Why We Give a Damn About Charter Schools

When I first began to imagine this thing that has turned out to be CharterFolk, I envisioned a completely different kind of roll out.

And then COVID came.

And then the death of George Floyd came.

And those other plans had to be set aside.

COVID I will get to in my next post.

Today I will focus on the death of George Floyd.

In recent days I have been ruminating on the fact that George Floyd’s death happened in the very place where our movement was born.

Not just in Minnesota, the state that passed the first charter school law.

More pin-pointed than that.

When State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge was authoring the nation’s first charter school bill in Minnesota in the early 90’s, she needed a partner on the House side.

She ended up working with Representative Ken Nelson who championed a controversial last-minute amendment that enabled the bill to pass the Minnesota House.

By one vote.

The district that Nelson represented?

62A.  South Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered.

CharterFolk, when we trace our history back to its origins …

We find the same places …

… the same conditions …

… the same injustice …

… that led to George Floyd’s death.

When we reconnect to the circumstances that gave rise to us in the first place, we find a knee on the neck.

And we have seen how in figurative eight minute and forty-six second intervals over and over again black educational opportunity has been asphyxiated.

For many, a deep connection to the unfair treatment of black youth in our public education system was what led them to become CharterFolk in the first place.

Not that any started out giving a damn about charter schools.

What they cared about was justice.

Which they knew the public education system was simply not providing.

They did not need social media to make the crisis real to them. 

They had grown up within families that had been mistreated by our public schools for generations.

They had experienced it themselves as children attending those schools.

They had had to enroll their kids in those very schools they knew likely to do harm because there simply was no other option.

Many ended up working in those schools and grew to understand they had to do something different to keep the cycle from repeating.

So they became CharterFolk.

And many of them went on to become legends in our movement.

Howard Fuller
Geoffrey Canada
Linda Moore
Donald Hense
Judy Burton
John King
Johnathan Williams
Ramona Edelin
Gene and Sandra Fisher
Roblin Webb
Ramona Wilder
Florida charter school effort starting to roll - redefinED
Darryl Cobb
Margaret Fortune

And so, so many more.

They were joined by many others who had their own entry points to the work.

In my case, it was the experience of serving as a Big Brother to a black boy in Los Angeles in the early 90’s that set me on the path.

With Matthew, 1991

It was seeing how appallingly poor educational opportunity forced his mother to send him to live with family members – in a different state, no less –  just to get a decent education.

A boy, without a father, having to live away from his mother from the age of nine, simply to get a public education that many of us take for granted.

Myran and Matthew Cotton

In this case, the knee came down, but through the collective efforts of an entire extended family, the oxygen got through.

Seeing it up close and personal led me to become a teacher.

Which in turn led to me seeing conditions within our public schools that were so broken that I ultimately became a CharterFolk.

Not that I started out giving a damn about charter schools. 

What I cared about was justice.

Which I knew the public school where I was working simply wasn’t providing.

The place I turned to, the first charter school I set foot in – Fenton Avenue Charter School – changed my life. 

It is a place that has gone on to become legend in our family.

With my daughter Tess, 2017

A place to which we return again and again to relive the story.

Never before had I seen a school where oxygen seemed to fill up every classroom.

A place, finally, where all could breathe.

Fenton received approval to operate as a charter in the fall of 1993.

18 months earlier the Rodney King beating had happened.

It had occurred at Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street, within the attendance boundary of Fenton Avenue.

Fenton students and staff still live today in the apartment complex where the beating occurred.

Joe Lucente and Irene Sumida, the school’s founders, submitted their charter to the district in April of 1992.

Just days before the verdicts came down.

CharterFolk, when we trace our history back to its origins …

We find the same places …

… the conditions …

… the injustice …

… that gave rise to the beating of Rodney King …

… to the killing of George Floyd …

… and to so many other violations of common human decency that have been brought down on black people in our country.

And yes, led by those I name above and many others, we have made progress over the years.

The neighborhood around Fenton Avenue, indeed the entire North San Fernando Valley, has been transformed by the growth of great charter schools.

Across the entire school district, charter schools have grown to serve approximately one fourth of all black students, with achievement for black students in charter schools being far greater than for their counterparts in district schools.

Across all of California, charter schools excel with black students, helping them gain admission to college at rates far beyond what is seen in district schools, all while suspending black students at far lower rates.


