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“But You’ve Got to Have FRIENDS”

National Charter Schools Week 2019 Day 4

Some of the earliest founded charter school advocacy groups had friends in their name, and for good reason. They wanted to be what most of us aspire to be in all walks of like – great friends to the new kid on the block.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools was the first city-based organization to be formed. FOCUS was – and is – devoted to expanding opportunities for students, and particularly those in charter schools.  Friendship Public Charter Schools was the first community-based network to develop to support at-risk students in DC and remains one of the pioneers in successful community based, African-American led networks, which happens to lead in educational attainment and innovation, too.

The national leader at the time was Charter Friends National Network, started by our “friends” in Minnesota and devoted “from 1996 to March of 2004, to supporting state-level charter support organizations.” That group was part of a coalition that included CER and other national leaders that explored how best to coordinate our efforts nationally. Eventually the decision was made, with some pressure by foundations, to evolve into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But most of the friends of charter schools are largely unknown and unsung heroes who don’t show up on the conference circuit or in the press or get bandied around by all the pundits and newsletters. Yet it is they who are responsible for the movement's growth in encouraging and supporting these amazing opportunities for kids. Sarah Tantillo is one of those friends, whose leadership in the 90s in NJ catapulted that unlikely union state to become one of the earliest for charters. Our CEO Jeanne Allen discussed her work then and her recent book about the movement on this special podcast for #CharterSchoolsWeek.

At that time, charter schools were incubators for innovation, flexibility, experimentation and new ideas for how best to deliver quality education to children and there was a growing group of people – hundreds – putting their great ideas to the test, and to work for children. 

Today, those very tenets that these friends helped secure for our kids are under siege, some within the movement and some, as we discussed yesterday, from without.

This phenomenon has been articulated by many individually, and collectively in Charting a New Course: The Case for Freedom, Flexibility and Opportunity through Charter Schools, the result of the work of researchers, policy analysts and thought leaders who have been evaluating the activities and reactions of the educational choice frontier for many years. As our experts describe in the multi-essay publication, there are friends that have become enamored of the system, who seek to ensure they arrive at higher quality educational options by giving government structures more authority to decide what schools may open and what schools must close be using standardized test-scores largely to make data-driven decisions.

Then there are friends, much like the original charter pioneers, who trust parents more than bureaucrats when it comes to determining school quality. They want to see a more open and dynamic system, where there is greater freedom for educational entrepreneurs to open new schools and for parents to decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.

System-centered friends have contributed to what is called “institutional isomorphism” in the charter sector—the tendency of charter schools to look and act more and more like the traditional schools they were intended to substantively supplement. Charter schools were supposed to offer a wider array of options, to help parents find schools based on the educational approach that fits their child best.  Today, in terms of financial support and organizational infrastructure, system-centered reformers have the upper hand. Their arguments are straightforward: we know “what works” to produce a charter sector that “outperforms” traditional public schools. Policymakers, eager to show that they’re pro- “accountability,” are increasingly adopting system-centered reforms. But student-centered reformers are more plentiful and as results from among the states lead by student-centered reformers come in – Arizona and Florida to name just two – there is thankfully that needed pendulum swing happening again among our friends.

Charters remain a beacon of innovation and opportunity and today more than ever they need friends united in the quest and the notion that there is no one size fits all that works for kids, schools or accountability, and that the core principles of the charter movement must be centered on the students, and their individualized needs if we are to succeed for the millions in and waiting to get into charter schools. It may be harder and more difficult to measure individual progress, but with good friends, anything is possible.