Associations Associate – The Origins of Charter School Power

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Let’s cut straight to the update.

Update Summary: Today we return to the question of where to situate advocacy responsibility for the charter school movement. I build an argument that member associations are unique contexts for building strength because they have formal connections with members that create the connective tissue around which power can be built. Over the years, arguments have surfaced about why associations are not the right place to house advocacy responsibility. I find those arguments concerning because if they are valid, we would have no systemic way to build advocacy strength. At the end of the post, I attempt to refute arguments against associations and signal effort to stimulate future discussion on this important topic.

Today, I want to return to where I left off Tuesday. In that post I posited that membership organizations are best positioned to meet the four critical imperatives for building advocacy strength.

  1. Representing a Movement
  2. Focusing on Advocacy and Politics
  3. Amassing Resources and Grassroots Strength
  4. Projecting Permanence and Coherence

A recent example illustrates the point:

Many of you know about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer taking $35M from charter schools in a line-item veto last fall. It was among the more “in your face” gestures directed at charter schools in recent years, made months after schools had approved their budgets and justified using all the regular rhetoric about charter schools taking money away from supposedly real public schools.

Less than three months later, the funding was restored.

What happened in the interim?

Effective advocacy …

… led by a strong association …

… delivering a case study showing how proper execution across the four imperatives can be difference-making for a state’s charter schools.

  1. Representing a Movement – When the moment of need arose, an organization that is known to represent the charter school movement, with 85% of charter schools being members and with various stakeholder groups being properly proactively engaged (including parents as the photo above attests), was at the ready.
  2. Focusing on Advocacy and Politics – While the association has gone through many permeations over the years, the longstanding through line has been an ever-tighter focus on advocacy and politics, and that allowed the organization to have the presence in the capitol, the voter-voice and other grassroots engagement infrastructure, and the communications expertise needed to execute at a key moment.
  3. Amassing Resources and Grassroots Strength – While MAPSA’ s team is not overly large, it does have seven staff and several consultants that it has been able to pay for primarily with membership dues, and it had the grassroots programs it needed to mobilize thousands of stakeholders, enough so that several legislative staff made “turn it off” requests to the association as the calls kept pouring into their offices.
  4. Projecting Permanence and Coherence – And finally, MAPSA has been around. Many advocacy players big and small have come and gone in Michigan over the years. And through it all MAPSA has forged on, now having some of the most stable, experienced, and trusted leadership in charter school advocacy in the country.

Boiled down, the test case demonstrates why membership organizations are uniquely able to build long-term advocacy strength:

Associations associate.

Associations connect. And connection – taking individual charter schools with little stand-alone influence and aggregating them into a collective that can amass strength – is the origin of charter school power.

In my opinion, and I think our history bears this out, we need connective tissue, something formal that binds us together, in order to have the stability needed to build long-term advocacy strength. That’s what membership is, the starting point connective tissue around which collective power can be built. Our opponents certainly have such connective tissue. Teacher unions have their teachers as dues-paying members and that begins a formal relationship that then can be leveraged into the cultivation of power. Without something formal binding us together, we can summon advocacy strength for a little while. We may be able to work on a particular campaign hosted by a partner advocacy organization in an ad hoc way. But we will never be able to leverage the massive base of the charter school movement, the thing that distinguishes charter schools from all other reforms that have come before us, and the thing that ultimately gives us hope to build a counterweight against status quo forces strong enough to protect us for the long term.

This is why I never use the “CSO” acronym to describe our state associations. CSOs are charter school organizations. There can be charter school organizations of many kinds, including some that are advocacy organizations. Associations, in my opinion, should be called CSAs because their standing as associations makes them unique and gives them a potential to achieve something that CSOs cannot.

Over the years, various arguments against situating primary advocacy responsibilities within CSAs have become accepted by some within Charterland. This is concerning because I do not believe that anyone has developed a coherent, systematic alternative to membership associations. If these arguments were shown to be correct, we would find ourselves in one of two circumstances, either: 1) having failed to find the systemic advocacy answer that we need to protect and advance charter schools for the long term; or 2) being of the opinion that no such systemic answer exists and we’re essentially on our own to improvise the advocacy solutions that we need in all the different contexts where we have charter schools.

Both are scary to me. As such, I will spend the rest of this post surfacing some of the most oft-repeated arguments against CSAs and will do my best to refute them. And then in future posts, I will attempt to solicit opinion from CharterFolk to see whether we can deepen the discussion on this topic which I see to be critically important to the future success of the national charter school movement.

A compelling argument against membership associations is the fact that we’ve been trying to build strong ones for many years, and very few have emerged. Isn’t that evidence that they’re not the right place to situate advocacy responsibility?

My response to that question is decidedly no. And here’s why:

