The Biggest News You Probably Missed This Week – A New Democratic Party Platform Just Embraced Charter Schools, How it Happened and the 6 Things We Do Now

Good morning, CharterFolk.

We have some encouraging news out of Washington this week. Natalie Hester, who CharterFolk readers may remember shared a great Contributor Column in the fall about how moral arguments are not enough, and charter schools must build the raw advocacy and political power needed to push through change …

… the same Natalie we hailed a few months later as “rising” …

… for having helped orchestrate an exquisite editorial from the Seattle Times that did more than just make the moral argument …

… putting Washington charter schools on the cusp of achieving its first funding equity win in years …

… was named this week to be the Co-CEO at the Washington Association.

Rising indeed!

Congratulations, Natalie!

Let’s get on to today’s post.

A New Democratic Party Platform Just Embraced Charter Schools, How it Happened and the 6 Things We Do Now

I find it surprising that our world has not been paying more attention to a recent development I consider quite significant. As some of you may know, the California Democratic Party approved a new platform last week.

Most of the mainstream press attention related to the platform has focused on divisions within the party that were made plain at the convention …

… where apparently the progressives lost out.

What has drawn virtually no attention, except for an astute op-ed from Margaret Fortune, the CEO at Fortune School

… is the fact that the party’s positions on public education have shifted. As Margaret describes it:

Among the amendments put forth by the CDP Black Caucus and adopted by delegates at the Party’s state convention is language calling on Democrats to “support all public school options that provide the parents and guardians of Black or African American, American Indian and Alaskan Native students access to high quality educational alternatives to close achievement gaps.” 

Going into detail included within a statement released by the CDP Black Caucus, we see that the platform’s language regarding charter schools has been adjusted as follows:

Before I dive into the significance of the language itself, it’s worth talking about why this matters at all, because I know there are likely many of you out there thinking:

California’s Democratic Party Platform? Really? That’s not just inside baseball. It’s inside Single-A baseball.

And that may be true. But as is often the case in matters related to securing policy wins and political wins for charter schools, the keys to victory are often found within the Single-A playbook. And the harsh truth is that, in many contexts, Single-A hasn’t been a game we’ve been playing at all.

And so we have lost.

And it has cost us.

Significantly.

In 2016-18 in California, CTA ramped up its effort to destroy charter schools. Their attack focused a great deal on the governor’s race, but attacking the Democratic Party Platform was another of their major priorities. In fact, in some ways , the attack that was contained within their platform strategy went further than their other attacks. One of its central thrusts was calling for charter schools to only be operated by “public and elected school boards.”

To put the scope of this attack in perspective, in California, about a thousand charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations with self-appointing boards. About 300 are operated by school districts that have elected school boards. What the party platform did was call for the thousand schools operated by nonprofit boards to either be closed or to have their management shifted to school district boards, which would mean that all charter schools in California would cease to operate independent from school districts.

Essentially, it was a party platform to do away with the charter school movement altogether.

We got wind of the change before it was approved, and we did what we could, organizing a protest at the convention …

… where the crowd of marchers was long enough to encircle the convention center.

We also placed some op-eds.

But in the end it didn’t make much difference. We had gotten involved at the very end of the process when only one convention-wide vote on the whole platform remained. The idea that we were going to get the entire party platform unwound over charter school matters at the last second just wasn’t realistic. So it was approved.

A few years later, we encountered a similar problem at the national level. Over just one electoral cycle, the National Democratic Party in 2020 pivoted away from the Obama-era position of supporting the opening of thousands of additional charter schools and embraced instead a platform committed to doing away with federally funded charter school growth and to choking off charter schools’ access to Title I and other federal dollars.

After the election, that platform became the rule-book by which the opposition launched its national attack.

Nina and the Alliance were good in their response.

Just last week, after nine long months of dedicated advocacy, we saw a federal budget get approved with the threatening language from the 2020 Democratic Party Platform removed.

But we remain on defense, just like we have been on defense in California, because we haven’t been in the game.

