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Home » Chalk Talk – The “Disarray Perception”: On the Charter School World’s Leadership

February 10, 2004

Is the charter school movement’s leadership weak and disorganized? A handful of pundits have made this comment over the last twelve months, and have found an audience ready to listen. This audience, many of them in what is commonly called “the charter movement” seems ready to accept this opinion as fact.

It’s quite understandable. The now 12-year old adolescent movement is entering a new era of closer scrutiny, owing to more visibility and more available data. Scattered news reports and numerous challenges are prompting many to make rash judgments without the full picture. This is not a comment (this time) on the known enemies of charter schools. Rather – and sadly – it’s a comment on some friends.

Because this characterization is misguided and misleading, it’s time to set the record straight. Let’s examine more closely the charter world’s leaders and let you determine the veracity of the claims.

The States

The states where the charter action is robust are populated with smart, experienced and strategically savvy leaders. In addition to helping set the tone and policy direction for their states, they are heavily relied upon by national players for their insights and assistance:

  • Caprice Young, California – The newest and one of the best, Caprice ran Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s education office, was president of the LA school board, did a stint in real-live business, and now directs the largest and best organized charter association in the nation, the California Charter School Association.
  • Bill Phillips, New York – The yin to California’s yang, Bill has put more than eight years into the NY scene and has led the successful defense of the state’s charter law from one of the most powerful unions in the country. He has help – his colleagues at the NY Charter Resource Center and elsewhere focus their every minute on growing healthy charters and energizing their supporters.
  • Mike Feinberg & Co., Texas – The Texans have taken their state’s leadership to a new level, having coordinated a difficult but necessary merger of efforts, joining the state’s association and its technical assistance bureau. Mike & Co. – which includes other school leaders such as YES Prep!’s Chris Barbic and North Hills’ Rosemary Perlmeter – have collectively achieved a level of state and business support that legislators are noticing, applauding this group’s commitment to quality and growth.
  • Ron Gibson, Indiana – The Hoosiers had a rough time a year ago staying in the strong-law category, fending off unrelenting attacks from opponents. With renewed leadership efforts and a unique coalition of schools, business leaders and authorizers, the state’s charter school association has emerged as a formidable group. Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson is unique in his field and has helped to grow quality charters there, too.
  • Kent Amos, District of Columbia – As newly instituted president of the DC Charter Association, Kent leads a group of some of the best charters this nation has grown and close to 17 percent of all DC public school students are enrolled at charter schools. That doesn’t happen without leadership and Kent and his colleagues are plugged in nationally and locally to take it further.
  • Steve Dess, Minnesota – The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes has Steve and more, with Joe Nathan and his crew at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute and a competent resource center, too. Active at the Capital, in legislative halls and beyond, these three are outstanding leaders.
  • Jim Griffin, Colorado – We need look no further than the Mile High state to find leadership long recognized across the Rockies and beyond. Jim’s board at the Colorado League of Charter Schools and support base are strong and they keep the state moving forward.
  • Dan Quisenberry, Michigan – MAPSA is the state group Dan ably runs, and its success has been demonstrated repeatedly, in the face of massive assaults against charter activists there. MAPSA leads a majority of the state’s 150 charters and has undertaken a strategic effort to move further.

These are a few but there are more. Louisiana’s Jim Geiser, Georgia’s Phil Andrews, South Carolina’s David Church, North Carolina Mountain Man Roger Gerber, and Florida’s Bob Haag flank the south.

To the north, Martha Manning helps lead Delaware, Sue Hollins is making progress in New Hampshire, and New Jersey is covered by a group of people representing charters, lawmakers and activists. To no one’s surprise, states with weak laws have weak leadership, so little can be said about Rhode Island, Virginia or elsewhere.

But regardless of the territory, as a whole the movement has awesome leadership that together serves a majority of the nearly 3,000 charter schools in place today. The schools themselves provide an example in both courage and leadership. They operate almost always amidst a sea of status quo sympathizers, fight an uphill battle to keep open and yet, have made noteworthy and well-documented strides in education children, particularly those normally left behind. These schools are leaders, too.

There are the governors, legislators and myriad city leaders, too. They all play a role. And there are other sorts of leaders, as well. The recently formed National Council of Education Providers (NCEP), with which my organization is associated, represents the leaders of the six major companies working in public education. They have long fought and waged successful efforts, often alone, but increasingly together, across the country.

Groups with broader agendas – from BAEO to LaRaza – have also been important players. They are led by dedicated individuals who work with many of the organizations mentioned here on an ongoing basis.

The Center for Education Reform has watched and participated in this charter evolution for over ten years. We often see things others do not because our field of vision captures multiple locations at different levels at the same time. We’ve seen the creation of networks, alliances, and councils and watched them all start with the concept that the charter movement needs leadership. And when those groups get frustrated, they all blame it on disarray or a lack of focus.

What if it is not disarray, but rather, a false premise that is making it so difficult for some to organize more globally? Could it be that the strength of the charter movement is and must remain at the state level to succeed? Maybe the “disarray perception” has more to do with what some mistakenly regard as the ultimate measure of success of the education reform movement – its centralization. They make the mistake of thinking that there should be one umbrella under which all should unite even though the charter concept started in opposition to that very notion.

The practical reality is that schools work best when controlled closest to kids. The same applies to charter leadership. These organizations work best when they work where the action is – at the local level. Let’s not fall into the trap that even the forces of the Blob can’t dig out of – the notion that there’s only one way and only a few people who can lead.

The state of the charter movement is strong and rumors of its disarray come as a surprise to those who are making it work.

We have amazingly smart, energetic and diligent leaders working under our nose daily. They seek help from the outside when they need it and some of us them when we see a way to assist. Those who profess support for the charter concept should aid and support the quality leaders we have in place. Where strong leaders are needed, let’s help find them and cultivate them. Good leaders will connect with one another and look outside themselves. They’ll enter battles and work towards victories together. They’ll learn from each other, build strategic plans and launch new initiatives together, all to support charter schools. They’ll attend conferences, network voraciously and work constantly to promote their organizations. They already do. But don’t expect them to concern themselves substantively with various efforts to herd them into large amorphous groups to be “led.” They’ll be too busy being leaders, and that’s the way it should be. We’re glad it is.

Check out what these leaders have accomplished as CER releases its annual (and eighth) Charter School Laws Across the States tomorrow. The 41 laws, despite their differences, are a testament to the leadership!


If you’d like to know more about the local and national organizations leading the charter school movement, you can find them here.