2016 NACSA Leadership Conference: Message from Our CEO

On October 25, 2016, NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond delivered these remarks as part of the 2016 NACSA Leadership Conference.

As we start our conference, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about service.

It is said that service is the act of planting a tree when you know you will never sit in its shade.

All of us in this room do our work to be of service to families and students.

Let me tell you a story that had a big impact on me and made me think about my role in being of service.

A FATHER’S GRATITUDE

From 2011 until late last year, I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the Illinois Charter School Commission. In the spring of 2015, I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of one of the schools we had approved two years earlier.

The school is in a working class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side and almost all of the families there are first or second generation immigrants from Mexico. For many of those families, this–this graduation ceremony–was the reason they came to America: to get a better education and a better future for their children.

It was the school’s first graduating class, so there was a lot of excitement!

 The ceremony was held in a warm, crowded school gym, with hundreds of proud family members crammed together on folding chairs. There were dozens of balloons and bouquets of flowers.

I delivered my remarks and then returned to my seat to watch the graduates walk across the stage.

After the ceremony finished, as parents and grandparents hugged their children and families posed for pictures, a father pushed his way through the crowd to get to me. It looked like he had come to the ceremony directly from work because he was still in a uniform. I did not know this man, but as he approached, he seemed to know me.

He extended his hand to me and said, “I know what you did to get this school open and I want to thank you.”

He explained that he was active in his neighborhood political organization; he knows his city councilmember, state representative, and state senator. He knew that, when the Commission was evaluating the proposal for the school two years earlier, we faced lots of political opposition. There were threats of lawsuits. Personal insults. There was a bill introduced in the legislature to put the Commission out of existence.

He wanted to thank me for approving the school in the face of that opposition and, by doing so, giving his daughter a good school to attend.

Today, a year and a half later, I don’t remember what I said in my remarks at that ceremony, but I still clearly remember what that father said to me. I remember how much it meant to him that his daughter had a good, safe school.

At that moment, all of the criticism and threats that our commission had experienced dimmed, and I was reminded why our work is all worth it.

That story is not unique to me. Most of us here can give examples of how we have worked to do the right thing for children in the face of criticism.

Why do we do it? We do it to be of service to families and students.

Let’s dig into this a little further.  As authorizers, I think we are of service because we pursue three important principles:

  • access
  • autonomy
  • responsibility

In the months ahead, you will hear NACSA speaking more often and more clearly about access, autonomy, and responsibility.

Today, I’d like to tell you why.

ACCESS

When that father thanked me, he was thanking me for giving his daughter the opportunity—the access—to attend good school.

In the face of considerable political opposition, we expanded access, not just for that one family, but for all of the families in that neighborhood.

But increasing access to quality schools is not just about approving more schools. It also means that, once a new school exists, students and families need to be able to access it:

  • Parents need information about the schools available to them.
  • The process for applying to schools needs to be family-friendly.
  • Admissions processes need to be fair.
  • Schools need to accept and serve students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
  • Student discipline practices, including suspensions and expulsions, need to be legal and treat students fairly.

At NACSA, we say that all of these issues are part of providing access to good schools to more students. We believe that authorizers have a role to play ensuring all students have that access.

So in the months ahead, we are going to be talking more about the importance of access.

I hope you share our belief in its importance and, if you do, I invite you to work with us.

AUTONOMY

The second way that we are of service is through autonomy.

Authorizers must ensure that the charter schools we work with have the autonomy they need to deliver a great education.

This is critically important because autonomy is the thing that actually empowers educators to be innovative and excellent.

In the charter school world, autonomy covers a lot: autonomy over school staffing, the school day and calendar, the curriculum, the discipline code, compensation, and much more.

Years ago, when I was working in the charter school office of the Chicago Public Schools, our district schools needed to fill out a 100-page form every year to receive their Title 1 funding. For our charter schools, I worked with our Title 1 Office and got it down to 2 pages. The schools still completely followed the law, but they had more flexibility and they spent a lot less administrative time on paperwork.

I have to be honest with you. I worry about autonomy in charter schools and authorizing. There seem to be many authorizers that turn a blind eye to important issues and let schools do whatever they want. Many others are over-regulating charter schools back into the same box that constrains other public schools in districts.

So in the months ahead, along with access, NACSA is going to be talking more about the importance of autonomy.

I hope you share our belief in the importance of autonomy and, if you do, I invite you to work with us.

RESPONSIBILITY

The third way we are of service to families and students is by accepting responsibility for the quality of the schools we authorize.

Let me ask you, have you ever met a person of integrity that did not accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions? I haven’t.

Yet, some people believe authorizers are not responsible for the overall quality of their schools. They believe that authorizers should simply follow the law and let the chips fall where they may. Others believe that authorizers should always defer to parent choices—letting the market decide, even if the market is only giving families more failing schools. Still others believe that only schools are responsible for quality, not authorizers.

A couple of years ago, I shared some school performance data with the authorizers, school operators, and charter school advocates in a particular state. At NACSA, we had pulled this data from the state education department database, where each school had a high, middle, or low rating. Then we grouped the schools by authorizer.

For some authorizers, most of their schools were high performers. Some had schools that were mostly in the middle. For a couple authorizers, almost all of their schools were low performing.

I thought this was really interesting and important, because we should be able to learn what those high-performing authorizers are doing and share it with everyone else.  But to my surprise, one of the charter school advocates that I shared that data with was upset about it. He was upset that I was suggesting that there was any relationship between the actions of an authorizer and the quality of schools approved by that authorizer.

Let me ask you, do you share that belief—a belief that there is no relationship between your work and the quality of schools?

Now, I wholeheartedly agree that each individual school is responsible for its own outcomes. But the authorizer decides which proposals are good enough to be approved in the first place and which are good enough to stay open. Those are tremendous powers that determine the overall quality of charter schools in every city and state.

And that is a solemn responsibility we have to parents and to the public. When parents enroll their children in a charter school, they believe that someone has vetted the school and determined that it is a good and safe place for their children. Taxpayers that are paying for charter schools believe those schools have been vetted and are worthy of receiving public funds.

In the months ahead, along with access and autonomy, NACSA is going to be talking more about responsibility.

I hope you share our belief that authorizers are responsible for the overall quality of their schools and, if you do, I invite you to work with us.

WORK WITH US

It is said that service is the act of planting a tree when you know you will never sit in its shade.

Planting a tree, authorizing a school, running a school: all of these are hard work. Those of us who work in education are fortunate because, in the midst of our hard work, we also get to see the trees begin to take root… and on rare occasion, see the fruits of our labor.

We get to experience the delight of a good school in which educators, students, and families have created a culture that supports learning.

Every spring, we get to see hundreds of graduates walk across a stage. If we are very fortunate, occasionally, a father will thank us for the opportunity we gave his daughter.

Do you believe in planting trees?

If you do, I invite you to work with us so that next spring and for many springs beyond, ever more children will be well educated and ready to take on their futures.