One Authorizer in California, Part 2: Getting Out of the Bunker

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In their own words

What follows are edited excerpts of Part 2 of our conversation with one such leader: Gail Greely, director of CARSNet, the Charter Authorizers Regional Support Network, a program of the Alameda County Office of Education. (Part 1 excerpts here.)

 

It’s About Integrity and Values

Gail: Having a network of other authorizers to talk to was incredibly helpful. The [NACSA] Leaders Program, eventually, and earlier on, other authorizers in the state that I got to know. We all felt that.

Some of us caved [to pressure] more often than others. Some people never cave. But if you’re in that kind of environment that pushes you that way often enough, it’s not sustainable.

This work I’m now doing [as director of CARSNet, the Charter Authorizers Regional Support Network], to try and support small authorizers in the state: I have a suspicion that part of the high turnover in this work that we see among small authorizers is related to not being able to develop an expertise that allows them to feel confident in asserting their views. Feeling that they can act in integrity because they are the experts. So instead, they get pushed around, and why would you want to stay in a job like that?

NACSA: Right. There’s already isolation because they’re small…

Gail: Right. Because there are not very many people doing this work, when you think of the size of the state. And they are in these very hotly [contested] battles over new schools, closing schools, over funding, arguments over contracts and funding. So, if you’re not feeling grounded in your own practice, I think it’s very easy to get discouraged and pushed around.

NACSA: You must feel like you have something so personal to offer them [other authorizers] based on all your professional experience too. You’ve been in those situations that they’re finding themselves in as small authorizers.

Gail: I hope so. I hope that one of the things that we’ll be able to do is some of what the NACSA Leaders Program does: help you connect the work that you do to the person you are. Again, I think it’s that grounding in values and in your beliefs about what kids deserve that keeps you standing there when the hurricane is all around you.

We’re in fact in the process of developing the curriculum for our boot camp, different from the [NACSA] Leaders Program in that we’re really trying to get people from zero to decent. We’re not trying to get [them] to the top of the class. We want to get people from, ‘I don’t know anything about this’ to ‘You’re a decent quality authorizer.’

But we’re already talking about [how] we have to start with values. We’re going to have to start there because we can’t get them through to the end of this even to decent unless we get them grounded.

NACSA: Why? Why do you have to start there? What will that do for them?

Gail: Well, I think what it has been for me…it’s hard to call it this—but it’s armor.

I really hate to use military metaphors. But, if it’s a ‘charter war’ and you are walking into a board meeting where there are 150 parents who are advocating for the school and 10 people from your teachers union who are advocating against [it] because charters are evil or whatever it might be…and you are the one sitting there saying, ‘Well, the law says these are the criteria, and under the criteria, this thing needs to be denied, approved, whatever,’ and your board members are going all over the map, it’s your belief—that you’ve done a good job, you’re pursuing the right goals, you are acting in integrity with your own values—that keeps you from getting up, flipping them off, and walking out the door, or quitting the next morning, or giving up completely and just asking your superintendent, ‘So what do you want me to write in this report?’

Breaking the Monopoly

Gail: I was in the energy business in a time when the American energy industry was deregulating—supposedly deregulating—and the big utilities were being split up. It was breaking into a highly regulated business and…I was working with small power producers.

So for the first time, other people were going to be able to provide the power in this very important public service.

NACSA's Notes on CaliforniaCharter schools are very similar.

And so, I feel like what I actually can contribute at this point is…I have this perspective about this as a deregulating, essential public service, de-monopolizing, if you will, breaking the monopoly. So I have that sort of energy industry perspective.

I was a school board member. We didn’t have any charters at the time, but I get how it works. I get what the pressures are, how difficult those jobs are, the respect that those people [school board members] are entitled to because of what they represent. And then I ran a couple of schools, including starting one up. So I sort of get how crazy that all is.

And now the authorizing side. So I feel like I bring a lot of different perspectives to this work. I’m hoping to be able to share those different perspectives.

One of the things I actually try and tell people who are new to this work is, ‘You really have to make sure you’re consciously thinking about the perspectives of the other stakeholders. If you’re an authorizer, don’t just think about authorizing. Think about what the school leader is doing. Think about what the board members are dealing with. Think about what your superintendent is dealing with. Just try and get those different perspectives.’ Because it’s very easy in this very difficult work to get in the bunker and you can’t see anything from the bunker. You can’t do anything from the bunker.

There I am back to military, which I don’t know what it is about it.

NACSA: Because they are powerful metaphors. We all fall into them because…people viscerally get that imagery.

Gail: And also, wars are about life and death, and education is about life and death for kids. It really is.

Curriculum for the Head and the Heart

Gail: Well, now we have this great opportunity to create a curriculum for authorizers in California—small authorizers. I have literally been, throughout this [NACSA’s Annual Leadership] conference, jotting notes about how we want to put this curriculum together. There are so many pieces and I have this little list going…

So what I’m really excited to do with this curriculum is give multiple perspectives to the authorizers, not just, ‘Here’s how you do it’ but, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s a suggestion for changing your policy or thinking about your policy in a different way. Here’s the history on this. Here’s an important exercise to help you develop this skill.’ I just want to have lots of bits and pieces because it’s…

NACSA: It’s not linear.

Gail: No, it’s not. It can be done that way. You can give people a how-to book. ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ But they won’t be good authorizers if they do that.

NACSA: Just like charter schools offer different ways to learn, it would be…kind of counterintuitive not to offer the authorizers different ways to interpret the fine points.

Gail: Right. And you know, it needs a little heart space in it too: How does this connect with you? How do you react when you think about, for example, kids with special needs not having access to charter schools?

I’m excited about the opportunity to do that.