Today I was reading Marc Porter Magee’s guest piece for Rick Hess’s “Straight Up” opinion blog on Education Week. Marc writes a call to arms for education advocacy. Not just the advocacy that is about rally days at the state capital or annual reports, but the “…daily, fight-for-your-lives battles” that educators, leaders, and families face to continue serving students.
As a policy advocate—in a sector that doesn’t do a lot of policy advocacy—this piece resonated with me. Policy has a tremendous role in shaping authorizing, but it can be difficult to translate that into action for authorizing or by authorizers. Part of this has to do with the nature of authorizing—we are the overseers, the compliance officers, the technocrats who work within the charter movement. Our work is rarely glamorous and people don’t really pay attention to it unless something goes wrong. And most of the time that low-profile works in our favor. It lets us do the work and, as best we can, avoid the political football of the “education reform” label.
The same attitude that lets us get s*@# done also makes us susceptible to disillusionment and apathy. When viewed from the trenches by an authorizer, the policy realm can feel like the source of a never-ending bombardment by people who don’t understand our work—or want to manipulate it for their own gain.
So we have not one, but two excuses to stay out policy all together: a worry that it is not our role; and a sinking feeling that even if we wanted to get involved, it’s not going to help anyway.
But if our industry is to have a lasting impact on education, we need to change this attitude. We need to embrace what policy can accomplish and engage in the activities—like advocacy—that will get us there.
We need to start by remembering that advocacy isn’t a dirty word. It starts by simply telling the world what you do and why you do it. Try it out:
- I’m an authorizer. I decide which charter schools should open, because I believe every child deserves a great education.
- I’m an authorizer. I make sure the public knows how charter schools in their community are performing, because I believe every parent should have the best information when deciding which school to send their child to.
- I’m an authorizer. I decide if a charter school should close, because I think the goal of the charter movement is to provide a great education, not to create more bad schools.
Translating that into policy advocacy simply adds one more step: talking about how policy can support what you do.
- Policy can support my work by making it easier for me to evaluate charter school applications by letting me ask questions about past performance.
- Policy can support my work by requiring the charter schools I oversee to tell the public (and me, their authorizer) how they are performing every year.
- Policy can support my work by giving me additional legal tools that will give me more confidence that decisions I make to close a poor performing charter school will hold up if challenged.
Now, as Marc says, repeat. Repeat to your colleague, your friends, other authorizers, the education group in your city, your state representative, the legislature. Repeat to everyone that will listen, and then repeat to those that don’t. That is education advocacy. It’s a grind, but hey, we’re authorizers. We’re used to that.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my sister about when the transformative power of design (her specialty and what she teaches to K-8th graders) really clicked for her. Her professor said to the class, “Everything manmade in this world was designed by someone.” A person decided what thickness to make a pencil, what height to make that chair, what size to make the button on your cellphone. Nothing is designed by chance: everything is intentional.
The same is true of policy. Every policy is designed by someone. Every policy, at some level, is intentional. It’s time for us to be that someone.