Why the Charter School Past is Anything But a Bucket Full of Ashes

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I start with a special thanks to Joe Nathan for his great column celebrating the contributions of Gene Piccolo.

I didn’t know Gene as well as I know most charter school advocates in the country. But I knew him well enough to know that Joe got his tribute just right.

Thank you again, Joe.

One of the things that Gene did as well as anyone in our movement was to teach our world about our own history. His 45 chapters about charter school history in Minnesota, our movement’s first state, are testament to the efforts he undertook to help our world understand where we came from.

But so often these days, we hear people say that no one cares about the past. Our young people coming up, some say, just aren’t interested in what came before.

And with some of the world’s most respected futurists saying the pace of change that’s coming is going to make the world essentially unrecognizable to us just five to ten years from now …

… some doubt whether it’s even worth trying to make sense of the future, much less the past that gave birth to it.

So Sandburg’s famous statement poses as deep a challenge in Charterland as it does in any other context:

“The past is a bucket of ashes.”

What value is there in knowing the past?

What is its relevance?

If anything, the sentiment goes, the fact that the charter school movement has a history at all just lends credence to the fact that it’s getting old. As if each additional passing away of the original generation of CharterFolk just saps a little bit more of our strength.

Over the last four months, we have seen more titans in our movement pass than perhaps we have seen in any other four-month period in the history of charter schools.

Each has been celebrated here at CharterFolk.




And now Gene.

In addition to many other prominent leaders who have passed away over the past year, some of whom we have celebrated here at CharterFolk.

But not all by any means.

And it’s possible, I suppose, to try to make the argument that a focus on all these past leaders is something that only OlderFolk care about, and if we’d ask our YoungerFolk, we would hear the truth, which is that they just don’t care.

Making the charter school past, like all other forms of the past, just a bucket full of ashes.

It’s a world view I couldn’t disagree with more, CharterFolk.

Not just because the open rates of the columns in tribute to titan charter school leaders have some of the highest open rates of anything we publish here at CharterFolk.

But because of the conversations that the passings provoke, which prove just the opposite.

This week I had occasion to be in Washington DC where I was pleased to be able to attend the memorial service for Ramona.

I can’t tell you how touched I was to see on the back of the program …

… that Ramona’s family had offered a thank you to CharterFolk.

The broader community of “Charter Folk” for their steadfast professional collaboration and recognition of Ramona in their work together over the years. We are grateful Ramona ended her career on such a high note!

Recognized right up there next to Ramona’s beloved sorority sisters at Delta Sigma Theta.

Talk about rarified air!

As only he could, CharterFolk Extraordinaire Donald Hense …

… represented the charter school community impeccably, paying tribute to his close friend.

All of the tributes were wonderful coming from friends, family, and mentees.

Perhaps the one that leaped out most, looking at things from a charter school perspective, was the comment from one of Ramona’s sorority sisters saying that long ago she and Ramona had disagreed on charter school matters. And her sister confessed to having raised her voice on the topic several times. But Ramona never responded in kind, just calmly, warmly continuing to make her case, such that, her sister reported, decades later she had come to see that Ramona had been right on charter school matters after all.

It underscores a central point, one that Ramona made again and again, which is that in order to see the value that charter schools are creating for our society …

… you have to take the decades-long view …

… which requires, of course, that you know what happened decades ago.

That you know history.

So you can appreciate the history that is being made.

Prevailing on the most important undertakings in Charterland, like a debate with a beloved sorority sister, is often a years-long endeavor.

Years of simply not giving up.

Like the supporters of Danbury charter school in Connecticut.

They have been approved to open since 2018, but the legislature has refused to fund them ever since.

This week the school’s supporters showed they’re simply not giving up.

It was demonstrating the same tenacity …

… that Ramona and Linda and Don and Eugene and so many others who have come before have shown.

All other public education reform efforts in our country, as this recent study so sadly and so authoritatively documented ….

… have come to nothing.

The Coleman Report. A Nation at Risk. The Standards Movement. No Child Left Behind. So many others.

They’re all.

Every one of them.

Buckets of ashes.

None lasted long enough to even have a history, much less make it.

But the charter school movement, meanwhile, here we are. Over thirty years and counting.

And yes, every titan that we lose, hurts. No doubt.

But each passing provokes a new conversation that deepens the commitment of those who remain, and beckons a new generation to come, as Mollie’s latest report so compellingly documents.

CharterFolk are on the move.

Are coming up.

Folk every bit as stunning …

… as those who came before.

Some like Lydia are creating whole new organizations …

Others like Ariel …

… are stepping in to fill the shoes of titans like Ramona, leading advocacy work in DC, and, yes, taking Ramona’s place on the CharterFolk Board.

Thank you, Ariel.

In the end, what we find is a continuity of effort.

A continuity of experience.

Across decades.


Shared history.

Such that we feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

Not a bucket of ashes.

But its opposite.

A flame that burns ever brighter.

Because, perhaps more important than anything else, the fact that we have made progress across generations positions us to change the history of public education in our country.

This year we are preparing to gather for our national conference in Boston.

Boston, as CharterFolk know, is a place whose history reveals the vexing issues that arise as we attempt to make public education more excellent and more equitable in our country.

Some of the images that come out of that history are as seared into our national consciousness as any other.

50 years ago this week, monumental events attendant to that history were occurring.

And in the very month we will be hosting our national conference, we will recognize the 50th anniversary of the most consequential, and some would say disastrous, court decisions in the post-Brown era.

CharterFolk, our movement grew directly out of this history.

Our movement, in fact, was a direct response to this history.

And, 50 years later, we stand as well poised as any other force in modern life to help our society transcend this history.

Showing that the charter school past is not a bucket of ashes.

Nor is public education’s past a bucket of ashes.

But is, in fact, fuel.

Something that challenges us to burn ever brighter.

But we’ve got to know the history, CharterFolk, such that the flame grows ever larger.

How events that happened in Boston a half century ago continue to fuel us to this day is the topic we turn to next weekend.

Hope to see you here.