The charter express bears down on the Bay State…
It’s math time, reader, and today’s problem is an excellent one. Ready? What do you get when you subtract 1,001,279 from 1,041,640? If you answered *38,000 and change,* or *the margin by which the new governor of Massachusetts, Charles Duane Baker, Jr., swept into office,* you would be technically right. But these are bold new days and we are thinking big, bold thoughts, which means that the correct answer is *a bold mandate to replace all of our old failed and failing schools with Excellent New Schools.*
A portfolio of familiarly bold ideas
The first sign that Governor-elect Baker will be arriving on Beacon Hill with a veritable portfolio of familiarly bold ideas came mere minutes before he was pre-elected (by 38,000 votes), with the news that he had selected one James Peyser to lead his transition, which technically began before the polls technically closed. ¿Now where have I heard that name before? There was the Pioneer Institute, of course, which Peyser once executive directed. And the three different charter management chains upon whose boards of directors he presently sits. But I’m thinking of something bigger, something bolder. Wait for it, wait for it. Ah yes. Jim—may we call you Jim?—is a member of something called the National Charter School Hall Fame, an honor he shares with such choice luminaries of choice as Eva Moskowitz, Joel Klein and the Walton Family Foundation. In other words, to say that Jim is a charter guy would be an understatement of the most understated kind.
To the grassroots!
Of course one man does not a mandate make. Which is why we are leaving, for now, the clubby circles of elite politics and venturing down to the grass roots, from which this bold call for New Schools™ is emanating. Families for Excellent Schools—anyone home? Now when we last encountered this grassroots group which *harnesses the power of families to advance policy and political changes that create and sustain excellent schools,* they were in that awkward start-up phase. You know how it is when you’re just starting a non-profit and you’re desperately trying to raise money just to keep the lights on? Which is why I was thrilled to learn that Families for Excellent Schools got an $800,000 start-up grant to help launch its grassroots operation.
Member driven change
Now obviously this is just sour grapes typing because my own fundraising efforts are on the somewhat less excellent end of the scale. Also I am not a charter school, charter management organization or education pioneer so am unlikely to receive an $800,000 start-up grant from Strategic Grant Partners. Sure Families for Excellent Schools is cleaning up on the *green* part of the grassroots front—but are there any actual families behind their well-funded operation? *FES accesses families through school partners, who also place their power as institutions behind the effort.* Does that mean what I think it means? That if you’re a parent of a student who attends a charter school, which is also a *partner,* you are automatically a member of Families for Excellent Schools? Why that’s exactly what it means.
One operative shall lead them all
Of course even a brand new grassroots group with an $800,000 start-up grant and thousands of members who must submit a written request in order to opt out from being members can’t just lead itself. But where to find a leader who has * the capacity to work both internally and externally to build a local organizing program and communicate its impact to stakeholders,* who brings *skills honed on campaigns* and relishes the *opportunity to work with best-in-class campaign strategists, while still building and owning an independent state program*? I have no idea, but apparently the head-hunting firm retained to head hunt Families for Excellent Schools’ *founding state director* turned up this guy: a seasoned campaign operative, who, in addition to 10+ years of winning *tough, competitive races,* was named New Jersey political operative of the year in 2007.
An honest conversation
And now for something a little different. This weekend I participated in a parent conference in Roxbury that was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever been part of. I helped lead a workshop on charter schools with a parent whose daughter sits in a high-performing seat at one of Boston’s top charters. The session drew a diverse group of current and former charter parents along with plenty of *charter curious,* including immigrant parents who were there with translators. Mostly the session consisted of parents sharing stories—of how they’d felt like winning the Boston charter lottery was akin to winning life’s lottery only to find that their new school had no response to special needs other than punishment. Or that the strict, *no excuses* style discipline that’s the rule at almost all Boston charters wasn’t a great fit for kids for whom silence and compliance doesn’t come naturally. It was the kind of open and honest conversation we need to be having a lot more of.
A referendum referendum
There will be a referendum about charter schools on the Massachusetts ballot in 2016. We have a new governor for whom eliminating the cap on charters in Boston and other cities is a priority. Operatives have been hired, grassroots groups have been founded and pre-funded, and money is already pouring into the state; wheelbarrows full of the stuff will follow. The *debate* will be high on emotion and remarkably fact free, as evidenced by this soggy, sorry piece in the Boston Globe. I say let’s make it a real referendum—on a system that increasingly educates poor children and their more fortunate peers completely differently: silence, compliance and test prep for the unlucky vs. creativity, hands-on science and lunch where kids are allowed to talk for the better zip code crowd. Let’s make it a referendum on why Excellent Schools means one thing for the leafy suburbs and shore towns in which our leaders are raising the little leaders of the future, but something very different in urban areas. I’m in, and I met a bunch of parents this weekend who plan to join me. How about you?
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