The 401-Level – When Free, Public and Open to All Becomes Our Agenda

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk,

We’ve had a lot of outreach this week in response to our Community Update from Tuesday. I appreciate so much your encouragement and warm wishes. CharterFolk does seem to be on a pretty great trajectory these days, but we wouldn’t be making anywhere near the progress that we are, were it not for the incredible support we are receiving from all of you.

So to you all, I thank you once more for having made me yet again “The Very Grateful Jed.”

I’ve been saying I want to get out a post about our “401-Level” work related to Free, Public and Open to All.

Let’s turn to that now.

The 401-Level – When Free, Public and Open to All Our Becomes Our Agenda

In recent posts I have been writing about ascending levels of challenge related to Free, Public and Open to All.

  • The 101-Level, which I called the “That” Level: our recognition that, no matter what we do, our opponents are going to keep misinforming the public about charter schools because of the simple fact THAT charter schools exist, and it’s up to us to set the record straight.
  • The 201-Level, which is what I called the “What” Level: the work we do to educate the public about what charter schools are, with the answer being that we are Free, Public and Open to All.
  • And the 301-Level, which is what I called the “Why” Level: the work we do amongst ourselves to understand how, sadly, public education in our country has turned out to be not very Free, Public or Open to All, and the collective Why of the of charter school movement, our North Star, is to help public education evolve such that it can finally become Free, Public and Open to All like our society so desperately needs it to be.

Today I introduce the highest level of challenge of all, the 401-Level.  It’s what I call the “How Level.”

It’s the part of our vision for impact that answers How it is that the charter school movement thinks it is going to be able to pull off its Why of helping public education achieve its desperately needed What when so many reform efforts that have preceded us have come to naught.

I remember seeing this study when it first came out a few years ago.

It’s an interesting read for anyone who has the time. The two observations in the study I found most insightful are found in its general framing.

The first is that scholarship is clear that, going back more than a century, efforts to reform our public schools have been “nearly a complete failure.”

Over the last 100 years, claims that schools are failing have become deeply woven into the fabric of society (Cremin, 1961; Ellis & Fouts, 1993). This “scorching and unrelenting criticism” (Cuban & Usdan, 2003: p. 3) can be seen most dramatically in periods of calls for profound changes in the pre-k-12 school system.

Indeed, efforts at reform since the end of WWII have been nearly a complete failure (Sarason, 1990). Things today are much the same in 2020 as they were in 1970 and 1950 “and in some respects not as good as they were in 1930” when a significant period of school reform was at its peak (Silberman, 1970: p. 159).

The second was the partial list of reforms the study catalogues that have failed over the past century.

A partial list of reform failure:
New American Schools
Career Ladder
Experimental Schools Program
School-Based Management (SBM)
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (2002)
School Improvement Grants (SIG)
New Math (1960s)
Ungraded and Non-Graded Classes
School Restructuring
Whole School Reform
Large-Scale Curriculum Reform (1950s-1960s)
The Educational Technology Decade (1965-1975)
Life Adjustment Movement (1948-1950)
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (2015)
American High School Reforms
American Recovery & Reinvestment Act
Learning Styles
Infiltration of Elective Classes
Ability Grouping
Program for Effective Teaching
Team Teaching
Instructional TV
Consolidation of Small Schools
Education for All American Youth
Comprehensive School Reform

It’s a rather breathtaking list to behold, all the more so when one considers the amount of societal effort and investment that went into many of these reforms.

It’s this sobering backdrop that leads many to wonder what would make the charter school movement different such that it might be able to achieve what no others have.

For me, the answer is a very simple one.

What makes the charter school movement different is that, in addition to having a coherent What and Why, we have a Who.

A base.


People believing that they are part of a cause much bigger than themselves coming together into a united force at a heft large enough to prevail.

But let me speak more precisely.

It’s not that we necessarily have a Who.

It’s that we potentially do.

We have the potential to assemble a force. And thus far, across more than three decades of work, we have seen CharterFolk come together at the numbers that the different moments have required.

But the timeframe for education reform, as the Vanderbilt study demonstrates, is not a short one. It cannot be achieved in terms of years or even decades.

It is, in fact, a multi-generation undertaking.

Which explains why it is so imperative that we grow future generations of CharterFolk.

Either we will do so and thus have a chance to succeed.

Or we won’t, and we won’t.

End of story.

And so these conversations about our What and our Why that are now happening in greater numbers and in greater depth within charter school organizations across the country are as important as anything occurring in the charter school movement today.

If they break in the right direction – if they prove dispositive in helping more Folk become CharterFolk – they will put the critical octane we need in our collective tank to take on the unprecedented challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

But here’s the thing.

