The education world lost a true reformer on Christmas Day—and the charter-school world lost one of its true heroes—when Linda Brown passed away at eighty-one at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It’s now three decades since Linda founded the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center the same year that Bay State legislators passed the state’s charter school law. A smart and visionary educator, Linda immediately grasped the potential of the new charter idea and resolved to do her utmost to realize it, seizing the opportunity to start brand-new schools that would do right by poor and minority kids.
Linda had seen plenty of such kids in the Boston area and beyond, knew they weren’t well-served by existing public schools, and knew, too, that the private-school sector (where she had long worked) couldn’t muster the capacity or resources to educate more than a handful of them.
Her resolve took its most enduring and powerful form when, in 2001, she launched Building Excellent Schools, a Boston-based but nationally-focused incubator of top-flight talent to create and lead truly excellent charter schools. Note the word “building.” She wasn’t about “fixing” or “improving” schools mired in bureaucracy, contracts, and politics. She was about creating entirely new schools—but the schools she set out to help create had to be excellent.
Linda led BES for seventeen remarkable years—and stayed connected after stepping down as CEO in 2018. At that time, education writer Richard Whitmire pronounced her “godfather to many of America’s best charter schools.”
“Godfather,” it seems, is how this remarkable woman told Whitmire she wanted to be described, after an earlier piece about her carried the headline, “Meet the grandmother of America’s best charter schools.”
Linda was a grandmother in real life, too, beloved by her extended family, but also by dozens, in time hundreds, of the best and brightest and most successful school leaders in the land. She was rigorous and demanding almost beyond imagining, with lofty standards, a steely will, nonstop energy, and awesome organizing skills, but also a big, loving, and generous heart.
To be accepted as a BES fellow was a big deal, a two-year commitment by the would-be charter-starter and a huge outlay by the philanthropic supporters of Linda’s work. As Whitmire wrote back in 2015, “The investment BES puts into each fellow is enormous: about $250,000 just for the fellowship—one year of touring top charters and designing your own charter, a second year preparing to open a school. Some get startup grants from BES, which raises the stakes to $500,000 per fellow picked. BES’s acceptance rate for its roughly dozen-a-year fellowships is less than two in one hundred, far lower that the world’s most selective universities.”
But it has paid off—and repaid—and done great things for more than 100,000 kids. In a tribute within her obituary, Howard Fuller—another charter godfather—says, “the ongoing work to change education in America over the last thirty years has produced relatively few superheroes. Linda Brown is one of them. She had an uncommon level of commitment and dedication to create schools that changed the trajectory of the lives of our most disadvantaged children... There are now terrific school leaders all over the country because of Linda.”
May there please be more like her. And may she rest in peace.