Putting a CAPE on the Superhero – The Evolution of the Free Rider Challenge in the Charter School Movement

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today’s post will be my last regular article for the year. I may also get out a “sample short” in a couple days to introduce a new feature I’m considering for next year.

Tomorrow we will distribute Andy’s and my last WonkyFolk recording for 2023, one we are delighted to be doing with Nina during her last few weeks on the job as CEO of the National Alliance.

Sometime the following week I will do my annual Year in Review.

And Kerry and I are thinking about fun ways to celebrate the incredible Contributor Columns we’ve received this year, including Matt Pahl’s great one last week …

… telling New Mexico’s “triumphant evolution” story.

Thanks again, Matt.

Let’s get on to today’s post. It’s another evolution story.

Putting a CAPE on the Superhero

I start today unabashedly reasserting one of my primary contentions here at CharterFolk, which is that the people connected to our nation’s charter schools …

… are heroes.

Full stop.

So many are taking the hero’s journey, forging on, often at great cost to themselves, contending with the most ridiculous opposition, toward a noble destination, because they feel part of something bigger than themselves.

And let’s be precise.

What confers hero status on the charter school movement is what our schools are accomplishing with young people, a level of improved outcomes that is now emanating from a type of public school that has grown to serve nearly 4 million students.

My topic today is what will transform our schools into a collective superhero.

Not just something that can help millions of kids get the better public education they deserve, but something that can help absolutely all kids do so.

Something that will put, in essence …

… a cape on the shoulders of the charter school movement.

In my view, the charter school “superhero journey” consists of three parts.

  1. Great outcomes with kids;
  2. In combination with amassed advocacy strength;
  3. Directed toward a noble shared goal – what I call “Greatly More Public Education.”

Or more succinctly:

  1. A hero
  2. With a cape
  3. Bound for the stars.

The subject of this post is the cape part.

Or, as I like to think of it, the CAPE part.

Because the ladder to advocacy Excellence has four rungs.

  • First you create Coherence,
  • Which allows you to achieve Adequacy.
  • You then achieve Permanence,
  • Which brings you, finally, into the realm of Excellence.

The reason that we can’t achieve Excellence without Permanence is that no matter how effective we might be with our advocacy efforts in the short term, if we aren’t understood to have staying power, advocates defending the Establishment will whisper in the ear of policy makers that the charter school phenomenon may be strong in the moment, but it won’t always be so. And they, the Establishment, always will be. So policy makers will refrain from stepping out in full support of us as they otherwise would, thus preventing our movement from achieving the level of advocacy Excellence that will be needed to achieve our super-heroic goal of Greatly More Public Education For All.

The need for Coherence and Permanence in our advocacy infrastructure has been a recurring theme since the earliest days of CharterFolk.

In terms of creating Coherence …

… it isn’t rocket science.

We need membership associations …

… that evolve into C3/C4 tandem structures as I have been emphasizing insufferably in recent weeks.

Tandems at the national, state and city levels brought together into a web of coherent affiliation that leverages collective strength across geographies.

In recent years, we have seen charter school advocacy make significant strides in Coherence. State associations have begun focusing on advocacy and building tandems. And we have seen funders refrain from making new scattershot organizations that only complicate, overlap and fracture the advocacy field, ultimately undermining Coherence. Meanwhile, in many places in the country, we have seen a number of well-conceived coalitions like the one that has thrived in New Mexico …

… begin to proliferate across the country in ways that Derrell Bradford hailed in my recent piece at Education Next.

Derrell Bradford, President of 50CAN, an advocacy organization working on charter-school policy across the nation, notes that not long ago, “the charter-school world was often forced to choose between being right or being good. But now that the universe of advocacy organizations has grown and matured into more coherent coalitions that have gotten stronger over time, we’re at a place where we can be both good and right at the same time. And the policy wins reflect that.”

It means that in many parts of the country, for the first time, we are beginning to see a level of advocacy effectiveness approach what I would call Adequacy.

Much much better than we’ve ever had before. Enough to provide vital protection and to even advance the ball considerably in many places.

