CharterFolk Chat #3 – Nina Rees on the Importance of Having a Clear North Star

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I’m delighted to be able to share our third CharterFolk Chat, this one with Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Here is how I introduced Nina in the interview:

I am a very big fan of Nina Rees …. I was on the Board of the National Alliance for seven years …. Nina came into the organization at a key moment of vulnerability. There was a question about whether the Alliance should even exist as an organization. And I will let CharterFolk know that … Nina brought a gravitas, a smarts, a commitment, and a quiet resolve that answered that question in a matter of just a few months. And then, in the years after that, Nina assembled a team and built strength which has resulted in a number of very important wins for charter schools at a federal level. Also in the last … four years, Nina has … managed this balance of having a relationship with this administration, while at the same time letting the administration know on many occasions that what it was standing for are things counter to what many CharterFolk think acceptable. It has been a very difficult balance to strike, and I don’t know anyone who could have struck it as well as Nina has. So for all sorts of reasons, I have nothing but respect and affection for Nina Reese and total gratitude that you are here with us for our third CharterFolk chat.

Nina shared smart observations throughout the interview. I hope you will have a chance to listen to it in its entirety, but for those who would like to know where to dive in, I provide a summary of some of the highlights below:

  • At the 3:50 mark, Nina starts with the good news, providing the latest information about charter school enrollment and highlighting places like DC where charter school growth has resulted in public education improving for all students.
  • At the 8:00 point, Nina acknowledges the great blowback we are facing but she reminds us all that “the reason that things are getting tougher … is because we are having an impact.”
  • At the 10:45 mark, Nina agrees that discussions about racial justice happening in our country after the death of George Floyd will ultimately affect policy discussion about public education, but she shares her dismay that this has not happened already at the level of urgency she thinks appropriate.
  • At 14:45, Nina recounts her entry point to the work in the 1990’s and shares her belief that “the coalition that brought us to this place, will not take us to the next level.”
  • At the 20:00 mark, Nina describes how charter schools’ innovative nature has allowed us to pivot more quickly to do what kids and families need during the COVID crisis.
  • At the 27:00 point, Nina agrees with me that we need to be working to achieve a new narrative for charter schools, but rather than seeing a different policy agenda to be the key driver of the narrative, she sees the need for more robust communications channels. She also advises against any approach that would identify school districts as the enemy.
  • At 36:45, Nina observes that some advocacy and communications efforts will resonate more with policy makers than parents. For parents, she recommends that we continue to highlight that charter schools are able to make programs suited to the unique needs of individual students.
  • At 39:28, in response to my prod that the Alliance should become a membership organization in order to better anchor our national advocacy and political infrastructure, Nina shares that this is something the organization is currently considering, but she thinks it is not a good idea to make decisions about infrastructure before identifying the long-term goal toward which we are working.
  • At 41:40, Nina underscores how important it is for advocacy organizations to have C4s and PACs and to be building political infrastructure proactively so that we have it when the need arises.
  • At 45:20, Nina identifies one of the National Alliance’s biggest value-adds to be the information sharing and communication support the organization provides to state associations across the country.
  • At 49:15, Nina says she is “not a fan of pitting one sector against another, but I do think you need to articulate what you are trying to do, and to the extent that that vision is grander and better than what we have, people are going to start following you in that direction.”
  • It culminates with Nina at 50:10 underscoring how we have to be “clearer about our North Star and painting that image of what we are trying to achieve.”

Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Without a clear North Star, my sense is that our movement is in grave peril, and I am greatly heartened to know that Nina is doing all she can to help our movement define that overarching goal toward which we are all aspiring.

It’s yet another reason I thank Nina for her strong leadership of the Alliance. I also thank her for appearing with us here at CharterFolk.

Larry Rosenstock’s Most Oft Repeated Story – Two Kinds of People in the World

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Thanks for your many compliments about Scott Pearson’s great post yesterday. Thanks also to several new subscribers. For those of you who have been meaning to subscribe but haven’t yet, I encourage you to do so here.

Update Summary: Today I recount how Larry Rosenstock used to share a story about the dangers of presenting the world in dualisms. Charter schools are experiencing challenges designed to make us think in dualistic terms, which runs the risk of dividing us. Unity grows out of CharterFolk coming together around a table to make shared plans for the future. CharterFolk is intended to encourage that very thing.

