On Charter Schools, Say This, Not That

A new guide to charter messaging urges advocates to steer clear of corporate speak

say this not that-1Once every four minutes, a passionate charter advocate accidentally lapses into the kind of clinical corporate speak that can leave listeners cold—not to mention kids out of the equation. Would that there were a way to remedy this problem once and for all… Great news, reader. Problem solved! A handy new guide to charter school messaging ensures that never again will you mistakenly blurt out *market share* when you mean *student share,* or *businesses* when what you really meant to mean all along was *schools.*

Say this, not this
The Charter School Messaging Notebook was prepared for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools by the Glover Park Group, which specializes in *creative, disruptive thinking, deep insights and senior counsel* (Shout out to my secret reformy pal for sharing…) And the results are crystal clear, reader. *When we use words that work, people like what they hear—and that means more support for charter schools.* In other words, say this, not this…

say this not that chart
Know when to change the subject
Well that was easy. But just to be safe, you’ll want to print and laminate this essential *Say This/Not This* chart to carry with you as a constant reminder never to say *experiments* when what you really meant, of course, was *responsive to student needs.* Which means that our work is done—or it would be—*but there are still other concerns…* 

The number one concern that voters have about charters is the impact on neighborhood schools. People can explain, without any prompting, that having a better school come to the community will make people want to leave their district school. And they worry about what will happen to the teachers and the students who stay in the district school. Even though they want more charters, they worry about district schools. So, we must be sensitive to this concern. The best response we have to this concern at this time is to stay focused on students.

In other words, change the subject…

Let’s get negative
Unprompted concern for the future of their soon-to-be shuttered neighborhood schools isn’t the only way that parents and voters are *off message.* The charter message testers also found that some of their fave charter cheers are turning off the very people that they must turn on.

Perceived Attacks on or Negative Comparisons to District Schools
Although many feel that our traditional public schools are failing, most still care strongly for these schools and would like to see them fixed, rather than done away with.
Note: this does not mean that we shouldn’t use real data or statistics about district schools to illustrate the need for high-quality public school options. But we shouldn’t simply bash the whole system.

 Closing Schools
The public (both regular voters/parents and opinion leaders/policymakers) has a strong attachment to the idea of traditional public schools; therefore many are against closing even the worst performing public schools.
These views have consequences for how we describe charter school accountability. We often highlight as a positive feature of charter schools that they can be closed down if they don’t perform well. This isn’t a good message for us with the general public. People want to see schools fixed, not closed.
Note: this doesn’t mean we should change our approach to closing schools, it just means it isn’t something we should highlight in our public messaging.

Partnerships with Businesses and Foundations That Provide Additional Funding
These arrangements are viewed through a cynical lens because many assume it opens a door for donors to push their particular agenda in the schools.
Note: Again, this doesn’t mean charters shouldn’t accept charitable contributions, it just isn’t something we should highlight in our public messaging.

References or Comparisons to *White, Higher-Income Students.*
This information can provide a very important proof point for charter success to education reformers and policymakers.
But broader audiences (voters and parents) particularly in less urban areas are turned off by the comparison and quick to push back.

change_clockChange we can believe in 
Enough with the negativity already. Surely there are some positive messages regarding the kinds of changes that parents in particular would like to see in what’s left of their public schools. Actually, there are. *Encouraging greater parental involvement* was the top choice, followed by *reducing class size.* As for the least popular options? Only 29% of those polled believed that *limiting the power of teachers unions* held the key to improving public schools. But that was still more popular than the least popular choice: *creating new PUBLIC schools so parents have more choices.* Did I mention that charter schools are public schools?

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.comFollow Jennifer on Twitter @EduShyster.


  1. Page 14: “Remember to use this message only with audiences who are already familiar with charters and with policymakers.”

    Translation: Withhold information that may be useful to parents making decisions.

    1. Except some of the strongest charter advocates and best charters have been created by educators frustrated by their experiences in district public schools….so they have reached out to create public schools that make sense…something I wish more districts would encourage.

      1. Those old-school charters — started by teachers who wanted the freedom to experiment with curriculum and scheduling — are often great. They are also few and far between in any large city, where ever-expanding CMOs “compete” for “market share.” As a citizen and taxpayer, I want any school I fund to be transparent about its budgeting, operations, curriculum, teaching methods, and outcomes. I expect any charter or neighborhood school in my district to work collaboratively with other schools in the district to best serve students’ needs. To the extent that any charter school makes valuable innovations, these should be openly shared and neighborhood schools should be free to adopt them. District voters should have a say in who serves on the charter school board and where the school will be located. By contrast, charter chains that “compete” using “proprietary” methods, and that are governed by appointed rather than elected boards, are following a private-enterprise model and should, IMO, be privately funded. I do not care to have my tax dollars going to enterprises whose activities I can neither monitor nor control.

  2. My favorite quote (p. 17): “Also, as you can see, most people simply don’t understand the connection between unions and student or school outcomes, so it’s just not a battle we should fight with audiences who aren’t already extremely well-informed and invested in education reform.”

    Heck, why have a debate with stakeholders? We know more than they do.

  3. Sweet. can we see the Teacher’s Union marketing playbook now? It’s only fair to show both right?

    1. Do your own homework.

      But before doing so, you may wish to reconsider your apparent belief that “But THEY do it, too!” is a persuasive argument. Even small children know that it is not.

  4. Jennifer, as a former writer for a teacher union newspaper, don’t you have access to similar materials prepared for teacher unions – and perhaps for school boards and supts?

