No Vision, No Voice

Good morning, CharterFolk.

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Having had a chance now to address the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 crisis, I am able now to turn to what I always envisioned beginning with here at CharterFolk:

The beginning.

What is the first chapter in the charter school story?  The one that gives birth to all the rest? 

Now, by rights, maybe I shouldn’t call it “a chapter.”

Maybe I should call it “the prologue” – the base conditions that give rise to the story itself.

It’s the thing that so many want us to skip over these days.

You find it here in this article from last year in New York.

What is the one thing that New York Chancellor Richard Carranza and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio say charter school leaders simply may not do?

Highlight problems that exist within traditional public schools. 

Now, given that Carranza and De Blasio are among our biggest opponents anywhere, maybe we should just presume that we need to do exactly the opposite of whatever they say.

But that would be to miss the opportunity to deconstruct what they’re doing.

Notice in the article, Carranza doesn’t in any way refute the substance of what CharterFolk are saying.  He doesn’t contest that district schools are failing to serve students well.

He just says, “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.”

Then he adds, “I don’t think it’s okay for anyone to build their school by cutting down one of our schools. That’s not okay. Call me protective, call me a father, call me just plain proud of our schools.”

Now, can we just take a step back here, and recognize how stunning it is that anyone in Carranza’s role would say something like this?

Actually telling people to not talk about public schools in New York. 

Actually threatening people who dissent?

Saying that he’s proud of Establishment schools no matter how badly they may be serving kids.

I’m sorry.  We expect a father’s love for his children to be unconditional. 

We do not expect a superintendent’s love for his schools to be so.

In fact, we expect a superintendent’s love for his schools to be absolutely conditional upon the fact that they’re doing well with children.

In my view, any superintendent uttering such things should be grounds for termination.

But in the “down is up” world of education politics, he’s doing things exactly right.

His role is to be the mouthpiece for what the broader Establishment knows.

Which is that if there are no problems in traditional public schools, there is no need for charter schools.

And if he can intimidate CharterFolk into not speaking our truth, he can get us to undercut our very reason to exist.

Are we clear on this, CharterFolk?

If there are no problems in public education, we don’t even need to be here.

Our movement is predicated upon the notion that there are massive problems in our public education system.

The first problem is that our public schools simply aren’t good enough.  And, by design, they are structurally prevented from getting better.

Reed did a good of job explaining this reality during a keynote he made at the CCSA conference in 2014.

As Reed puts it, the role of charter schools is to “evolve America” so that our public schools are able to become as good as we need them to be.

The second problem, in my opinion, is even more important than the first.

It’s that our Establishment schools are simply not fair. 

They are not equitable.  They do not reflect our values.  They are not aligned with our sense of social justice.  They by design systematically allocate better service and opportunity to kids and families of means than they do to kids and families with fewer advantages. 

This was the theme of Kandice Sumner’s awesome Ted Talk in 2015.

As Kandice puts it:

“If we really, as a country, believe that education is the ‘great equalizer,’ then it should be just that: equal and equitable. Until then, there’s no democracy in our democratic education.” 


Our public education system was supposed to be a great force for helping kids and families overcome unfairness and inequity.  Goodness knows the United States has a lot of unfairness and inequity to make up for.  This is one of the reasons that we have such a reverence for the notion of public education in our country.

But sadly, over the generations, Establishment schools have become one of the strongest forces perpetuating and deepening the very same unfairness and inequity that they are supposed to root out.

In other words, our public schools, unfortunately, have turned out to be just not that public.

And the role of charter schools is to “evolve America” such that our public school system becomes the greatly more public one we all need it to be.

These are two fundamental truths CharterFolk have known from the beginning.  

Aside from the families and kids who themselves most directly suffer from the failings of our public education system, we see the problems in public education more up close and personal than anyone else.

And that has led to us be absolutely full-throated in our rightful criticism of the education Establishment.

Some of us are as we full-throated about these problems as they ever have been.

Look what’s happened over the past year.