But Excellence? True Excellence?

It will prove illusive until we achieve Permanence.

Which comes down to a matter of resources.

On both on the C3 and C4 sides.

C4 Permanence I will come back to in a later post because how we amass resources for partisan activity is its own kettle of fish.

Today I zoom in on C3 resources and Permanence.

It is another of the subjects I have been writing about ad nauseam here at CharterFolk.

The idea that we should be making it a goal that at least 25 state associations will be gathering $25/student in membership dues by 2025.

It’s a goal toward which we have made significant progress in recent years, giving us the bigger boats …

… we have needed to contend with the shark that circles in the public education deep.

But, CharterFolk, absolute whales await if we are serious about getting to a world of greatly more public education for all.

Meaning we’re going to need even bigger boats.

Ships even.

Which can only be built with a volume of membership dues beyond what we have amassed to date.

Looking back at the posts I have written in the past few years about the need to grow our membership revenue, I realize now that there is a part of the challenge I’ve been skipping over.

It’s that part of the challenge I would like to try to address in the rest of today’s post.

The Evolution of the Free Rider Challenge and Charter School Advocacy

Over three-and-a-half years of writing, I have riffed off a wide assortment of books here at CharterFolk.

If there is one book I could have everyone in Charterland read, it would be Jonathan Haidt’s book …

The Righteous Mind, one of the most oft-cited “books of the decade” from the 2010’s.

I wrote about it in this post …

… wherein I used one of Haidt’s central metaphors – that humans are guided by our elephant intuitions much more than we are by our elephant-rider intellects – to explain the stampede of intuition-directed grandstanding that inevitably happens whenever new NAEP data are released.

The reason I would love all of us to read The Righteous Mind is because it advances the most coherent explanation I know of for why we see a growing partisan divide in our country, and it gives great suggestions for how to navigate that divide, something that is of existential importance to the charter school movement given we are one of those rare things in modern life that has enjoyed bi-partisan support since our beginning. And our long-term success depends upon us being able to maintain that support even as the divide continues to widen in the years ahead.

Another of the powerful metaphors that Haidt surfaces in the book is that humans are “90% chimp and 10% bee.”

By that he means that humans are much more like chimpanzees, species that rarely cooperate (as he reports, chimpanzees have never been seen working together to carry an item too heavy for one chimp to carry), and are much less like bees, which never act as individuals but act instead in service to their hive. But because we have been able as a species to balance our individualistic tendencies with an ability to “hive-switch,” we have been able to unlock what Haidt called in a TED talk “the most powerful force ever known on this planet …

… which is human cooperation.”

And that explains why humans have become, from an evolutionary standpoint, the most successful species on earth.

Haidt then extends the argument, asserting that the hive-switch mechanism is not only determinative of success between species, but is also determinative within our species.

Those groups that cooperate best prevail in competition with other groups.

To make his point, Haidt quotes from Darwin in The Descent of Man.

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other …. The advantage which disciplined solders have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence that each man feels in his comrades … Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe high in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes

As such, we see that the author famous for having uncovered the “origin of species,” reveals also the “origins of power.”

It’s humans coming together.


Creating “Coherence.

The first threads of the CAPE we seek to put around the shoulders of the charter school movement.

Something that is achieved not just from the structures we build, but from the spirit we bring to those structures.

Because the imperative to cohere is always threatened by a singularly debilitating counter-force. It’s what Haidt calls “The Free Rider Problem,” which he also credits Darwin for having first identified in The Descent of Man.

Haidt summarizes Darwin’s findings:

When groups compete, the cohesive, cooperative group usually wins. But within each group, selfish indivuduals (free riders) come out ahead. They share in the group’s gains while contribution little to its efforts. The bravest army wins, but within the bravest army, the few cowards who hang back are the most likely of all to surve the fight, go home alive, and become fathers.

In other words, free riding is the greatest impediment to CAPE creation.

It’s the counter-force strong enough to render our potential superhero powerless.

Think Kryptonite.

Free riding, CharterFolk, is charter school Kryptonite.

It’s the greatest threat we face.

