“Watchdogs are supposed to bark”
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In the late 1990s, a group of prominent citizens in Charleston, South Carolina, became increasingly concerned about the deteriorating performance of their public schools and the seeming unwillingness or inability of the district administration to improve them. Students in Charleston County schools, especially those serving poor or minority children, have for many years scored near the bottom in a state ranked consistently 48th-49th nationally. Forming the non-profit Charleston Education Network (CEN) in May 2000, these citizens, most of whom had no children in the school system , undertook “to be a staunch advocate for children, a dynamic catalyst for change, and an unrelenting force for accountability to achieve excellence in public education.” Their tactics toward this end include activist strategies and adversarial stances uncharacteristic of most community school reform groups. This study, informed by critical theory, investigates how and why these citizens felt compelled and equipped to leverage school reform from the “outside.” It outlines specific goals and strategies they have adopted, looks at evidence of the effects of these strategies, and considers what similar communities might learn from their story. Describing their role as “both the conscience and watchdog of public education,” CEN members successfully advocated for a policy allowing Charleston parents to transfer their children out of failing schools two years before federal No Child Left Behind legislation required it. They won a civil suit forcing the repeal of a 90-mil property tax cap that was crippling school tax revenues. They are politically active, initiating and shaping public debate on education, encouraging the election of better informed and qualified school board candidates, working for legislation to reform the outdated local school board governance system, and playing a significant role in the selection of the new district superintendent. Members acknowledge that their “edgy” stance, often unpopular with the district, is not for the timid, and on occasion must be recalibrated by CEN itself. However, they believe only such activist strategies will move a cumbersome and seemingly unconcerned district establishment to action to improve the education of Charleston’s children, especially that of children of color or living in poverty.