Cautionary Tale

Provocative essay from Jim Peyser, of New Schools Venture Fund (disclosure: A donor to Match). 

His key question: What energy should charter school leaders put into advocacy...educating political leaders (within the various rules)?

The Boston story over the last two decades is a cautionary tale for charter school proponents everywhere. Even in a city with remarkably strong charter schools, supported by business, philanthropy, and the media, breaking through the political and bureaucratic barriers that limit growth is a persistent challenge. Mayoral control is often a blessing for education reformers, but it can also be a curse. In the end, mayors tend to follow, rather than lead, their constituents. In the absence of a sizable, well-organized and mobilized block of voters, the path of least resistance for most mayors is to focus on things that are within their control (like a school district), rather than on things are not (like independent education entrepreneurs). Ultimately, charter schools in Boston and throughout the country must wean themselves from dependence on a handful of friendly political and district leaders who come and go, and instead take control of their own destiny by becoming a more potent political force.

The last three mayors of Boston have served for an average of 15 years each, so establishing a positive working relationship with the new mayor will be a high priority for the city’s charter schools during the transition to a new city administration. To be effective and sustainable, however, such relationships must be based on a reasonable balance of power.

If a collaborative modus vivendi cannot be established with the new mayor, the sector will need to get much better at flexing its latent political muscle at both the state and local level.

The popularity of charter schools among Bostonians and the growing number of families whose children attend them is potentially a huge political asset to a new administration; it can also be a credible threat. To date, the Boston charter sector has kept a fairly low political profile, in hopes of avoiding attacks while pursuing incremental growth. Given a well-entrenched mayor, that may have been the only viable option. But the status quo has changed.

What’s wrong with Boston? As Shakespeare might say, “the fault, dear charter schools, is not in our politicians, but in ourselves.”

Read Jim's whole essay here

A few reactions, as a former charter leader and now a volunteer. 

Overall, Jim is right.  I agree with him 85%. 

1. Let's consider the zero-sum realities of a school leader's time.  There is always more you want to do to meet the needs of your teachers and kids.  Always.  Sometimes it's just getting trains to run on time.  Sometimes it's getting better at basic academics and parent communication, or finding new extra-curriculars, or recruiting great new staff to help kids succeed.  There are often opportunities to share what you've learned with others.  This is stuff that leaders tend to like. 

2. From a school leader's point of view, you understand the competing things that take time away, but you may not enjoy it.  Finding a building is brutal.  Regulators understandably need information, but sometimes "compliance" escalates up pretty dramatically.  And I'd put advocacy here.  So these are things you do to be responsible, but the "emotional" feel of it is that "Geez, I'd much rather be doing anything that might help a kid or teacher more directly."  I tried to do my share of this work while at Match, but it always felt like "spinach." 

3. Here is where it gets tricky: free-rider.  Most of a school leader's time invested in advocacy benefits the whole sector.  So if a school leader has 2% of the charter school kids in the state, "his kids" derive 2% of the political benefit. 

Moreover, the advocacy Jim describes is partially for families on the waiting lists, while partially it helps with keeping the basic charter bargain intact (flexibility for accountability, and sometimes lawmakers start to chip away at the first part). 

So a leader feels like "Hmm...of course I care about those waiting list families, but the families in our school, I actually know them and am responsible for them, it's hard to take a few days and allocate time away from them.  I realize that I should enlist some parents and just tell our stories to elected officials, invite them to visit and walk them around, that simple truths go a long way here.  I should also try to talk more to our opponents -- while that is often frustrating, sometimes there are breakthroughs in understanding -- but whew, look at my To Do list already!  Meanwhile, wow, this great guy named Kevin Andrews from Neighborhood House is really doing amazing relationship-building work that benefits all of us.....maybe I can take a bit of a back seat here." 

At least that is sometimes how I felt.

All of which is to say: Jim P and Will S are correct.  The fault is in ourselves.  And not for nothing, Boston charter folks, but the wonderful, wondrous Kevin Andrews has retired.  He's been the dean of Boston charter school founders for almost 20 years, has been a great help to Match and many other schools, both traditional and charter. 

Some new leaders will emerge.