The Post-Elections Challenge – A CharterWorld that Hangs in the Balance

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

At the highest level, I’ll leave analysis of election results to those from outside the country who have perspective that we don’t.

As far as CharterWorld goes, people smarter than me are declaring victory.

But I’m not so sure.

Much was made of Youngkin’s victory in Virginia a year back, and it’s supposed significance for school choice.

I was of the opinion then that what mattered most was what Youngkin did after the election.

I took heart that the 60th word he uttered after declaring victory was “charter”, signaling perhaps real seriousness.

Soon, though, it was clear that charter schools were actually more like his 60th-highest priority.

And so, less than 60 days into his term, his charter school bill was dead, weighed down by his other higher priorities.

This week, we saw that some of those higher priorities have been quietly mothballed …

… as has been, I’m afraid, any serious effort to pass an improved charter school law in Virginia.

Because unlike what we have seen emerge in many other states across the country, the commonwealth does not have a size to its charter school sector large enough to bring together an advocacy organization representative of CharterFolk, and so the ability of our movement to advance the interests of thousands of kids and families hasn’t yet found its expression in Virginia.

It leads me to conclude:

Yes, of course, elections matter.

But so do advocacy efforts on the other side of elections.

And in context after context right now, it seems to me, this week’s elections were not dispositive.

Several local policy contexts that were modestly supportive of charter schools took a half-step back.

Several that were challenging took a half-step forward.

It results in a circumstance where in place after place, things of great importance to the charter school movement hang in the balance.

Meaning everything will ultimately come down to advocacy.

Half-Steps Back

Michigan is instructive.

Not long ago, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer attempted to inflict massive harm on her state’s charter schools.

Effective advocacy …

… as I described in this post …

… stopped her.

But it was a form of attack against charter schools that the Michigan association …

… had to work with their supporters in the legislature to beat back repeatedly.

Now, not only do we see that Whitmer has been re-elected decisively …

… but we see that some of the friends who helped hold back her hostile attacks …

… are no longer there.

As the Journal points out, these changed dynamics in Michigan really had nothing to do with charter schools.

But regardless the cause, the effect is one we have to contend with:

A Michigan statehouse where Democrats will now have a couple-vote majority in both chambers.

A couple votes.

Reinforcing that, in fact, things hang in the balance.

And that things will ultimately come down to advocacy.

And while I feel pretty good knowing that we have about 150,000 students in Michigan charter schools, and a generally strong state association collecting $9/student in membership dues to support advocacy, I know I’d feel all the more confident if we had 300,000 kids in charter schools with $20/student in membership dues coming in, supported by a fully developed C3/C4 infrastructure able to take on the full range of bi-partisan challenges before the movement in Michigan right now.

It’s conditions like this that lead me to broken-record here at CharterFolk:

  • Growth really matters.
  • Raising membership dues really matters.
  • Building our advocacy and political infrastructure really matters.
  • And building our strength on both sides of the aisle really matters.

Because it’s not just Michigan that is seeing changed conditions. Control of several legislatures is flipping across the country right now.

In places like Arizona where we have, aside from DC, the largest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (over 20% of statewide enrollment) and where we have, again fortunately, a generally strong association …

… presuming that we keep growing, and that we keep growing membership revenues, and that we accelerate the development of political infrastructure helping us build relationships on both sides of the aisle …

… we’ll probably be fine.

But in places like Pennsylvania which I have written about again and again

… where we have essentially no advocacy capacity

… we face at this critical hour, I am afraid, a very profound reckoning.

Half-Steps Forward

Elsewhere we are seeing the policy environment get incrementally better.

In New York, the Democratic governor was re-elected …

… having finally offered during the campaign a single word of support for lifting the cap on charter schools.

Now it will come down to advocacy to see whether that was just a slip of the politically convenient tongue, or an utterance backed up by integrity.

So I’m heartened to know that the New York association …

… has made remarkable strides in recent years, having grown from representing 30% of the state’s charter schools to nearly 70%.

But even greater strengthening, including the development of critically needed political infrastructure, will be essential in the months ahead if we really intend to make New York’s cap a thing of the past.

Even in places where things are supposedly all lined up for charter school growth, the key difference-maker will be effective advocacy.

The Tennessee governor cruised to re-election this week.

He’s known to want to get to a hundred thousand kids in Tennessee charter schools before he leaves office.

But he has no vision for really getting there.

So he ends up flailing.

If Tennessee charter schools will make anything close to the level of progress the governor wants to see, it will come down to advocacy. It will come down to an organization that can bring together the entire charter school community behind a shared effort to grow. Heretofore, Tennessee’s state advocacy organization …

… was not set up to do such work. It was not an association at all. It was a completely funder-controlled thing, with no members and no C3/C4 tandem capacity. And so, it was not ready at the moment the opportunity arose.

The Center is currently in the middle of a big effort to remake itself. The question now is whether it can do so in time to take advantage of Lee’s last four years in office.

Half-Steps In Both Directions

Finally, in some states, we see things getting both marginally better and marginally worse at the same time.

California is case and point.

At a state level, thanks in no small part to effective political work being done by CCSA Advocates, things look on the path to encouragingly better, with more charter school-supportive candidates winning key Dem-on-Dem legislative races …

… including the victory …

… of Marie Alvarado-Gil, a senior leader from Rocketship Education, to the California State Senate …

… who becomes the first bona fide CharterFolk to walk the halls of the California legislature as a member!

(Marie has agreed to share a Contributor Column with us in the coming days, so be on the lookout for that, CharterFolk!)

We have also seen an absolute menace of an Assembly Speaker finally agree to leave …

… and the appointment of a new Chair for the Assembly Education Committee …

… who not so long ago was CCSA’s Legislator of the Year …

… and will be massively better than the nightmare Chair we have had for the past eight years.

These are all encouraging signs that conditions are actually improving for California’s charter schools at a state level right now.

But at the local level, the news trends in the opposite direction. We see decidedly mixed results in Oakland and San Jose school board races, and races at LAUSD are coming down to just a handful of votes. Maria Brenes is currently trailing in her race by fewer than 50 votes, out of more than 61,000 cast!

And with AB1505 changes situating more decision-making authority, including new petition and renewal decisions, within county offices of education, the success of the movement in California will hinge on whether we can develop the capacity to reliably win races at the local level.

A Circumstance Reflecting a Broader Truth

It’s a reflection of the political and policy conditions we are seeing emerge in context after context across the country right now.

Very little, if anything, was dispositive this week, CharterFolk.

Things hang in the balance.

What will matter most is what we do after Election Day.

And what will tip things either way will be just a handful of votes.

It’s a level of difference-making we know we can generate if we muster the advocacy strength that is within our potential.

It can be an uncomfortable circumstance to embrace.

Being the difference-maker. Or having the potential to be the difference-maker.

But it is one that I believe reflects an even larger truth.

Which is that, in fact, everything related to public education in our country hangs in the balance.

And one group has the potential to be the ultimate difference-maker: