What the Charter School Movement Has to Learn from UkraineFolk

Good morning CharterFolk, 

I send this post just 24 hours after a leader has made a series of threats against the world community graver than any other threats most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes.

The subject for today’s column is the factor that has led this leader to find himself in the situation where he feels he has no other choice but to begin making such unconscionable threats.

Before identifying that factor, I want to make the following points unmistakably clear: 

  • I do not believe that the charter school movement is in a war. 
  • I do not believe that war terminology is generally wise to apply to the struggle that we are engaged in. 
  • I do not believe that the forces that we contend with are anything like the forces that Ukraine is currently struggling against.
  • I certainly do not believe that issues of right and wrong are as black and white in education reform as they are in the military conflict that is playing out in Europe today.  
  • I recognize that we in the charter school movement do not have a monopoly on virtue but have demonstrated many shortcomings across our three decades of existence.
  • Nor do I believe that the vast majority of people working within traditional public schools are anything other than societal heroes whose efforts should be honored.
  • Finally, I do not assert that the personal stakes we confront in our work even remotely approach the stakes that people in Ukraine are encountering every day.

With all that said, I think it necessary to point out that the last six months in Ukraine have offered us a reminder of a fundamental truth: 

Folk matter. 

People who deeply believe in what they are doing …

People who are deeply committed to a cause that they believe to be bigger than themselves …

… Folk …

… really matter.

They matter so much that a force that many thought simply insurmountable has been stopped and has been made to retreat.

That supposedly insurmountable force had many advantages in capacities and resources and sheer numbers. 

But it lacked the key factor that the Ukranians have had.

Folk.

It is a lesson that, prior to the war, the entire world had forgotten, or had not paid enough attention to.

But now the world has seen.

Just as we should see, we in the charter school movement.

Because we too have gone through a period of failing to properly value the importance of Folk.

The presence of Folk has been a hallmark of the charter school movement going back to our earliest days.  

In fact, it was the presence of Folk that made us a movement in the first place.

Without their belief that they were part of something bigger, we would never have made the progress that we have over the past 30 years, postured against a force whose capacities and resources relative to ours make them as insurmountable as those that have confronted Ukraine.

Now we are living through a period where many new forces have come together, testing whether we will continue thinking of ourselves as Folk.

Some are forces that have been outside our control.

  • Adversaries investing tens of millions of dollars to spread messages misrepresenting our movement in hopes of dissuading people from wanting to be part of it. 
  • New political figures emerging who many of us find simply unacceptable, and who have wrapped themselves in the charter school flag such that some question whether they are any longer willing to stand beneath that banner. 
  • A global pandemic occurring which has accelerated a transition in leadership happening within our movement such that some wonder whether our new leaders will be as deeply committed as those who came before.

While all these challenges are pronounced, none of them are ones we cannot transcend.

There is, however, a fourth force that has been at play …

… one that has been within our control …

… which represents by orders of magnitude, a far graver threat.

It has been our conscious collective decision to downplay our Folk-ness.

Our decision to stop asserting that there is something about our work that is on the right side of history because we inhabit a world where, sadly, our supposedly public schools are barely so.

It is our decision to stop making the case that, rather than public education helping our country overcome historical unfairness, it has become, sadly, one of the greatest perpetuators of that very unfairness.

And it is to stop asserting that the charter school movement exists to force public education to evolve into that fairer, much better thing we need it to be, for absolutely all kids, of course, but especially for those who need better public education most.

In going quiet about these underlying conditions which gave birth to our movement in the first place, we risk disgorging ourselves of the noble purpose that we have felt part of …

… that has made us Folk.

And now we see, we will either reconnect again to those deep bearings that make us all Folk or we will not succeed.

Indeed, for most of us, if we ever get to the point where it becomes resolved that we’re not Folk after all …

… if ever it is demonstrated that we’re not all involved in an effort bigger than ourselves …

… but are just part of some new trade group or some other parochial self-interest …

… well, most of us wouldn’t even want us to succeed.

I know I wouldn’t.

It is why, of all the challenges and threats that our movement faces, above all others is the possibility that we fail to recognize at the deepest level possible the lesson coming out of Ukraine.

That Folk matter.

Should we take to heart that which UkraineFolk have shown us, it will be clear what we need to do.

To bind up again more deeply our commitment to being CharterFolk …

… and galvanizing others to become CharterFolk as well …

… by speaking forthrightly and unapologetically about the great task that we are privileged to take on.

Prior to what we have seen in Ukraine, I would not have used the language that I do today.

