For Auld Lang Syne
Paying tribute to giants in the field.
We'll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet
As I reflect back and look at the opportunities that lie ahead, I feel so blessed to have known people who gave their all, and left indelible marks on education freedom and innovation, marks that many will never see, but for our memories. They transformed education opportunity for kids, as they dreamed they would. I don’t know if they felt this way at their life’s end. Perhaps we told them, perhaps we didn’t (food for thought as we move forward). But they deserve their proper due, these all-stars we lost in 2023. They shone brighter than most for their sheer goodness, tenacity and impact in their fields.
Linda passed away just a few days before the close of 2023. She was 81. “Hello Lovely Linda,” I’d often say when I picked up her early calls. “What do you have for me to do now?,” I’d ask. She always had something she was helping someone to solve. Normally they called from near and far, because she truly was a pioneer. Linda was quite literally one of the 5 people in the room as the first Charter School laws were being developed. She helped fuel the movement in Massachusetts - and set up shop to help the first schools start and had an impact on the rest. She was tireless. Her fierce sense of humor and directness, coupled with compassion beyond belief, Linda was just the person who would act immediately upon any request in front of her, as well as demand the same of you. Anyone wanting to follow suit in a state or impact national thinking called Linda, and she would dutifully show up, help you plot, plan and nurture your idea and then brag about all YOU did (not her) to accomplish it.
She was most proud of starting Building Excellent Schools and created an army of exceptional leaders before that was a thing. Make no mistake - what is good and excellent about schools today has an indelible mark not from any one organization but from Linda Brown, herself.
Even as her health declined, Linda still posted when needed, took the lunch meeting (her favorite Chinese restaurant), or the call, and connected people to make magic together. For those who don’t know of her, this Founder’s library page tells much.
This oldie but goodie video is worth a glance, if for no other reason that it puts Linda and so many others’ work in context. It was a PBS gem, and should be required viewing for any student of education change. Also a rare look at a more pro-charter union head, once upon a time!
Here’s one for the history books. If you have or know a charter school operating today that was propelled forward by a federal charter grant, you have Congressman Frank Riggs of Arizona to thank! Before anyone in Congress even thought education choice was their business, Frank was on it. Not only was he tapped to lead the House coalition that helped to draft the bill in 1997 but he secured bi-partisan support from the Senate and broke bread with President Clinton to spark the first and largest increase to date in charter schools, thanks to a modest but impactful program that sadly has become too big and too bureaucratic to have a similar impact. There is much more to his life’s work - Army vet, police officer, family man, activist - not to mention his leadership in nationally defending his state’s pioneering charter school law against criticisms from other state leaders because it was unapologetically free and flexible. We also have Frank to thank for his leadership in creating one of the first-ever facilities funds for charters - the Charter School Development Corporation - that has now been replicated by dozens of other groups. Frank was never one to stand on ceremony. If something needed to get done, he worked with anyone to do so, no matter what his title or standing. Frank was 73 years young when he died in December.
This quiet giant in education is actually probably the least known of our most recent angels to take flight. He was 104 when he passed (!!) and still going strong at 100, when he was counseling me and many others on how best to accomplish bold, dramatic change in education. The WWII vet and successful businessman became one of the top advisors in the creation and growth of Edison Schools and a mentor and strategic advisor to one of the nation’s most successful and respected University presidents, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, who awarded him the prestigious University Medal of Excellence in 2012 who “shared his views on knowledge entrepreneurship, intellectual fusion and social consciousness,” with the leadership. He did the same for countless educators, business and media leaders around the country. He was a visionary. He founded the Manhattan Institute for Policy research and envisioned with Roberto Gutierrez the establishment of a dual language school academy called LEEP, which is thriving. Civil and civic, he lived above politics but believed you must put your power together with others to have an impact on lives, which he spent most of his “retired” years doing. Even General Patton with whom he served was no match for Nelson Broms!
The most written-about story about this well-known public figure is how he left the presidency of Yale to chair the Edison Project. The story goes that he was recruited by Chris Whittle to lead the first national network of schools that would be for-profit and scalable, and ready to turn over a failing education system, he plunged in. But there was so much more. Moderator of the PBS program on the Constitution with the nation's most influential leaders (including presidents), the Ivy league scholar was also comfortable as an entrepreneur, and in the estimation of the media, a giant in education. As I shared after attending his memorial, I benefited greatly from his leadership, his example and his counsel on occasion. He was a young 81 when he passed, and a gem from whom we can learn much.
I would not be writing this if it were not for Jerry Hume, plain and simple because as I wrote earlier this year, he is quite literally one of the main reasons CER exists.
Jerry was the founding Chair for the Center and its first donor, but he never made it easy. With his intuitive business acumen and dedication to great education, he wanted evidence - data - that something would work. So he challenged me. “I’ll give you $30,000 and if you raise the rest and do well I’ll consider more.” That was a third of our opening year budget in 1993; $120,000 to start moving mountains! But we did it. He led our board for almost ten years, became an evangelist for choice and served on the board of the Friedman Foundation (now EdChoice) as well as stood for standards, and ultimately the power of technology and personalized learning to transform the whole of education. Mostly, he was a joy as a person, friend, a man I so admired, a champion of people, a lover of family.
It’s hard not to smile at every meeting, gesture, battle and encounter with these incredible people who are undoubtedly with or within close striking distance of Heaven, these anchors of a movement for education excellence, for freedom, flexibility and innovation.
Loss is a fact of life. But so, too, is history. It’s imperative to know history - the history of not just those who created the pathway for many people reading this or doing the work today, but how they did it, what they were willing to sacrifice, negotiate or stand firm knowing that sometimes compromises are the worst form of policymaking and practice.
Do yourself a favor tonight, this week, next week or someday soon. Read about them all, learn what they did, find the connections to others today that can speak to the heart of the history-makers we all should know. History and its value is sadly losing the battle in education -- we may try to kill off the likes of Columbus and William Penn and some might think that’s just great. But just because one may choose not to understand the value of every human that has walked our paths, if you are engaged in anything related to education you owe it to your work and those you serve to know how you came to stand on that ground, who tilled it, and who strengthened it.
Ours is a field that has been built on the dedication, sweat and entrepreneurial talents of giants…many of them unknown to even the most informed reformers. To old times, friends!
[We all] have run about the hills,
And pulled the daisies fine;
But we’ve wander’d many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.