To tee up our conversation, how long have you been in your current role, and where did you come from before this?
I was appointed President of Illinois Network of Charter Schools in April 2010. INCS is a statewide membership and advocacy organization serving the 115 charter school campuses in Illinois that educate 36,000 students. Prior to my appointment, I was the Associate State Superintendent of Schools in Georgia and before that worked as a Civil Rights lawyer in the Atlanta office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. On the policy side, I was the Georgia Department of Education’s principal legislative liaison, working on education policy in collaboration with the General Assembly, the State’s multiple educational agencies, and the Governor’s office. In addition, I worked with legislative leadership to create and ultimately staff the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which established a single-purpose statewide authorizer with the power to fully fund charter schools. On the legal side, I represented clients in a wide variety of litigation matters in state and federal courts, with a special emphasis on school finance disputes, desegregation cases, and charter school law. Over the past ten years, my work has been focused on creating great public school options for students and fighting for legislative and regulatory changes that put student needs at the center of school reform debates.
Let’s talk first about the community organizing toolkit. What are the essential ingredients for forming a strong community organizing principle and staff within a charter, and a charter network?
Charter schools and charter networks need to have active advocacy and community organizing initiatives if they plan to be maximally effective. As the charter school sector has grown in influence and numbers, we have experienced a commensurate backlash from some quarters. Having a proactive outreach approach that is aligned with the organization’s mission can be extremely effective in heading off this opposition. The focus must remain on the creation of great schools, but charter advocates should not shy away from correcting misinformation about charter schools and standing up for the right of children to have high-quality educational options.
Once you’ve got the charter up and running, how important is continued advocacy for charters, even in states where we have seen growth in charters and excellent performance?
Effective advocacy efforts should never end. The general public is still largely misinformed about charter schools and it is up to those of us working in the sector to correct these misunderstandings. This misinformation has the effect of limiting the growth of natural allies and charter ambassadors. We operate at the center of most school reform debates and there are special interests that have fueled anti-charter legislation, attempted to limit charter equity, and introduced legislation to constrain the movement. While we are still a relatively small slice of the public school population in most districts – charter school students make up 8% of the total population of students in Chicago – we are having outsized influence on education policy debates, on issues from teacher effectiveness to school turnaround to merit pay. This is a tremendous opportunity to play a larger role in school reform debates and too many in the charter community miss that chance. Indeed, affecting the direction of school reform is a great responsibility and we must orient ourselves toward school quality at all costs, which sometimes means we have to be tough on our own schools.
I’m reminded of Kevin Chavous at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit in DC a few months back saying that charter advocates and choice advocates really need to do a better job in telling their stories. In doing so, a movement’s message might be more unified and stronger. Do you think we are at that place yet? Can we get there in creating a common choice movement message? What do you think that message is?
I think the focus needs to be on high-quality school options and not merely about “choice” for the sake of choice. We need to move beyond the tired school choice debates of years past and take a more agnostic position on school organization. At INCS we are about great schools, however organized. That means that we will support district turnaround efforts, teacher effectiveness initiatives, extended day, tuition tax credits, or any other program that works for students. Many in the reform community spend far too much time debating the relative merits of this program or that program while students are stuck with terrible options. It just so happens that the charter model, designed to provide flexibility in exchange for accountability, is one of the most effective ways to organize schools. Rather than add a program on an otherwise ineffective, nonresponsive school, we create whole schools and re-imagine what schools can be. That means we rethink notions of teacher quality, extended day, reallocation of resources, every issue that really matters to student outcomes. When Chicago Public Schools say they are “stuck” with a five hour and thirty minute day, charter operators dispute that and teach students for seven hours a day. When district officials complain about teacher effectiveness and an inability to remove terrible teachers, charters implement human capital solutions that include removing ineffective teachers. These are the reasons I happen to believe that the charter model offers more promise that almost any other initiative, provided authorizers do their job.
In traditional school, a student’s worth and the students themselves are trapped in a usually unhelpful format. Charters have done a lot to change this. We know the basic format, but what will be the next evolution of charters? Do you think they can become something more powerful, more dynamic and do things in even more interesting ways?
Definitely. The first fifteen years of the charter movement was about proving our right to exist by showing that the charter sector has much to add to public education reform. We are now established in ways that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. But the next chapter in this story is less about charter specific advocacy than it is about embracing quality – demanding not just more charters but more high quality charter schools. At bottom, this movement is about creating the conditions under which great schools can be established. The traditional systems, and this is from someone who spent many years at the state level working on school improvement generally, are so resistant to change and so quick to embrace minimal reform that the charter sector should keep pushing. We simply have to embrace a sense of urgency on behalf of our students and that is an urgency that is missing in far too many education policy debates.
Regarding your views on technology, should we be implementing a better technology plan in charter schools, and what do you think that tech plan would look like?
There are two elements to the technology story. On the operational side, charters need the right technology to create the data needed to assess student outcomes and target areas that need improvement. As we move towards data driven instruction and making teacher and administrator decisions based on student growth patterns, technology can assist in getting data in the hands of decision-makers. On the curriculum side, we need technology that will prepare our students for 21st century success. Public charter schools should be focusing on preparing students for life in college and beyond, something that requires a facility with technology. Predicting the next generation of technology is not something schools will ever be able to do well. However, the flexibility embedded in the charter model makes the barriers to adoption exceptionally low, which will spur innovation in ways that seem unthinkable now. Still, in the final analysis, the charter sector is not about the next great application. If I had to make the choice between a great teacher and a great piece of technology, I’d pick the teacher each time.