Observations Heading Into Conference – Not Rocket Science, Just Structure, Leadership and Support

Good morning, CharterFolk.

So we head into national conference week, the first we’ve had in person in three years. Much has changed since last we gathered, putting into sharper repose the essential things we need to do to succeed as a movement. The most important question that presents itself, at least as far as I see it, is whether we are simply going to go forward and do the things we know need to be done.

Sometimes big conferences are just opportunities for our world to get back together and knit tighter relationships. Other times, conferences can be moments when enough presentations and formal meetings and hallway discussions happen that we can shift the entire movement to push forward on the most important things.

Here’s to hoping that this year’s conference turns out to be one where we do both.


One of the most important questions confronting us right now is whether we are going to finally put in place the advocacy infrastructure we need to survive and thrive for the long term. As I have been writing for a couple years now, this isn’t rocket science.

We need what the other side has.

  • They have the NEA/AFT which is formally affiliated with state unions, which are, in turn, formally affiliated with city-based unions. The entire infrastructure is fed by recurring revenues from members. While it can be messy sometimes, they make governance structures that formally empower their constituents such that they can make shared decisions that are recognized to be representative and legitimate. Finally, they have the capacity to work on both policy matters and political matters.
  • We need our National Alliance to become a membership organization, which is affiliated with our state associations, which are, in turn, affiliated with city or other regional associations (in those areas where we have enough charter schools to make viable regional organizations). We need recurring dues levels within these structures to be large enough to provide organizational heft and capacity, and we need governance structures to make shared decisions that feel representative and legitimate. And, of course, we need our infrastructure to be able to work on both policy matters and political matters.

Again, not rocket science.

We will see whether this year’s conference puts more energy behind building this infrastructure or not.

A comment from a reader about my post from Friday relates to this topic. He pointed out that, given that I had written about how unwise it was for Randi Weingarten in her recent op-ed in EdWeek to pick a fight with charter schools on the subject of city impact at a moment when new research is showing that charter schools are having positive impact in city after city, I really should have highlighted that 10 mayors from across the United States issued a new joint letter last week expressing their strong opposition to the administration’s proposed new CSP regs.

He was absolutely right.

Mayors are in positions that naturally lead them to become more supportive of education reform. Many of them are sophisticated enough politically to see that their local school districts are hopelessly broken and need something like a charter school movement to wake the whole system up to new levels of hope and possibility. They also tend to be just enough outside the machine of local public education politics that they can say and do things in their local landscapes that others can’t.

So it isn’t surprising that many of the charter school movement’s strongest supporters have been people like Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Bloomberg and Adrian Fenty who have served as mayors of major American cities. Another great example is Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, who currently serves on the board of the National Alliance.

Across the country right now, we see mayors …

… having to grapple …

… with high levels of dysfunction …

… within their local schools.

Generally, protectors of the public education Establishment don’t like mayors having say over what happens in public schools.

Thus they’re often vying …

… to wrest control away from mayors.

In some places like DC, the fate of mayoral control over schools is being shaped by elections that will play out while we are at conference.

Ultimately, sadly, the problems in urban school districts are only going to become worse in the years ahead. As that happens, it is inevitable that even more mayors will recognize that charter schools present a unique reason for hope that structural, long-term, city-wide improvement of public education is possible. As they turn to us, we need to be ready. The most important need, of course, will be making sure that we have the strong charter school operators who can create great new schools when called upon. But we will also need whole new levels of advocacy effectiveness ready for those cities as well.


Fortunately, since we last met in person at conference, we have been doing some things right, like making sure that more of our advocacy efforts, including advocacy efforts at a regional level, are being led by amazingly capable leaders of color. Some of those leaders have had a chance to share thoughts with CharterFolk readers over the past year.

Leaders like Ariel Johnson …


.. who is now leading the DC Charter School Alliance‘s 501c4 organization that is playing a major role in the elections happening in DC this week.

Leaders like Daiana Lambrecht from Rocketship …

… whose team last month …

… hosted a mayoral candidates forum in San Jose …

… that was attended by over a thousand parents.

Leaders like Anthony Wilson from Equity in Education …

… who just last week penned a great contributor column here at CharterFolk about how the power of parents can be brought into school board elections and other political races playing out in Atlanta.

The same city where Shirley Franklin served as mayor.


To my mind anyway, there isn’t any question whether Anthony has the potential to make a massive impact in the years ahead. The question is whether he will be supported at the level needed to enable that massive impact.

And to an important degree that will be determined by whether our Atlantans become more tightly connected. Will Shirley’s efforts at the Alliance and Anthony’s at the city level become affiliated, integrated and mutually reinforcing, such that we are fundamentally better able to meet the advocacy needs of students and families at all levels – national, state and local?

For years now, this hasn’t even been a question worth asking because we didn’t have the heft, and because the movement hadn’t evolved enough to be ready.

But now we have.

It’s been three years since we’ve gotten together in person.

Much has changed, and now we can see.

The only question that remains is:

Will we go forward and do the things we know need to be done?