As important as it is that we have our conversations about our What and our Why, ultimately, the success of all these conversations will hinge on our discussion of the How.

Because on top of a century of failed reform efforts, new doubt is coming in every day.

From the east …

… to the west ….

… to every place in between …

… and rolling all the way up to the national level …

..;. dissatisfaction with public education has never been higher than it is today.

Doubt has never been greater about whether public education is reformable at all.

And so it becomes incumbent upon us to present a vision for How.

How the charter school movement, unlike all the reform efforts that have come before, can make meaningful progress.

Not claiming that we can succeed over night, or can bring about some nirvana end state in some unreasonable timeframe.

But a reason for hope that over time we can bend the arc of public education in a new direction. Not just within the schools that we operate ourselves, but across all of public education.

It’s the moment when Free, Public, and Open to All becomes, not just our communications effort, but our agenda.

Our policy agenda.

Advanced not just by any advocacy organization.

But by our own.

Representative advocacy organizations.

Ones that are connected to every charter school organization across the country wherein are happening the critical conversations about our What and our Why, and where CharterFolk are ultimately coming to see that there is no How for any single organization, no matter how high impact it may be, to achieve ambitions related to Free, Public and Open to All alone.

So we must come together to participate within organizations whose missions are to advocate for agendas genuinely reflecting the priorities and values of CharterFolk connected to literally thousands of charter schools across the United States.

It’s the final step of building a base.

Not just having Folk who have become CharterFolk.

But ensuring that CharterFolk become the owners of the shared work we attempt to advance.

It’s an immense challenge.

Our 401-Level challenge.

Not just creating excellent advocacy, which, goodness knows, is difficult enough itself.

But creating excellent representative advocacy on behalf of a movement that has grown to serve nearly four million students in nearly every state in the country.

The kind of work that our membership organizations at federal, state and city levels are rising to take on.

Advancing a policy agenda designed to bend the arc of public education:

Toward FreeNESS.

Ensuring that every public school, charter or non:

  • Gets every penny of what was intended to it so that it can make a program that is so great that kids thrive and even more parents want to enroll their kids there.
  • Gets the facility it needs to serve as many students who want to come, and if more parents apply than there are spaces available, it becomes incumbent upon the system to give the school whatever additional space it needs to grow.
  • Has the regulatory flexibility needed to offer whatever kind of program it wants to offer and whatever program its parents want including whole new approaches to home schooling and micro schooling.
  • Can serve every student regardless where the student resides.
  • Has a lottery for admission so that we can know which schools are in greater demand and can allow us to prioritize the supports we offer enabling the most sought after to expand.
  • Has a presumed right to expand as fast it wants presuming it can generate levels of student learning warranting the school having its charter being renewed.
  • And, in fact, if it is a school that more students want to attend than it has space for, has a presumed obligation to grow such that we put an end to the scarcity of excellence in public education that is our society-wide scourge.

Toward PublicNESS.

Ensuring that every public school, charter or non:

  • Has a charter-like document articulating its reason for being and the goals and outcomes to which it should be held accountable.
  • Has a third-party authorizer that reviews the school’s operations every five years to determine if its results with students warrant it retaining the privilege of being able to operate as a public school.
  • Develops a budget and gets audits down to the school level so the public and parents can fully see whether the funding and facilities resources intended for school are in fact making it to that school.

Toward OpenNESS to All.

Ensuring that:

  • Attendance zones, district boundaries, and selective admission redlining students into and out of public education opportunity are erased steadily over time such that admission becomes based on open lotteries.
  • When more students seek to attend a school than there are spaces available, historically underserved students receive statistical advantages in those lotteries.
  • Transportation vouchers or other means of transportation are made available to every family so that they can get their children to and from the school they want to attend.

To name but a few policies that could be included in the mix of proposals that CharterFolk in collaboration with their membership organizations across the country could be considering and refining and adding to in the years ahead.

And at each level in the process, be it in Congress, in statehouses or in school district headquarters across the land, when proposals are brought forward for consideration, CharterFolk will be present to speak in their support, highlighting that not only are charter schools already Free, Public and Open to All, but are full of people who care, not just about our own kids and schools, but care about absolutely all kids, and demonstrate it by working to advance policies designed to make sure that all schools become Free, Public and Open to All.

It’s when the Who, the What, the Why and the How of the national charter school movement come together at levels never seen before.

Precisely the thing that, if achieved and sustained over time, will give the charter school movement what no reform effort has ever had before:

A united force transformative enough to prove once and for all that public education in our country is in fact reformable and can be set on a trajectory toward greatly more publicness for all.