Howard Fuller, Richard Buery from KIPP, and many others who have been absolutely relentless with presidential candidates wanting to do away with charter schools and make millions of families from underserved backgrounds return to schools they know don’t work for their kids.

Any of you ever seen Howard being sheepish about the problems in many Establishment schools?

Yeah, right …

Just like in all my years of knowing Ricardo Mireles, the founder of Academia Avance Charter School in Los Angeles …

I’ve never known him to be sheepish.

As the New York Times article attests:

“[Mireles said] that his predominantly Latino students could not wait for school districts to fix their problems. ‘If we wait around for them to address these things, we’re writing off years, if not generations, of kids.’”

As full-throated as we’ve ever been.

Or Ian Rowe, the CEO from Public Prep …

… going directly back at Carranza on his dare to not to say anything negative about district schools.

Incredibly courageous, no doubt. 

But, CharterFolk, my question is this …

Where are the rest of us?

I mean I get the strategy. 

Get our leaders of color out front. 

We need more people of color taking leadership and being elevated generally throughout the movement.

Of course.

But being out front is a lot different than being out alone.

Not so long ago I had a conversation with someone who said that they’ve basically given up saying anything in support of charter schools in their upper middle-class neighborhood where Tesla-driving parents have suddenly taken to shaming people in supermarkets who express support for charter schools.

This is a person who I know deeply and respect immensely, someone who knows as well as anyone the problems in public education.

But not even that person dares to point out those problems in a segment of society whose public schools segregate out historically underserved kids through the use of red-lining attendance boundaries and selective admissions criteria?


We expect our leaders of color to be courageous within their own realms when the rest of us won’t do the same in ours?

I know.

We’re getting all sorts of communications advice from experts.

Don’t go negative. Don’t make it us/them. 

The public will see us as not being fair, as not caring about kids and families but about some other agenda. 

The public will doubt we care about public education at all.

But folks, this isn’t anything new.

This is how it’s always been.  And it’s never stopped us before.

We’ve always known the deeper truth: 

Which is that CharterFolk surfacing the problems we know to be true about public education is not us being unfair. 

It is not us revealing that we don’t care about public education.

It’s us demonstrating that we do.

We know that Carranza and De Blasio’s preferred world where no one talks about how schools are actually doing with kids is one where kids end up getting shafted, especially those who need better education most.

So what’s different now?

My hypothesis, having now had a chance to visit over half the states in the country since I left CCSA, having had the chance to talk to many hundreds of CharterFolk in dozens of different contexts …

… is our current reticence results from having lost something that we need.

What does anyone need to have the courage to surface a problem?

A solution.

Confidence that we have an idea that makes things better.

You know, a vision?

And yes, for many chapters that have come before, CharterFolk have had a vision.

But somewhere along the way, the world changed.  Our impact grew bigger.  The problems became even more immense.  The need for even greater solutions became more profound.

And those of us in positions of advocacy leadership …

… you know, boneheads like me …

… “stewards of the vision …”

We didn’t keep up.

Such that if we really had to stop today and ask ourselves honestly:

CharterFolk, do we really have a vision?

Do we have an end state in mind where all is made better? 

Do we have a compelling North Star toward which all of us are reaching?

We’d have to answer that we don’t.

And having lost confidence that we have a solution, we are simply not as willing as we have always been before to surface the problems.

Add to that folks like Carranza and De Blasio making their threats, for the first time in three decades many of us go quiet.

Remember on the first day of writing here at CharterFolk when I said that, similar to Brian Bennet losing his voice to ALS all those years ago, we in the charter school movement have been losing our collective voice?

This is what I’m talking about.

If we’ve got no vision, CharterFolk, we’ve got no voice.

And in my view, before we can go on to the next chapter of the charter school story, we have to find that vision and that voice again.

To be able to tell the story full-throatedly, every chapter all the way back to the very beginning, and many, many chapters far into the future.

Fully confident that we have the level of solution that the new world requires.

It starts of course, with a better understanding of where our last vision began to fall apart.

A part of the story I can’t wait to dive into next week here at CharterFolk.

Hope to see you here.