On to the update.

Among a ridiculous abundance of blessings I’ve had working in Charterland over the years, near the top of the list is the fact that I had the chance to work at High Tech High for five years in the office next to Larry Rosenstock’s.

Charterfolk, I defy you:

Just try to spend five hours, never mind five years, working in close collaboration with Larry Rosenstock and not come away a changed person for the better.

Just try to occupy the office next to Larry’s for any period of time and not come away a person even more motivated and prepared to go out and make our public schools do right by kids.

He has had that impact not just on me, but on thousands of educators over the years.

It’s why it was just so great to see that, in Larry’s final year at High Tech High, he was honored with the Wise Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award in the world for educators.

And it’s why I am delighted that Larry is going to do our CharterFolk Chat in December. What a lot of fun that’s going to be!

But of late I have found myself thinking a lot again about Larry’s most oft-repeated story.

He used to say that his grandmother told him that there are two kinds of people in this world. People who will tell you that there are two kinds of people in this world. And people who won’t.

He would always tell the story as a cautionary tale against presenting the world in dualisms because those dualisms are almost always false.

In those first months after leaving High Tech High in my new position at CCSA, I found myself gravitating to Larry’s most oft repeated story.

So much so that it became my most oft repeated story.

It was natural that I did so because when I would meet CharterFolk who didn’t know me yet, many would present questions featuring a seemingly never-ending series of dualisms:

Do you care about CMOs or do you care about single sites?

Do you care about classroom-based schools or virtual schools?

Do you care about Los Angeles or the rest of the state?

Do you care about funders or members?

Do your care about growth or quality?

And so on and so on …

One of the things I was happiest about during my time at CCSA (at least from my vantage point) was that the frequency of CharterFolk using dualisms to describe our movement decreased. We demonstrated through our actions that these dualisms were in fact false.

Many of the single site operators who spoke so harshly about CMOs not so long before went on themselves to open their second, third and fourth schools. Conversion operators began doing their own startups. Startups started doing conversions. Classroom based schools started going hybrid. “Non-classroom based” programs built a heck of a lot of school facilities. Funders and members came to share more and more decision-making authority in structures set up across the state. And many of the growth vs quality discussions subsided during a period when charter schools grew rapidly while improving academically.

It may be that there’s something about changing jobs that makes dualisms come up in conversation more frequently. You spend more time with people who don’t know you as well, so they test you with questions aimed to pin you down. So maybe that’s why I’m hearing more dualisms again.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

More likely is the fact that something is happening in the landscape that is leading us unconsciously to fall back on dualisms. Namely, the Establishment is subjecting us to a level of attack unlike anything we have seen before. It is a divide and conquer strategy designed to separate us into factions and make us consider whether in fact the dualisms might be true. When the attacks are focused on some particular category of charter school, it’s natural that some of us want to say we aren’t that kind of charter school.

We’re not a CMO.

We’re not a virtual school.

We’re not no excuses.

We’re not credit recovery …

We’re not. We’re not. We’re not.

It’s gotten to the point some of us don’t want to call ourselves charter schools at all any more.

We take mention of them off our websites. Or we call ourselves by some other name.

Renaissance Schools. Innovation schools. Mayoral Academies.

Which I get. You see a chance to grow a bunch of new charter schools by another name, who wouldn’t when our kids and families so desperately need better options right now?

But we also have to realize that in so doing we increase our exposure to the risk of dualism, which would undermine our greatest source of strength, our potential to stand together as a united movement.

And all I know from my years of work at CCSA and in many other contexts since then is that the only thing that keeps the dualisms false …

… is CharterFolk getting around a table, realizing again that anything separating us is insignificant in comparison to that which draws us together, and uniting again behind a shared vision that will lift our movement to even higher levels of impact in the future.

It’s what CharterFolk is all about – just my small part in helping us come together around a table set to keep the dualisms false.

And if done right, along the way it will serve as a reminder of the blessing that so many of us have found in Charterland – the chance to work one office over from other stunning CharterFolk who have left us better people even more motivated and prepared to go out and make sure our nation’s schools do right by kids.