The Single-A game.

Being on the inside. Proactively working within a political party to make sure that its platform is supportive of charter schools.

All that’s begun to change this year because Margaret and a group of Democrat CharterFolk have shown us a new way forward.

They became party delegates. They got themselves appointed to the right committees. And they worked strategically with key partners like the DCP Black Caucus. And after attending months of hearings, they made their proposed changes to the platform language, and their committees approved them. From there, the new language went to the convention floor where charter school opponents attempted to get the whole platform rejected at the last moment. But just like what happened to us in 2018, that just wasn’t going to happen. It was too late in the process.

There is also general sentiment in California right now that something is fundamentally askew with public education in our state.

Completely new political dynamics are emerging.

And so, a straightforward protection of the status quo, as was called for in recent California Democratic Party platforms, is simply out of touch in the current environment. Thus, the new language prevailed.

Is it perfect? Not even close. It still has bad provisions designed to make it easier to unionize charter school teachers, among other weaknesses. But the frontal attack against the very existence of charter schools – that our schools can only be operated by “public and elected boards” – has been erased. And particular support for charter schools providing improved academic opportunity to historically underserved students has been restored.

Now, obviously, progress on a political party’s platform language, in and of itself, will not solve all the problems that charter schools face in California and beyond. But the breakthrough is an important step that surfaces six essential truths that we all should be keeping in mind as we consider how best to grow advocacy strength in the years ahead.

  • First, the story underscores perhaps the most important of all truths, which is that, CharterFolk, we have to get in the game. When we do, as has been the case as we have begun taking on increased political work in recent years, we usually win. And even when we don’t win in the early going, as we stick with it supported by sustainable organizations that never go away, we learn and get better at it over time.
  • Secondly the story highlights that, while the time is always right to get in the game, the time has never been better than it is right now. Advocacy opportunity for charter schools spikes when the problems in our public education system are made even more evident. Now is one of those times, and so it was easier to overcome charter opponents at key moments in the platform development process. If there has ever been a moment for us to be working aggressively to make advocacy breakthroughs for charter schools more broadly, now is that moment.
  • Thirdly, we have to remember that we are bigger than we think we are. We are approaching having four million students in charter schools, and because of that heft, things that would have been a fool’s errands to think of doing earlier in the history of our movement, like trying to build support for charter schools by getting our people to work on the inside of political parties, are now within our reach if we take on the work in a smart way.
  • Fourth, we have to acknowledge that not all of us are Margaret Fortunes. Not all of us bring a deep knowledge about advocacy and political strategy. That’s where having the support of strong, smart and sustainable advocacy organizations is key. To really run a strategy designed at influencing a platform by supporting dozens of delegates working inside a party, if not more, takes considerable bandwidth. Not many organizations have the potential to amass the quantity of resources needed to sustain that effort over time, but membership associations do, so long as they are provided the level of membership revenue that is now within our capacity to provide if we all do our parts
  • Fifth, we should not forget the value of people from our movement finally being able to see behind closed doors when we get in the game. As I have written here previously, our movement suffers from a collective naiveté about the lengths to which teacher unions and others are working behind closed doors to literally destroy our movement. Heretofore, one of those closed doors has masked what teacher unions do inside the workings of the Democratic Party. In recent weeks, teacher unions were forced to make their anti-charter arguments on the convention floor so that all CharterFolk could see firsthand that the actual position of the unions is that charter schools should literally not be allowed to exist. The more we can get our base behind closed doors where they can hear the unions’ outrageous statements about our movement, the more our collective naiveté will be busted.
  • And finally, we must always remember what it is that gives our movement the potential to take on a challenge as daunting as working to change whole political parties from within: the fact that we have CharterFolk, huge numbers of people who feel part of a movement, and so are willing to spend the countless hours of above and beyond volunteer service needed to achieve policy and political breakthroughs on behalf of something we recognize to be so much bigger than ourselves.

