stevens (D-MI) …

… were certainly noteworthy.

They were … how should I say this, CharterFolk …?

… essentially a tirade …

… replete with fist thumping.

She started talking about the importance of charter school authorizers in a rather subdued manner, but then got herself worked up.

I’m old enough to remember sitting in this very committee with a former secretary of education who was dramatically seeking to squeeze out public schools and promote failing charter schools and wouldn’t admit it. A colleague on the other side of the aisle here just declared that charter schools are public schools.

The assertion that charter schools are public schools was so offensive, apparently, that it opened the floodgates:

The reason why we need to support and invest and continue to grow our public school system here in the United States of America is that not every student has the same experience at home. And so what happens is that, if you don’t have a parent who is advocating for you or holding your hand to get you into that charter school, the school bus picks you up in the morning to take you to the public school. And so to sit here and to throw up our arms and say that the public schools are failing and we’ve got to do charters, and those might fail but we’re not going to have oversight, and by the way forget the teachers union, and the people who are credentialed and certified, and let’s just have a race to the bottom. It doesn’t work!

It was essentially an even more impassioned extension of the comments that Representative Bonamici gave to wrap up the subcommittee hearing that happened a few weeks ago.

She offered them in response to Kenneth Campbell saying earlier in the hearing …

… that charter schools do not have as much political support as you might expect given how well they’re doing with students because status quo interests don’t want to give up money and control.

Before the hearing concluded, Representative Bonamici wanted to get on the record …

… that she took offense.

I also want to take strong exception to the suggestion that this is about money. I find that personally offensive, as a Member of Congress, as someone who cares deeply about every student. To suggest that I might have questions about charter schools because of money. We care not only about the kids whose parents say, “Wow, I need to look at a charter school option for my child.” We care also about the students whose parents are maybe … maybe a single parent household … maybe they’re stressed … maybe they don’t know about other options … maybe they don’t know how to get involved. And to say that we only care about … that we only want to provide a good education … to those who want to leave the traditional public schools … I find to be inappropriate. And I just want to get that on the record.

Both Representative Stevens’s and Representative Bonamici’s comments suggest that there is a subset of parents who can be trusted to make decisions on behalf of their kids and another subset who cannot.

Representative Bonamici asserts that single parents and parents who are stressed are among those who can’t be trusted.

It makes me want to make sure I get something on the record myself.

CharterFolk, over a third of all children in the United States, and over half of the kids in many big cities …

… are growing up in single-parent families.

And as to those parents who may be stressed out?

Hell, it’s damn near all of us.

So when Ms. Bonamici says the best policy solution is for the status quo to be entrusted to determine what’s in the best interest of kids whose parents are single or stressed, what she is actually saying is that the status quo should be entrusted to control every child’s education.

Confirming the “control” assertion that Kenneth made.

And the money part?

Well, she left that to her final remark when she said:

Allowing for expanded access to … charter schools and continuing to underfund our already overwhelmed public education system is not in the best interest of students. It’s not in the best interest of parents. And it’s certainly not in the best interests for our future and for our economy

In other words:

Prevent the money from flowing to new schools that parents want might to enroll their kids in and keep it directed toward the schools that she and the status quo control.

Proving in one 30-second exchange the validity of Kenneth’s entire claim that opposition to charter schools is in fact about money and control.

The Bard had a phrase to describe people like Representatives Stevens and Bonamici getting all worked up like this.

As did Homer Simpson.

Ladies who doth protest too much.

Money and Control – When Representatives Aren’t Representative

What is important for we CharterFolk to keep in mind is what precisely the Democratic representatives on the subcommittee are representative of.

They are not, nor should we let ourselves be deluded into thinking that they are, representative of the views held by all Democrats in the House, much less all Democrats in the country.

What they’re representative of, rather, is the subset of Democrats who get appointed to policy committees within legislatures given the massive amounts of money that teacher unions and other education status quo interests give legislative leaders in decision-making bodies such as state capitols and our national congress. Having gotten their largesse from the unions and others such that they can determine how much money will be directed to each caucus member’s re-election campaign, legislative leaders solidify their positions of leadership within their caucuses. And in return for having been provided the resources needed to win the game of political king of the mountain, Speakers and Pro Tems across the nation reward their funders by appointing to education policy committees the subset of policy makers within caucuses who are willing to shamelessly represent the interests of the education status quo.

Some call such unrepresentative structures “legislature fortresses.” ChatGPT defines them thusly:

A “fortress within a legislative body” typically refers to a subgroup or faction within a legislative institution that wields significant power and influence, often acting as a stronghold for particular interests or ideologies. This term suggests that this subgroup is highly cohesive and resistant to external influence or change, much like a fortress is difficult to breach. These factions may control key aspects of the legislative process, such as committee assignments, leadership positions, or procedural rules, allowing them to shape legislation and policy outcomes according to their preferences.

During the earliest days of CharterFolk, I wrote a column …

… describing how this phenomenon plays out in many legislatures across the country, especially in blue states.

In it I quoted what is still my single favorite comment from a policy maker about the power dynamics surrounding efforts to improve public education. It came within an op-ed that Tony Blair wrote in the New York Times in 2014 …

… wherein he said:

“There have grown up powerful interest groups that can stand in the way of substantial and necessary reform. Anyone who has ever tried to reform an education system, for example, knows how tough and bitter a struggle it is. The bureaucracy fights change. The teachers’ unions fight change. The public gets whipped up to defeat change even when it is in the public’s own interest. The nearest I came to losing my job as prime minister was not over policies of war and peace, but over education reforms.”