    As a person who advertises her availability to provide consulting on communications (which is entirely your right), I’d like you would be very interested in sharing how various groups have learned what messages resonate.

    1. This is a really good question and I’ve been thinking back through my days as a newspaper editor to try to answer it. Since the majority of the teacher union locals with which I worked didn’t have the budget to afford paid staff (only the biggest locals have even one full-time staffer), doing any kind of polling like this was unimaginable. I’ve seen polls that bigger state organizations have done along with the AFT but they tend to be what I think of as *bad news polls*–surveying the public to try to determine how badly teachers and other public sector employees fare in the eyes of the public. It’s possible that AFT or NEA has done polling more specific to attitudes about the public schools more recently. (And I’ll inquire because it seems so necessary right now.) The implication of your question and that of the commenter above though is that some how charter advocates and teachers unions are equivalent in the fight over the future of the public schools. My personal view is that teachers unions have to do the hard work of being partners with parents, but as of now there isn’t anyone representing the parents you can feel in the charter messaging guide–the parents who know that they’re going to lose their neighborhood schools.

      As for my communications work, my specialty is internal communications — I help unions and nonprofits do a better job of engaging their own members. But I don’t do any work for either of the teachers unions as I like having a completely independent platform.

  5. Jennifer,

    There’s a great video of a charter school parent engaging in an impromptu debate with pro-public school parents. Citizens of the World, the charter, was involved in a very contentious co-location battle with the parents of Stoner Avenue Elementary School, and with residents living near the Stoner Avenue public school campus that CWC had invaded.

    Apparently, no one had given him this handbook on how to talk to non-charter folks, and how to bamboozle them into thinking charter forces are nice and harmless. At one point, he lets the cat out of the bag that CWC’s goal is not to coexist peacefully with Stoner—as was professed by CWC in all its media pronouncements—but to wipe Stoner off the face of the earth.

    Get this?

    He compares the charter’s planned conquest to a Darwinian process in nature, a la “survival of the fittest.” You see, there’s an old tree that deserves to die and disappear (that’s Stoner, the traditional public school). A new tree (CWC Charter) enters the ecosystem, then sends out a “strangler vine” to slowly surround and choke the old tree to death so the new tree alone can flourish.

    Needless to say, this bizarre biological analogy—as seen by all in the video—did not go over well with the Stoner parents or pro-public school residents nearby. After a brutal, year-long battle—and thanks to a paperwork blunder by CWC—the Stoner parents and nearby residents won, and CWC was sent packing.

    Here’s a link to an anti-charter blog, run by a parent and nearby resident, that talks about this incident:


    Here’s a link to the video: (the “strangler vine” analogy kicks in about 03:34)


    Here’s the top comment on YouTube:

    “CWC is trying to ‘strangle’ the life out of a traditional public school that they perceive as dying? Stoner has an API of 811 (very exceptional for that demographic). The school is not dying unless you are actively trying to kill it. The arrogance of CWC and its parents is just disturbing. They think that by invading our neighborhood they are making it better. What does that say to the residents that have lived there over 30 years?”

  6. I’ve got another truly nutty tidbit about CWC’s utterly tone-deaf attempts to communicate with the pro-public school residents near Stoner—some who are actual Stoner parents, others long-time citizen-taxpayers supportive of Stoner.

    Apparently , the residents were upset about the traffic jams and illegal parking that created chaos during the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-ups—driveways blocked, no parking for residents, etc. Residents then called parking enforcement, who, as per usual, we’re quite aggressive and successful in dumping hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars of fines on the CWC parents’ cars.

    In a you-can’t-make-this-up scenario, CWC came up with the following solution: they sent residents packets of “karma tickets” (like Monopoly money) that mimicked L.A. Parking Enforcement Ticket text and graphics. In lieu of calling Parking Enforcement—which resulted in fines for CWC parents—the residents were to put these faux tickets on the windshields of the cars of the offending CWC parents…. and make the point that way

    It’s like someone who has dogs that defecate all over a neighborhood, and instead of cleaning it up himself, sends all the neighbors plastic bags so they can do it instead.

    Here’s an article from the blog about this—complete with a picture of a “karma ticket”.


    Adam Benitez, the parent/resident who runs this blog, calls attention to two tenets of CWC’s multi-cultural mission (“Citizens of the World:… get it?) …

    1) being good citizens who respect and follow the law;


    2) showing respect for all cultures and religions;

    and how these so-called “karma tickets” make of mockery of these tenets:

    “Now, let’s talk about the karma tickets. Who would even think this was a good idea? CWC is, in essence, asking the local community to not report their citizen’s illegal and dangerous activities to the proper authorities, and instead asking the residents to police the CWC community ourselves by giving out culturally insensitive ‘karma’ tickets.

    “Karma is a deeply held spiritual belief in many cultures and religions. For CWC to use it so flippantly shows a complete lack of understanding and respect for other cultures and spiritual beliefs. Karma is not just something you give to the barrista at Starbucks. It is a key concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and many others religions.

    “How entitled must one be to think that it is a good idea to co-opt a spiritual belief from another culture and use it inappropriately to insult the community they are claiming to want to be a part of?

    “If CWC intended to calm the neighbors concerns, the letter and Karma tickets had the complete opposite effect. Instead of easing tensions, this just heated up on the whole situation and opened the neighbor’s eyes to what CWC was all about.”

  7. So, now the truth comes out! Say: Accountability. Not: Reform.

    As we have known right from the beginning, the “Reform” movement has nothing to do with learning and education and is simply Accountability!!

    Their words!!!

Comments are closed.