Building our advocacy strength in ways that capitalize on these six essential truths, we recognize how generating wins in areas that at first seem “inside Single-A baseball” are actually ones that have the potential to generate the “major league” transformation of our public education system that our country has been waiting for generations to achieve.

Linda Brown, Kayleigh Colombero, and Cristina Ureña at the Charter Folk Oxygen Bar – Stubbornness and Grit in Support of Improved Public Education For Those Who Need it Most

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to share with you the third in a series of short video interviews we are calling the “CharterFolk Oxygen Bar,” stories of extraordinary leaders helping others find new levels of resiliency during this moment of great challenge for charter schools and for all public education.  Today’s edition is about two women who brought oxygen to each other, students, teachers, and families at Étoile Academy Charter School in Houston, Texas.  Back at the Oxygen Bar by popular demand is Linda Brown discussing stubbornness and grit with these two extraordinary leaders – Kayleigh Colombero, the Founder and Superintendent of Étoile Academy Charter School, and Cristina Ureña, Étoile’s Chief Academic Officer.

I hope you’ll carve out the time to view all 22 minutes of this interview.  Until you do, here are a few highlights:

  • At 1.24 minutes, Linda clarifies her definition of “stubbornness.”  You may remember Linda took me to the woodshed last time for my use of the term “resiliency,” insisting that her down-right “stubbornness” is actually her special source of strength.  Linda says that while some of her stubbornness has come with age, it is inherent in people who are strong, who believe in themselves, and who are leaders like Kayleigh and Cristina.
  • At the 4:38 point, Linda talks about first meeting Kayleigh during an interview five years ago and knowing she and Cristina had the grit necessary to open and lead a charter school because “you could hear the gravel under their feet as they move.”
  • At minute nine, Kayleigh shares where her oxygen came from when Étoile Academy Charter School was hit hard by the pandemic.  Summoning the stubbornness that Linda describes, Kayleigh was able to get teachers and students back to school within a week of quarantine, which began their last day of school before spring vacation, and she was able to ensure that students were attending online classes every day.
  • At minute twelve, Cristina shares where her oxygen came from in order to stay relentless for students and parents when facing new pandemic-related barriers.
  • At the 14:53 mark, Cristina describes how their data tracking of spring 2020’s virtual school led them to start open campus options in fall 2020, have 75% of their students on campus last spring, and 90% of students taking their STAR test on campus last year.  They have had 100% of their students back on campus for the entirety of this school year.
  • At minute nineteen, inspired by these three women’s stories, I share a quote from a poem entitled Stubborn, by Roland Flint, which teaches us all to do what must be done in the moment, to see what is possible beyond the current obstacle, and to push through to the other side where we invariably find special people who bring oxygen to everyone they encounter.

It was an extraordinary conversation with three extraordinary leaders who embody what CharterFolk are, people who understand deeply what needs to be done to improve public education for those who need it most and help us find a deeper commitment to go after it.

Meanwhile, I offer thanks to our three guests for providing a great blast of oxygen that’s helping me to keep going with everything I’ve got. I hope the rest of you find Linda’s, Kayleigh’s, and Cristina’s stories as inspiring as I have.

For those of you wanting to learn more about Kayleigh and Linda, you will find links herein. 

For Cristina, I provide a bio below.

Cristina Ureña is the Chief Academic Officer at Étoile Academy Charter School. She has been with Étoile since year one starting as the founding ELA teacher and Dean of Students. Cristina served as the founding Principal of Étoile in year two. Now, she is serving as the Chief Academic Officer where she supports teachers and other staff to ensure Étoile meets our ambitious academic goals. She is a former Building Excellent Schools fellow, Teach for America Alum, and former HISD teacher/instructional coach. She is a First Generation Latina graduate from New York City. She studied Psychology at Columbia University and holds a Master of Education from University of St. Thomas. Cristina has a record of success with low-income students in Houston with over 10 years of experience in education. She has made it her life’s work to ensure students who look like her and face childhood challenges like she faced are given the opportunity to excel.