But I have been profoundly aware that our movement was needing something more.  

Something new.

And so we made CharterFolk.

I do not at all believe that what we offer here is anything close to the level of effort that is required.

But I hope that it has been a start.

And that from this beginning, in some small way we might have helped you find anew …

… or to find at some slightly deeper level … 

… that which makes you Folk …

… that which makes you CharterFolk …

… and perhaps might have helped prepare you ever so slightly to better take on the immense challenge that lies before us … 

… building the one thing we will need above all others if we are ultimately going to prevail against a force so many to this day believe to be insurmountable …

… our next generations of CharterFolk.

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem – Our Advocacy Now is Unimaginative

Good day, CharterFolk.

I thought I’d share a comment we received from a CharterFolk reader about Wednesday’s post.

This is one of the best pieces of reporting I have read in a long time …. I worked for LAUSD from 1988 to 2015 and reading your piece was like reading my personal history. Thank you for this article.  I will be sharing it wide and far.   

I have had several other kind notes like this come in about the post, which I appreciate a great deal. I try to put a lot into every column I do here at CharterFolk, but this was one that, being an old wrestler, I admit having “gone to the mat” for.

But therein lies the problem because, ironically, the extra effort resulted in many of you not getting a chance to see it. The thing was so long with so many links and screenshots that it essentially broke our system. Many readers, I have learned, had it get caught up in spam folders or had it just plain blocked.

So if you didn’t get a chance to read it, I encourage you to take a look at the version that’s on the web.

Amy told me that it took her a full twenty minutes to read the whole darn thing. (I know. I can be positively insufferable.) But another subscriber told me she was able to thumb through it all in less than a minute and still get the gist of the entire article because of all the images that are embedded in it.

That’s why I do it this way, offering an entry point for those of you who are gluttons for punishment and want to endure every word, and for the rest of you, providing a way to get a decent sense of the whole thing in a matter of seconds.

As I have said here many times over the past two and a half years, there is no way that I could have made CharterFolk without the IT consulting support I have received from Daniel Assisi at Copernicus Solutions. He and his team have worked at rates that have been a fraction of their normal ones. They do it because they’re CharterFolk, and they’re really good at what they do for schools, advocacy organizations and other nonprofits connected to education.

So now they’ll go and look for a solution to this problem too.

They know that the easy solution – that I just cut back on how much I write or how many images and links I embed in posts – won’t be something I will entertain.

That would mean that some of the posts that CharterFolk readers have told me they like the most …

… like this one about the amazing day we had in Washington in May

… or this one that dove into counterintuitive political dynamics in Texas and elsewhere …

… or this one that went into depth about the amazing life of Howard Fuller …

… wouldn’t be possible to send anymore.

So we’ll keep refining our ways in order keep getting things out.

This much I will say, though.

When we crossed the 5,000 reader threshold a few weeks back, our email platform congratulated us by bumping up our bill by a thousand bucks a year, and we know it will go even higher after we cross 10,000 readers which looks likely to happen soon.

Resources do matter here.

So if you haven’t gotten in your paid subscription yet, please do so today. Or if you come from a place that would like an organizational subscription in order to get large numbers of Folk access to our posts, ping me here at Jed@charterfolk.org.

With each of us doing our part, we can make CharterFolk something that can long endure.

Let’s get on to today’s update

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem – Our Advocacy Now is Unimaginative

For several weeks I’ve been wanting to focus on this story.

An enterprising board member at the Houston Independent School District, without support from charter school advocates, decided to bring a proposal to the HISD board that would empower parents to convert their school to charter school status if 60% of the parents vote for such a change.

Predictably, status quo interests went apoplectic, leading within a few days to the board tabling discussion of the proposal.

The teacher union, of course hailed the proposal’s demise.

It reveals a fundamental truth we have learned about parent empowerment proposals over the years:

The parent-trigger triggers the status quo.

They know how vulnerable they are if they are seen to be opposing the will of super-majorities of parents.

They know how anti-parent … … how anti-democratic they would appear …

… if the public were able to focus on the substance of what is contained within parent-empowerment proposals.

So they do anything they can to impede the public from focusing on substance.

Thus all the theater: traipse out their bolden policy makers to trumpet their indignation; surface “what-about” problems in charter schools meant to re-direct attention; megaphone again all their outright lies and myths about charter schools …

… so much so that neutral parties often end up thinking they’ve got to remind the public about the truth.

Over the years, Establishment defenders have gotten good at this.

They create such hyper-radioactivity about anything related to parent-empowerment proposals that any parents in support are so intimidated they keep mum.