  1. For a long time, we told our associations to do the wrong things. This is one that I wish more of us would fess up to. For the years when many of our state associations were in their early going, they were pressured by many – members (myself included), funders, and other key partners – to do anything and everything for charter schools, and to grow to become financially self-sustaining as quickly as possible by selling various services to members. This was the wrong idea, but many CSAs ran at the challenge anyway, and then when they didn’t succeed, when they ended up being weak on advocacy and not delivering services that members valued anyway, many of us then turned around and criticized the CSAs for trying to do the very thing we directed them to do. What might have happened had we been properly focused from the beginning is worthless speculation, but what we should not take from those lost years is some conclusion that associations simply can’t build advocacy strength. What we should take is that strategy and focus actually matter, and in this instance we had it wrong, and that definitely set back our efforts to build advocacy strength for the long term.
  2. For a long time, members didn’t appreciate the importance of advocacy. This is certainly changing in the current landscape as CharterFolk can see the level of threat coming against us in the policy realm. But historically, there has been a hesitancy among some operators to become members of their associations, to contribute the level of membership dues that is necessary, and to become as active in advocacy as is required for strength to really grow. The association business model is a lot like the NPR business model. People are going to get the service (advocacy) whether they pay or not. When we didn’t properly socialize all about the importance of everyone contributing, some chose not to. On top of that, many have understandably thought it was not kid-centric to re-direct funding out of the classroom to support advocacy efforts. Some presumed that philanthropists would just take care of this for us in perpetuity. But the world has turned out to be much different than we thought. Many CharterFolk now realize that, without increased investment in advocacy, severe impacts are going to be felt in the classroom, and many non-funder CharterFolk now accept that a bigger portion of advocacy investment is going to fall on our shoulders. That acceptance and the resulting new resources being made available for advocacy from member schools has led to a number of CSAs building encouraging levels of new strength in recent years.
  3. For a long time we simply didn’t have the scale needed to support advocacy. Our small size in the beginning contributed to CharterFolks’ hesitancy to support advocacy. What was the point when we had just a few schools in an entire state? How would those schools ever be able to support a level of advocacy activity that would even register on the policy landscape, much less prove difference-making? While those sentiments were appropriate at the time, the fact is that many of us formed our conclusions about associations’ advocacy potential during a period when enrollments were far smaller than they are today, and those conclusions are no longer valid given that we have grown. When charter school enrollments are now far higher in many cities and states, when advocacy costs can now be distributed across bigger enrollment bases, and when far larger numbers of stakeholders can now be involved in advocacy activity than ever before, new opportunities for power and influence are emerging that we should consider deeply before reaching any conclusion that CSAs are not the primary place to situate advocacy responsibility.
  4. This is not easy. Look, I don’t want to sugarcoat this. This work is incredibly complex and difficult, and it has taken our adversaries generations to get great at it. We too are going to require many years to get better at this. Building excellent board governance in our advocacy organizations, building engagement and decision-making structures across a range of stakeholders, hiring phenomenal staff, building domain-specific expertise in all the various advocacy realms, socializing our stakeholders to all take part at the level that the moment requires – all of this is incredibly difficult. But it’s not impossible. Democracy building is incredibly hard too. But when done correctly, with sustained effort and thousands of course corrections along the way, that’s when true strength emerges.
  5. We’ve too often thought short term. Finally, what we have seen again and again in Charterland are examples of short-term thinking about how to build advocacy capacity. What typically happens is we see some immediate-term win we want to achieve, whether that is a policy breakthrough or an electoral win, and when we see that the CSA is not ready to take on that challenge, usually at least partly because it was not told before that it was its job to be ready for that challenge, we then start thinking about how to make some new organization to take it on. And so we create some new thing that is not designed to be either permanent or coherent. Sometimes those new things succeed, and they secure very important wins for kids. Other times they do not. But they always, in the end, contribute to a circumstance where long-term advocacy strategy takes secondary importance. And that in turn leads us to miscalculate what our CSAs have the potential to become if we invest in them steadily over the long term like our adversaries invest steadily in their long-term advocacy structures.

A second argument that is often made against membership associations is that they are politically naive, and that naivete often leads the CSA to have low expectations.

I actually find this argument more compelling than the first, not solely because I have seen some CharterFolk naivete hold back their CSAs, but because I have also seen how member naivete in other membership organizations has led to those organizations being very weak. Often that weakness is most demonstrated in the organizations having very low expectations for their staff and for the organization generally. Why in the world would we want to pattern ourselves after an approach to advocacy that has led to weakness in so many other settings?

There are actually two things that structurally protect charter schools from falling into this trap of naivete and low expectation.

First, unlike most other simple trade associations, we have others in our world who are not politically naive. In fact, some know as much about how the world really works than anyone in our society. And these CharterFolk, often funders or other key supporters, are an amazing asset that, if brought into the decision-making of our CSAs through board participation and/or other involvement, can greatly help our CSAs get stronger in ways that many other membership organizations could never even dream of. This is why I always advocate for our CSAs to have governance boards with compositions consisting of roughly equal mixes of members and funders. In that way, the members can educate funders about what they tend to be naive about – instructional issues and communities issues – and funders can educate the members about what they tend to be naive about – how the halls of power really operate. And because CSAs have the potential for a mix of people with incredibly complimentary knowledge and expertise that other membership organizations simply don’t have, we have a mechanism for getting more sophisticated and stronger over time than virtually any other kind of membership organization, times ten.

Secondly, of course, we are distinct from other membership organizations because we are not trade associations. We are a movement. We are motivated by a higher purpose. And we have thousands of CharterFolk who come at the work with a level of urgency and a willingness to take voluntary efforts on behalf of something bigger than themselves that is simply not present within other kinds of member organizations. That, in turn, translates into a general level of urgency and expectation for our CSAs that puts them in a whole different category from typical trade associations.

A final argument that is made against membership associations is that they are weak on quality. By definition, some assert, a membership association has to defend all members no matter how poorly they perform and that is antithetical to what charter schools are all about.

This objection, I think, is finally beginning to wane in importance. We simply have too many examples of CSAs being willing to be firm on matters of performance, and if anything, members within CSAs are perhaps too prone to abandon a fellow member when a bad article comes out. The key question is not whether CSAs can adhere to levels of quality. It is whether they can have the bandwidth to be systematic and fair in the way they form and enforce minimum standards. As accountability standards continue to shift in this COVID/post-Common Core world, and given how important the other advocacy imperatives are before the movement, this seems like a hurdle we should be able to get over rather easily in the years ahead.

Have a great long weekend, CharterFolk. Next week we have a wide range of new material coming out, including our second CharterFolk Chat with Howard Fuller. Hope to see you here.