We’ve welcomed this new year, 2022, with a great inhale of hope - hope that we will find answers to the problems and challenges that continue to tug at us; hope for grace and kindness from others, for ourselves; hope for a return to the passion and excitement that drew us into the world of education. It's hard to feel like we're heading in the direction of that hope amidst the continued madness, and yet, we are.
I know this to be true, because I have witnessed what it looks like when highly passionate people, who are frustrated with the state of education, who are fearless trailblazers unwilling to accept the status quo, decide to do something amazing.
26 years ago, the charter school movement got established in Michigan because of the demand for change - by parents and by educators. As our first schools opened their doors, we had this incredible opportunity to LEAD. We were tasked with taking risks, venturing into the unknown, uncommonly welcoming parent feedback, and thinking differently about this thing called “instruction.” We have undoubtedly had success, and my heart is full with pride for all the amazing things we’ve done - the over 1 million charter alumni who have been impacted.
But like all things in life, the education landscape has changed - and the “education system” is struggling to keep up with all those changes. All these years later, parents and educators throughout public schools, including charters, are once again feeling that frustration. Even prior to the pandemic, we knew that we faced significant challenges: achievement gaps, equitable distribution of student resources, educator recruitment and retention problems. For the last two years, those issues have been compounded by pandemic pressures like remote learning, health and safety, and increased trauma for our kids, and for the people in our schools.
So we find ourselves at this interesting moment. Across the country, we’re seeing a grassroots movement of parents, taking charge of their children’s education in new and exciting ways to address things like learning loss, tutoring, etc. We’re seeing a desperate hunger for CHOICES in education that can meet unique needs, often that look different from one family to the next. And yet, we’re still facing the realities of being educators right now - grappling with changing, confusing, and often frustrating regulation and compliance as a result of the pandemic, crippling staff and labor shortages, and doing our absolute best to keep everyone safe, healthy and happy.
What does this mean for us moving forward? What is our role? How do we adapt so that we’re not just surviving the day, but pursuing what comes next?
Who are “we?”
I think it’s important to start with our identity as a movement. At our core, “we” are the educators, the parents, the school staff, and the advocates who have found homes in our Michigan charter schools. It may not always feel like it, but we are people who are curious by nature; dissatisfied with the norm, by nature; unwilling to accept the bare minimum, by nature. Just like those charter pioneers nearly 30 years ago, we are smart, and creative, and absolutely capable of defining and leading this moment in education.
What does this moment demand?
Right now, education needs leaders who are willing to step back and say, “How should education be provided to students to ensure meaningful, successful learning?” And in the same breath, be equally willing to say, “The obstacles, structures and rules that stand in the way are not as important as achieving that goal.” This is uncomfortable for many of us, but it is needed now more than ever. We have learned so many things about instruction from the pandemic, but it does not mean we should limit ourselves to educating like we’re stuck in a pandemic.
What could be coming down the line for education?
Choice is at the front of everyone’s mind right now - and it has only been accelerated by the pandemic. For everyone involved in the education system, this means opening our minds to ideas that touch (or even cross) the rigid boundaries we operate along, asking questions like, “Who are we recruiting to be educators?” “What are the certification requirements for educators?” And especially, “How can we advocate for true funding equity, ensuring that equitable resources follow the student?” These things may seem beyond our comfort zone, but we cannot ignore them.
Right now in Michigan, the “Let Kids Learn” legislation has been introduced by school choice advocates aiming to create Student Opportunity Scholarships, available to families across Michigan who qualify for free and reduced lunch, families at/below 200% of the free and reduced lunch eligibility, and students with disabilities. These scholarships can be used on everything from tutoring, to school uniforms, to tuition at their school. You might be thinking, “But Dan, charter schools don’t charge tuition?” My response is simple - should that stop us from supporting emerging ideas and policies that would still benefit our students and families? Our kids SHOULD have access to every resource that helps them succeed at school, right?
The simple fact is this: if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, frustrated right now, ready to throw your hands up right now, you’re not alone. Out of that frustration, I know that innovation will come, and I know that our community of charter educators, parents and advocates will be driving that innovation. Our moment in time arrived back in 1994, when the charter movement began in Michigan. We knew we could do better, and we demanded change. Today, we find ourselves at a similar moment in time. As we dive headfirst into this new year, I challenge you to rise; to take charge of the vision YOU have for education.