Charter schools have also proven to be amazing incubators of talent, helping to foster the emergence of stunning leaders …

… like Margaret Fortune …

… who has become the Board Chair of the California Charter Schools Association, and has led advocacy efforts to improve education for black students in all public schools.

Margaret in the California State Capitol, 2018

Ultimately resulting in the State of California making $300 million in additional funding available to schools serving large numbers of high needs students.

The largest line item by far ever secured by the charter school association over its nearly 20 years of operations …

It’s a pattern we have seen across the country.

Charter schools generating great outcomes with black students and fostering the development of great black leaders, ultimately making things better for hundreds of thousands of black students and families.

But, ultimately, it’s not enough.

Not nearly enough.

Twenty-nine years after the birth of our movement …

Twenty-nine years after setting off from: “Can’t we all get along?”

We arrive at: “I can’t breathe.”

Compelling in CharterFolk the need to ask ourselves at whole new levels of urgency what our part is in accelerating the pace by which knees are brought off necks.

There is no easy answer, but this much I know:

The potential of the charter school movement to address the problems of civil rights and social justice that lie at the heart of our movement will not be fully unleashed by CharterFolk like me.

Of course, we must all do our part, and there are huge parts for us to play, but our greatest potential lies in supporting the leadership of other CharterFolk. 

Those whose connections to the challenges and whose understanding of possible solutions are deepest.

Our Pat Brantleys and Thabita Browns and Alton Nelsons and our Constance Jones and Yvette King-Bergs …

And oh so many more …

And if we stare ourselves in the mirror and think back over the past 30 years, we realize that while these extraordinary black CharterFolk have been able to make incredible progress …

… it is also true that they have often confronted needless challenge within our movement, have not received the support they should have …

Such that many of them at different times could rightfully have asked, perhaps should have asked …

Am I really CharterFolk, too?

And to have had just one of these leaders answer that they’re not …

To have lost just one …

Or to lose a future one …

Would be such a blow to all we stand for.

Because this much I also know:

The potential positive impact of the black leaders we already have within our movement, as well as the future black leaders we could have if we support them better, is beyond our current imagination.

It’s why …. so much ….

Black CharterFolk Matter.

They give our movement a potential orders of magnitude greater than we would otherwise have.

CharterFolk, when we trace our movement forward to one of its fullest expressions …

When we see the places …

… that our black leaders will lead us to …

… where oxygen flows to black educational opportunity unlike anything our nation has ever seen before …

… helping put to an end once and for all that which has been experienced by George Floyd …

… by Rodney King …

… and by so many more …

… we understand anew and feel as deeply as we ever have before …

Why we all give a damn about charter schools.

And we find in ourselves what the moment requires.

A deeper embrace of every CharterFolk from every walk of charter life.

Leading to an even deeper level of shared commitment.

To push through the challenges that lie before us.

The challenges of living within a country that still has massive debts of history to repay.

As well as the challenges of being part of a movement that is often opposed for reasons that are simply on the wrong side of history.

So that all of us together …

… CharterFolk of every background …

 … bring about as quickly and as fully as it can possibly be brought about …

… that which we all strive for:


Welcome to CharterFolk

Welcome to CharterFolk.

You will find here that I often pose a question and then try to answer it.  I’ll start today with this one:

So what is CharterFolk?

It’s a place for the people who are the heart of the charter school movement.

Full stop.

It’s a place for us to convene, to improve our collective intuition about the path forward, and to deepen our commitment to one another and to our shared mission, which is to improve public education for absolutely all students and families in the United States.

Another way to say it, is that CharterFolk is a place where those from our world come together to express anew and hear anew our collective voice …

I start out the work on CharterFolk remembering well the promise I made when I set out on my last big undertaking.

It was December 6, 2008 at about 9:00 in the morning.  I was in my office at High Tech High.  I got a call from Chris Nelson at the Fisher Fund letting me know on behalf of the CCSA Board of Directors that I had been selected to serve as the next CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.

It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

After I got off the phone, I called my wife.  I walked next door to my old boss Larry Rosenstock’s office to let him know.  Then I shut off my cell phone.

And I drove to Brian Bennett’s house.

Brian was my very close friend and mentor, a leader in the charter school movement who was in the final stages of ALS.  Among the final professional gestures that Brian made was to serve as a reference to the CCSA Board regarding my application.

