“You shoulda been there,” John Merrow wrote on his blog a few days ago, referring to our inaugural Independent Charter School Symposium. Indeed, you shoulda -- but many were and many more would have been if we’d had the wherewithal to advertise more broadly. For a fledgling in a crowded nest of education conferences, the Symposium overperformed and there’s every reason to believe that the goodwill and energy unleashed at the conference has the potential to change the stagnant conversations around chartered schools and advance principles that could redirect the broader discussion around ed-reform in a healthier, more holistic direction.
There are things we could have done better, issues I wish we could have found time to explore in more depth and more people to whom we should have extended personal invitations. But regrets are few compared to the many things that made us smile. Here are a few of my takeaways:
People responded to the diversity and the candor of the voices we brought to the conversation. It wasn’t a rally; there was no preaching to the choir.
Because the past year has felt like a sucker punch to our belief in the “arc of the moral universe… (bending) towards justice,” our Town Hall Meeting felt particularly redemptive. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were willing to trust in the collective judgement of the educators who had come from across the country, and they responded in a thrilling display of messy democracy at its finest.
Attendees edited and adopted a resolution calling for the formation of a new charter advocacy group and, perhaps more importantly, unanimously approved a powerful Statement of Principles for schools and leaders to aspire to. If this group has a future, I believe we’ll look upon that moment as a turning point.
There has been a fair amount of news coverage of the Symposium in the past two weeks. Press recognition is gratifying but often accompanied by the distress of seeing one’s words advancing a journalist’s pet narrative -- and there’s a strong urge to portray our story as a battle between “mom and pop” charter schools and the large charter networks. David vs. Goliath has, after all, been a blockbuster for 3000 years. The real story we want to tell, though, is one of principles: the principles that were at the core of the charter movement when it first began and the principles we’re trying to return to. They are the same principles that motivated John Dewey, Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier and continue to motivate people who are drawn to education.
Principles won’t kick David and Goliath off the front page for a long time, and there’s really nothing we can do about that. So, we’ll live with it. But what I do find galling is the assertion that what we’re doing is “splitting the charter sector.” We are not. What we are doing is stating sound principles that are aligned with and underscore the responsibilities we have (or should have) agreed to take on in exchange for public dollars and the autonomy that we have (or should have) to innovate in our schools and create the kind of learning environments that families aspire to for their children and educators aspire to for their careers.
Because the real crisis we are facing is not district public schools vs. public chartered schools or between networks of chartered schools and ones that are community-based and autonomous. The real crisis-in-the-making is the abandonment of the education profession by young people who no longer seek a career there. And I am convinced that we can turn that around if we return to our roots and the principles that the movement for chartered schools was founded on.