The only one that could prove our undoing.

Fortunately, the charter school movement has a long history of overcoming the free rider challenge.

Indeed, going back to the very beginning, though many of us are mavericks who have long sought independence, we have always balanced our chimp tendencies with just enough “hive-switch” to present a united collective force. And that has been central to our success as a movement.

But the nature of the free rider challenge is evolving as we are now entering our fourth decade of shared endeavor. It’s why I wrote in my post from a few weeks ago

… that building the advocacy strength we need for the “era beyond the beginning” …

… starts with a shift in mindset.

A recognition that the world has changed.

Along with a recognition that we ourselves have changed, too.

Because while we have been a movement that has generally not had a free rider problem, the truth is that the full scope of the free rider question has yet to have been put before the movement.

In the early going, in our naiveté, we didn’t even think we were going to need much advocacy. We were just going to succeed and then people would allow us to grow because of the fact that we were doing great things with kids. But then we learned that the Establishment didn’t care whether we succeeded with students. They were going to oppose us no matter how well we did. In fact, in many cases, the better that we did, the more the Establishment increased its opposition to us.

So our world came to understand that advocacy matters.

But in terms of providing resources for advocacy, in the early decades of the movement, our base was so small that it didn’t really matter if we provided $2/student or $20. Neither level was going to supply even close to enough resources to make a significant difference. So we gave the smaller amount to signal our unity and then depended on funders to bear the vast majority of advocacy costs.

But now, CharterFolk, the world has changed.

We have progressed into the era beyond the beginning where in many places across the country the stopping of the charter school movement has become the Establishment’s number one priority. And it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Funders are still willing to help. Absolutely. But the breadth of advocacy needed across the entire country now surpasses any simple philanthropic solution.

Meanwhile, we have grown to a level of national enrollment that is large enough that a reasonable shared investment in advocacy distributed across our entire base would be enough to take us to new levels of sustainability, which could bring our advocacy efforts to the very cusp of Excellence.

And yet, because we are stuck in a mindset of believing ourselves smaller than we actually are, we continue to invest the smaller amounts, leaving ourselves without the CAPE we need.

And so, the time has come to ask for an investment in advocacy at the reasonable level that is clearly within our potential to fund. And making the ask at that level, we will see finally whether the charter school movement is truly able to keep overcoming the free rider challenge.

Haidt’s book explores many of the approaches that have helped groups overcome the free rider challenge throughout human history. Many of these approaches we have been writing about here at CharterFolk for many years.

Things like the importance of people believing that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and are within groups that set up ways of making authentically shared decisions so that collective intent can be legitimately expressed.

To name but two.

Some of it just comes down to our world understanding more deeply how groups succeed and what the true threats to group success are, with the free-rider threat being at the top of the list.

Hence this post.

We all, every single one of us, have our excuses to free ride. And every one of us who does so causes great harm.

Not just because of the loss of strength that the single defection from group power creates, but also the legitimacy it confers on others who may be considering doing the same, such that many fewer could end up contributing.

Which would be absolute Kryptonite for our movement.

The places where charter school advocacy strengthening is happening fastest in our country today are places where the vast majority of schools, if not literally every single one, are full dues-paying members of state associations that are significantly increasing their membership rates.

It creates the foundational Coherence upon which advocacy Adequacy is being built.

In some places, a volume of resources is providing a preview of Permanence.

Not yet true, full Permanence.

But the sense that something lasting is finally being built, giving us glimpses of the advocacy Excellence that’s to come.

Like what we saw appear just this week, the charter schools of New Jersey closing in on what would be a historic facilities win in Trenton.

Or like what we saw appear over the past few years, new tandems like the one in Texas that are opening up robust charter school growth across entire states.

Or like we saw appear over the last decade, the National Alliance under the leadership of Nina Rees growing to achieve things at a federal level we’ve never been able to do before.

All examples, CharterFolk, of advocacy Excellence.

What awaits us if we can overcome the free rider problem and can wrap a CAPE around the shoulders of the charter school movement such that it finally attains what is now within its reach:

Superhero status.