And no charter school operators in their right minds wants their organizations going within miles of all the controversy.

We end up with a cumulative result that’s clearly a net negative from a communications perspective.

  • High profile visuals conveying an inaccurate sense that big numbers of people love traditional public schools just the way they are.
  • A cautionary tale for courageous policy makers considering bringing forward proposals that contradict status quo orthodoxy.
  • Yet another example of parents wanting something better for their kids not being seen at all, contributing to a misperception that such parents literally don’t exist.

In the end, the very real problems in traditional public schools get even less attention than they did before.

It’s an outcome that is nearly identical to what has been achieved by the other major ed reform push of late in Houston that could have resulted in many more families getting access to high quality charter schools:

The state’s attempted takeover of HISD …

… which, like the parent empowerment proposal, caused enormous backlash …

… and despite having helped surface the appallingly poor service that many students are receiving in HISD …

… charges that are now widely acknowledged …

… among many other grave failings of students and families …

… has achieved, at least thus far, very little …

… with more people focused on the drama surrounding the takeover attempt, rather than the woeful underlying conditions that gave rise to it.

Taken from a broader perspective, it’s easy to understand why policy makers would want to see more of Houston’s students served by charter schools. Controlling for demographics, Houston’s charter schools are performing far better than traditional public schools.

And only 7% of students residing within the district attend charter schools. So there are clearly tens of thousands of students and families who would benefit.

Aside from conflicted defenders of the status quo, who wouldn’t want more Houston kids attending charter schools?

The problem is that policy makers have very little fresh thinking about how to advance policies that would bring about that desired outcome. So they end up dusting off ideas that are a decade and a half old.

California’s first parent trigger law passed in 2010.

Achievement school districts (ASD) laws and other state takeover laws got jumpstarted just around the same time.

And clearly, over the years, both parent empowerment and ASD laws have resulted in thousands of students across the country receiving better education than they otherwise would have.

I’ve been to some of the schools that were enabled due to these changes in law.

Aside from a few conflicted members of the status quo, who wouldn’t want more kids going to a place like Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, California …

Who wouldn’t want more kids going to a place like Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis?

But it’s also true, that the policy initiatives enabling these schools have not had the overall impact we desired.

Nor do they seem likely to achieve the scope of change we need today.

It’s why I say:

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Our advocacy is unimaginative.

Our policy ideas lack creativity right when we need it most.

We have a rapidly changing world in public education.

The pandemic has exposed problems and inequities in traditional public schools that many parents and the broader public have seen for the first time.

Major urban school districts including Houston have lost massive numbers of students.

The level of disruption that has come, and that is yet to come, to large city school systems across the country is without precedent.

Parents are desperate for new options. Many are attempting to take the situation into their own hands.

And what do we have to offer them?

The same policy ideas that we’ve been throwing out for decades?

The same ones that status quo protectors have gotten very good at opposing?

Ideas that are politically fraught, and complicated, and offer delayed new opportunity, when families are desperate for something better right now?

It’s why it behooves us to remember that the problem that gave rise to the original call to Houston was ultimately solved through a now legendary demonstration of imagination and creativity.

Brainstorming.

And smarts.

And good old fashioned duct tape.

It is time, CharterFolk, for us to start creating a new era of policy proposal “moonshots.”

Doing some brainstorming of our own ..

  • Erasing educational redlines by obligating all schools and all school districts to serve students from outside their attendance boundaries, and by providing low income parents statistical advantages in lotteries for admission to those schools.
  • Providing transportation vouchers to parents wanting to get their kids to school through whatever safe means available to them.

Throwing in a few smarts …

  • Forcing school districts to approve budgets down to the school level so that parents can see whether their school is spending money on their kids like it is supposed to.
  • Empowering parents to get third-party analyses of how much more money their school would have to spend on students if it converted to charter status.

And a whole lot of duct tape …

  • Empowering pods of parents with presumptive approvals, and presumptive access to facilities if they to come together to propose new micro schools
  • Empowering teachers and school principals with presumptive approvals and presumptive access to facilities if they come together to propose new micro schools.
  • Creating planning grants to any group of parents and teachers who come together to propose the creation of new schools.
  • Requiring school districts to provide any public school – charter or traditional – that has more students applying than there are spaces available the facilities they need to grow, not next decade, but now.

And these are the ideas that come from just one CharterFolk talking off the top of his head.

Imagine what our policy agendas would look like if we begin to tap our single greatest resource …

the collective imagination of all CharterFolk.

Houston needs that collective imagination.

Every place does.

Come on, CharterFolk.