Activists Trade Tales From Charter Wars

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The four panelists telling their stories here last week originally thought they were merely asking to start the independent public schools known as charter schools in their own backyards. But then they realized that their efforts had pushed them into politics.

They had opponents, they found, and needed allies. As parents, their concerns were complex and passionate. As activists, they crafted "messages" that nearly everyone could understand, and they made room for compromise.

"We saw it would take political machinations around the state to reach our goals," said Janice K. Womack, who a few years ago cleared off her kitchen table in Laramie to found the Wyoming Citizens for Educational Choice with a few other like-minded citizens. "We would have to get political ourselves."

Ms. Womack was joined by parents from Washington state and Maryland on a panel organized by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which is a frequent critic of traditional public education and a strong supporter of alternatives to it, such as charter schools. The panel was part of a March 29 conference here for "grassroots leaders" that drew about 60 people.

Like the center, which has often raised the hackles of public educators, including members of the national teachers' unions, several of the panelists complained of what they see as the education system's unresponsiveness to those who seek change. But the parents also taught lessons in activism that could be useful to anyone looking to effect political change.

Harsh Words

All four noted, for instance, that the political arena tends to be polarized, and that judgments get meted out quickly and unfairly, even on volunteers. What's more, friends can be hard to find.

Fawn Spady, who with her husband, Jim, founded the Education Excellence Coalition in Seattle to fight for a law that would allow charter schools in Washington state, described the couple's disappointment six years ago when, as "fairly liberal" Democrats, they took their concern to Democratic lawmakers in Olympia. The legislators dismissed the idea of charter schools, although some have come to support it since then, Ms. Spady said.

On another occasion, she continued, public protest came from some on the political right, who saw the charter school effort as "part of a United Nations conspiracy to dumb down the schools."

Ms. Womack, whose group successfully pressed the Wyoming legislature to amend that state's charter school law, said she learned it was important "for us to demonstrate that we're not wild-eyed, conservative nuts."

Despite the psychic toll, the panelists each found that widening their aims and wading more deeply in the political process was the only way to advance.

In the beginning, for example, Leslie A. Mansfield simply wanted the Frederick County, Md., school district to grant her two children's private Montessori school a charter and allow it to grow beyond kindergarten to a full- fledged elementary school.

But after lobbying at the local level and helping to found the Center for Charter Schools, which operates out of her house, the former U.S. Navy officer "realized we had to turn our efforts to state law."

Maryland has no law authorizing charter schools, and while local districts can craft their own policies, such a law would increase the pressure on them to move the issue up on the agenda, charter supporters believe.

This legislative session, for the first time, the Maryland Senate has passed a bill authorizing charter schools, and the House of Delegates was set to hold hearings on another such bill this week.

Angling for Support

Ms. Mansfield also described how her group flushed out support from reluctant politicians.

When Frederick County switched from an appointed to an elected school board last fall and held the first board election, the charter school advocates used candidates' forums to get all three new board members on record as supporting charter schools.

In Seattle, Fawn and Jim Spady watched hopefully as Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen breathed new life last year into the campaign for a charter school ballot initiative that they had nurtured. But they were virtually powerless, they said, to prevent the campaign from taking what they regarded as a wrong turn, focusing almost exclusively on mass-media advertisements.

"We said they needed a much stronger grassroots campaign," showing people how charter schools play out in many different forms and making even those relatively unfamiliar with schools comfortable with the new concept, Mr. Spady said.

"They are not going to vote yes for a concept they don't understand, and they didn't," Mr. Spady said of the ballot measure, which was narrowly defeated in November. And he conceded that if he had it to do over again, he would have backed a proposed law to allow charter schools, just to have a starting point on the books. At the time, however, he opposed the measure as too weak.

Panelists here also advised against underestimating the opposition that teachers' groups will mount, and they stressed the value of being unfailingly persistent.

"The most important thing you can do is keep on keeping on," Mr. Spady offered.

Earning Political Stripes

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, said that in the past few years, she has seen more and more parents enter the political fray in support of changes in education, perhaps as a result of the information they can find and the connections they can make on the Internet.

Often, she said, they have the kind of awakening that the panelists described. "Most parents assume if [they] bring this great idea to the school board or the school, they'll be welcomed," Ms. Allen said. "Then the reality hits that there's not a willingness to be receptive, and that's the catalyst. They say, 'Oh my God, that's the problem.' "

The volume of parent activity has led to a shift in the center's focus. "We started out as a policy wholesale shop, and we've moved to kind of serving these parents who have these concerns and frustrations," Ms. Allen said. "And they, in turn, influence policy, so we go full circle."

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Page 8

Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Activists Trade Tales From Charter Wars
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This article understated the number of participants at the Washington conference organized by the Center for Education Reform. The center reports that more than 100 people attended. The conference took place on March 28.

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