Yes, CharterFolk, in some regards the work of advancing charter schools can be considered even more challenging than issues of war and peace.

And part of what makes the challenge so daunting is the fact that policy-making committees in legislatures end up being peopled by representatives who are not representative of the people, but are representative of the interests that provide political money to legislative leaders, who then decide committee assignments. In the post from 2020, I relayed the story of committee assignments for the California legislature that were announced in the same week that Tony Blair’s op-ed came out, just a month after the elections of 2014.

Something very similar is at play within the U.S. Congress, making the Committee on Education and the Workforce decidedly unrepresentative of the House of Representatives.

And it shines light on perhaps the greatest irony of all coming out of a committee where a member took offense to suggestions that the matter at hand is all about money and control.

Because the very composition of the committee itself is one massive expression of money and control!

The money the education status quo uses to maintain control of legislative bodies.

So that ultimately they make decisions that are not representative of what students and families and indeed all of society really want.

Chamber-Wide Dynamics Are Actually Much More Complicated

One of the most pernicious myths that comes out of situations where representatives are not representative is the misplaced belief that the actions taken by and the statements coming out of fortress policy committees are somehow representative of caucus-wise sentiment.

This is exactly what the education status quo wants, right?

Creating an impression that the views expressed in committees by an extreme faction of the Democratic Party are somehow representative of the entire party.

Journalists misreport along these lines all the time. It’s so easy to do. Look at my own headline from the post I wrote a few weeks back …

… suggesting that “slipping out the back door” is how all Congressional Dems feel about families choosing charter schools.

Not my most precise work, I’m afraid, CharterFolk.

It’s writing that does not accurately portray what’s really going on, which is actually much more complicated.

The current landscape at both national and local levels are just chock full of the complexity.

Like the race to replace Congressman Adam Schiff who is now running for U.S. Senate.

Who prevailed in the primary on the Democratic side and is now virtually guaranteed to win in the general?

The same long time charter school supporter who status quo interests vilify for her courageous support of our cause.

Laura Friedman beat out long-time Democratic charter school supporter Anthony Portantino, who himself has been vilified for his support of charter schools …

… and who finished a few percentage points ahead of a true charter school champion …

… Nick Melvoin.

Is that the narrative we hear about the national Democratic Party, a field full of charter school supporters all vying for a seat in Congress?

Same thing up the road in San Jose where one vote separates long-time Democratic charter school supporter Joe Simitian from long time charter school endorsee Evan Low.

And the northern California Democratic Senator Bill Dodd who is running that rabidly anti-charter school bill in his last year in the legislature?

Who is he being replaced by next year?

Certainly one of the strongest supporters of charter schools the California State Senate has ever seen.

Just like that attack bill being driven by the rabid wing of Democrats in Colorado.

Like it’s even remotely representative of where Democrats in Colorado stand on charter schools more broadly?

Democratic Governor Jared Polis doesn’t seem to think so.

And look, I know it’s complicated.

Joe Simitian got endorsed by CTA/NEA this year.

And Senator Dodd won his early legislative races with backing from education reformers.

But that’s my point.

It’s complicated.

And the narrative coming out of many policy committees across the land, like the one coming out of the Committee on Education and the Workforce in recent weeks, isn’t even remotely representative of that complexity. And it’s part of our job in the years to come to make sure that representatives become more representative so that views reflecting what parents and communities really want get the greater representation they deserve.

So What Do We Do About It?

CharterFolk, this post is near 3000 words already. So I can’t go into this part of the story at the depth I would like and will have to return to it in some future post.

But in thumbnail terms:

I do not by any means believe the challenge before us is hopeless.

We just have to keep growing.

To keep growing our advocacy and political infrastructure.

To keep getting more strategic.

And to keep our focus on making sure that representatives become more representative.

There is no way that we will ever be able to match the financial largesse that the education status quo bestows upon legislative leaders.

I know that, CharterFolk. I’ve secured my share of political contributions in my day. But that is an ask whose unseemliness – just giving gobs of money in exchange for access – is just a bridge too far.

Our community of funders, as generous and as savvy as they are, aren’t up for that level of unseemliness. It flies in the face of the aspirational-ness that funders want to support.

But there is another way.

It involves continuing to grow the number of stakeholders – especially our parents – who are willing to get involved in advocacy and politics. And then, rather than, as we often have in the past, diluting their influence across a wide range of policy makers, few of whom have massive influence over charter school matters, we encourage and support our parents to concentrate their efforts on those policy makers who do.

Legislative leaders.

Such that they do more to make sure that policy-making committees are peopled with representatives who are representative.

This is, admittedly, quite a challenge, but it is not by any means, a lost cause.

Large numbers of parents aggressively focused on legislative leaders …

… have been demonstrating for decades that we can turn political dynamics around…

… just like large numbers of parents concentrating their efforts on other high-influence electeds …

… have shown we can make a big difference in many different contexts.

It’s an important part of our work in the Era Beyond the Beginning.

Where in many contexts it will ultimately come down to a matter of funding vs Folk.

And certainly, all my years in advocacy can leave me as cynical as anyone about such matters.

But ultimately, when it comes right down to it.

When it comes to whether I’m going to make my bet on funding or I’m going to make my bet on Folk.

CharterFolk, I’m betting on Folk.

Every single time.