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Michael Kooi Opens the Florida Charter School Conference

AmericanSchoolChoice.com has a representative at this year’s Florida Charter School Conference (FCSC), and part of what we hope to accomplish there is to update the public on the content and general mission of the conference as it relates to the national scene. As a primer to the summary article we will issue at the end of the week, here is a synopsis of today’s opening session to whet your appetite.

This morning we were treated to a breakfast conversation with Michael Kooi, Executive Director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, the school choice arm of the Florida Department of Education. As an introduction to an interview session between CBS 60 Minutes¬†journalist¬†Byron Pitts and charter guru Deborah Kenney (which we’ll talk about in another article), he wanted to reiterate the conference’s theme and make three points associated with it.

The theme for this year’s FCSC is “Working Together to Succeed,” which is a subject on the lips of many following a hectic election season. His three points were as follows:

  1. We need to work together as charter operators and teachers. CMOs, EMOs, and other education service providers often get caught up in the rat race of corporate America. This is understandable, especially considering their biggest foe is usually an intransigent district authorizer, an almost immovable force to be sure. But although their mission to educate is justifiable, the infighting that occurs at that corporate level creates an internal “us vs. them” mentality, when that “us vs. them” thinking should be directed outward, toward our mutual enemies. Kooi spoke to the new CPALMS initiative, which is hoping to turn into the Facebook for charter people. He also stressed the importance of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools as a central figure in leading the school choice charge.
  2. Despite the frequent confrontations between charters and conventional education, we need to learn how to work together with our districts. We need to be willing to share best practices, even if there’s no hope of them ever using them. We should adopt anything seen as constructive instead of ignoring it just because it comes from Uncle Sam. Kooi doesn’t want parents calling him first to complain about a problem that can be solved at the district level, especially when all it takes is keeping lines of communication open at that level. Develop relationships with your district, and they might be more flexible with your charter.
  3. The conversation moved smoothly to perhaps the most important issue facing the charter movement today: parental support. Kooi says that parents are the most important resource at the local level, mainly because board members will be less reticent to listen to them over a charter operator, or even a board member. Parents are the real drivers at the local level, and their support can define whether your charter is accepted or denied. Another resource locally are business leaders who can help you with things like facilities funding, which is one of the hottest topics in the charter community today.

We couldn’t agree more with Kooi on the topic of cooperation, especially with regard to parental support. Simply put, charter operators (especially CMOs and EMOSs) will never get charters in another state unless they have either a long track record of success (which smaller operators lack) or connections at the local level (which larger operators find difficult when expanding). Getting “boots on the ground” is critical when taking a successful model and exporting it to other districts or states. A successful model alone is frequently never enough, and a local teacher union or board member will quickly shoot down a charter if no other locals sand up in support of it.

If children are the future, parents are the here and now of the school choice movement. Remember, it’s not a “student trigger law,” it’s a parental initiative. To be clear, students do frequently ask for school choice options. We spoke to a lady last night who said that after she had to pull her child out of private school for financial reasons, her daughter begged for an alternative to her local public school after being there for only a few months. Why? The teacher was forcing her to sit out of reading time because she was “too far ahead” of the rest of the class. The charter that the little girl and the mother helped start was backed by an EMO out of Ft. Lauderdale, and offered the entire community a terrific option. Even a district can’t ignore a majority of parents, which is why we have got to focus on shoring up support within the family unit.

If you’re a parent living in Florida, fuel the revolution by signing up for this incredible free organization: Parents for Charter Schools. If you’re a parent outside of Florida, get together with other parents and find a way of creating something like it.

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