Two local charter school advocacy groups, DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS, to merge

Word came yesterday afternoon that the boards of directors of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools have decided to merge their institutions beginning in 2020. This is big news and at the same time it is not. Every since Irene Holtzman stepped down as FOCUS’s executive director last July, and Education Forward DC sponsored Bellwether Education Partners in completing an analysis of charter school advocacy in our city, the prediction on the street was that these two groups would become a single entity.

The change makes perfect sense. FOCUS was never the same after the retirement of Robert Cane in 2015. It had lost its “take no prisoners” approach to charter school support. This was to be expected. There can be only one Robert Cane. The Association, on the other hand, appeared at times to be unclear about its mission, probably because FOCUS often played the dual roles of political instigator as well as a source of professional development for charter school teachers and leaders. In fact, it has only been recently with the End the List campaign around the release of closed DCPS building to charters that the Association has seemed to become magically reinvigorated.

The press release announcing the unification of the two parties explains the reason behind the move:

“What’s bringing the two organizations together at this moment for public education in the District of Columbia is the mission we share and the need for greater capacity. Both FOCUS and the Association are dedicated to protecting and advancing school quality and choice for DC families by ensuring the autonomy and strength of chartered public schools. By formally merging, we can dramatically increase the work we do on your behalf. The three pillars of this new organization’s work will be advocacy, influence, and school support.”

Both the Association and FOCUS have been in existence since the start of the District of Columbia’s charter school experiment 25 years ago. The announcement continued:

“We’ve decided to take this step after several months in conversation with school leaders and supporters of charter schools, almost all of whom expressed the view that the charter movement would be better served by having one strong organization. By teaming up to form a new organization, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS will provide all DC charter schools with a strong and unified voice.

The Association and FOCUS’s boards have only just made the decision to merge. Over the next several months, our steps will be guided by a steering committee that includes Pat Brantley and Sekou Biddle, the chairs of the two organizations, along with Robert Cane, Alison Collier, Ramona Edelin, Donald Hense, Justin Rydstrom, and Jessica Wodatch. During the transition to the new entity, each organization will continue to operate under its current leadership, Ramona Edelin at the Association and Alison Collier and Anne Herr at FOCUS. One of the first actions of the steering committee will be to begin a search for an executive director to lead the new organization.”

This is an exciting endeavor. Several of the key players in this decision were thrilled to be able to comment on the milestone.

“We can be more useful to schools and more influential with policymakers as one organization using our combined skills and extensive institutional knowledge to even better serve DC’s charter schools and families,” observed Alison Collier.

Remarked Patricia Brantley, board chair of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and CEO of Friendship PCS, “Every year, nearly half of DC’s families choose chartered public schools for their children. It’s our responsibility to ensure that those schools are thriving, high quality and equitably treated. Merging these two organizations will move us closer to being the strong voice and advocate that our schools and families need.”

Added Sekou Biddle, FOCUS board chair, “Aligning the efforts of supporters of charters, choice and innovative education puts us in a stronger position to work toward every child and family in the District of Columbia having access to an excellent education.”

Summing up this effort is Ramona Edelin, executive director DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. “Talking with school leaders and other supporters of DC’s charter schools reinforced the logic of this merger. They want a voice advocating for our sector loudly and clearly, because there are loud and influential forces trying to undercut families’ choices and make charter educators’ work harder. Creating an organization to be that voice makes a lot of sense for this moment.”

With the stepping down of Scott Pearson as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, the decision the chair of the D.C. Council education committee Councilmember David Grosso not to run for re-election, Councilmember Allen’s charter school transparency bill winding its way to consideration for passage, and a teachers’ union being established at Mundo Verde PCS, this development could not come at a more opportune time.

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