Brian was as strong a warrior for kids and families and underserved communities as anyone I have ever known.  He was also among the most passionately articulate people I had ever met, always able to use his amazing gift with words to advance the interests of kids and charter schools.

And so it was incredibly ironic and cruel that Brian contracted the form of ALS that goes after the voice first, and so for much of his final months he was unable to speak. 

Our conversations near the end included him typing out the first letters of charter school names until I could recognize them and give him an update.

G-O-M …

Gompers?  Brian, let me tell you the latest I know about Gompers.

F-I-V …

Five Keys?  Let me tell you about their school.

And so on and so on.  School after school. 

Aside from the love of his family and friends, it was what mattered most to him all the way until the very end – the potential of charter schools to make things better for everyone.

It was something he could no longer express himself personally because the terrible disease had taken one of our most precious gifts, the voice of Brian Bennett.

And so, when I got to Brian’s house that morning, after letting him know the news, I promised him that, “for however long I might serve in this role, I will make sure that the voice of Brian Bennet will be forever heard.”

During my nearly 10 years at CCSA, there were a number of difficult hours where I found great inspiration in the example that Brian had set for me, and the promise I made to him served as a scaffold upon which I summoned a level of resiliency I did not know existed within me.

And as I hope those around me would attest, I kept my promise to Brian up to my last hours on the job at CCSA, living out an allegiance to the things that Brian held most important as a way of making sure that his voice was forever heard.

But since leaving CCSA, the experience of driving to Brian’s house and making that promise has surfaced in my thoughts again and again.

I remember it so distinctly.

Not … “for as long as I am the CEO of CCSA.”

But … “for as long as I would serve in this role.”

Why did I word my promise to him like that?

A simple quirk of language?

Or an ambiguity that compels me onto something more?

Because my sense now, having cogitated on this for many months, is that, while my time at CCSA is behind me, “the role” I referred to that morning at Brian’s is not.

The promise is not complete. 

In the same way that a dreadful disease had taken something from Brian, my sense now is that something has been dreadfully taken from us all.

The blowback, the questioning of our motives, the outright attacks against us, even amid this terrible pandemic that we are all living through now.

What has happened to us?

Many of us have gone quiet, or at least quieter.

So much so that it’s fair to ask whether we have lost our voice altogether.

And because of some quirk of fate, because of the incredible opportunities that have been afforded me over the years, I have been able to be there in intimate settings with those who believe in the potential of the charter school movement.

I’ve seen many of us at the end of our stamina tapping out their letters one by one …

I have seen the amazing commitment that people bring.  I have heard the incredible stories they tell and I have recognized how those stories are actually deeply connected, aggregate to something coherent, something that could, if properly summoned and curated into a kind of chorus, amount to a pointing of the way forward for us all.

Not just the voice of Brian Bennett.  But the voice of people like Brian.  Thousands of people.  CharterFolk.

A role.

One that has not ended.

One that has, if anything, only grown.

And taking on this role anew, my promise to you is the same that I made to Brian all those years ago.

To make sure that the Voice of CharterFolk shall be forever heard.

And in thinking about doing this, I aim not for something that will come and go, but something built to last around a community. 

That’s why I’m adopting a subscription model, one that is becoming common these days – people within various communities coalescing around certain writers. During the COVID era, I’ll make all subscriptions free and ask only those in a position to contribute to do so. 

The most important thing is to assemble a community of readers who have actively chosen to take part, a community large and diverse enough to spark the special kind of conversation our movement so needs of at this critical moment.

For those of you who subscribe, you will receive regular CharterFolk updates from me.  For everyone else, you will be able to access occasional articles that will be made available to all on the CharterFolk website.

My hope is that working hard to build a subscribing readership, I can create a platform that will allow CharterFolk to long endure. And I’m excited and humbled about the position from which we start – subscribers from every walk of charter life coming from as many states as we have charter school laws. 

But to make sure that the voice of CharterFolk is heard at the level that the times require, we need so many more. That’s why I ask all of you to please forward this message to all you consider CharterFolk and encourage them to subscribe using this link so that the community might grow.

To those many of you who are already helping spread the word, I say thank you!

I look forward to seeing you next time when I will address the following question:

So, Just What is it that We CharterFolk are Trying to Do?