Date: 
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

While declining enrollment predates charters, they must be part of the solution, say education leaders 

Seattle, WA — With large urban school districts across the country facing enrollment declines that threaten their financial solvency, a new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) identifies a set of possible solutions to help districts adapt to the long-term reality of enrollment decline. The report also examines the role of charter schools and finds that while enrollment began shrinking well before the charter movement was born, charters have a crucial opportunity to partner with districts to find sustainable solutions to ensure all students have access to the high-quality education they deserve.

The report, Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment, draws from a convening of district superintendents, charter leaders, school finance experts, and other education thought leaders in Houston earlier this year. Participants included Chris Cerf, superintendent of Newark Public Schools; Mike Feinberg, cofounder of KIPP; Alex Johnston, president of Impact for Education and a former member of the New Haven, Connecticut, school board; and Marguerite Roza, director of Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. A partial list of participants is below.

“We want to provoke an honest, thoughtful discussion on a topic that has long divided education leaders in order to help all sides overcome their entrenched viewpoints and unite to address a problem that simply must be solved,” said CRPE director Robin Lake, who convened the group.

The report demonstrates that leaders in most major districts—including city leaders, school boards, unions, and district management teams—have spent decades ignoring crucial opportunities to reduce costs as enrollment has dropped. The report urges district leaders to adapt to the reality that districts can no longer think and act like monopolies and to consider a series of actions that would enable them to tackle head-on the financial challenges associated with declining enrollment. These include:

  • Closing underutilized schools
  • Selling unneeded facilities
  • Seeking legal or legislative remedies for certain debts or liabilities
  • Avoiding new commitments to benefits or other expenditures that are sustainable only if district enrollment grows

Karen Hawley Miles, Director of Education Resource Strategies and a convening participant, said that the district leaders she works with are aware of the financial and educational challenges associated with declining enrollment, but “tackling these requires a combination of tough choices and policy changes that often need broad political action and the involvement of the entire educational community along with strong leadership. This is why transparency and open dialog around these issues is so critical.”

While much of the rhetoric in policy and political battles has blamed public charters for dwindling enrollment in traditional schools, research confirms that most large school districts have experienced enrollment loss for decades—well before the emergence of the charter school movement. Failure to responsibly manage that decline, not charter growth, is what can harm district school quality.

“State caps and hostile regulation to disable charter schools are not solutions to this problem,” said Lake. “They deprive kids of the options charters can provide and let districts off the hook, to continue declining as many have been doing since long before charters entered the scene."

However, while enrollment decline is not primarily charters’ fault, in some districts charter growth has accelerated the problem, according to the CRPE report, which advises the charter community to actively work with districts and states on solutions.

“As long as charters fail to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to students in district schools, they will face a backlash,” said CRPE’s Paul Hill. “Charters must—for their own good and for the good of the entire public education system—be thinking and acting in the interest of all kids, whether they attend charter schools or district schools.”

The report advises districts and charters to consider possible “grand bargains,” which could include modifying charters’ funding streams or growth plans. Each of the “bargains” discussed at the Houston convening would require thoughtful collaboration from charters, districts, and states to succeed. Participants stressed that the starting point for negotiations must include district commitments to reducing legacy costs.

KIPP’s Mike Feinberg reiterated that a collaborative approach is critical: “Too often, educators and policy leaders find themselves in separate corners arguing for district children or charter children. We need to be focused on all children, and to do that the adults in the education system need to practice what they preach to the children: work well together.”

The January convening was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Participants included:

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ABOUT CRPE

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is a research and policy analysis center developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. CRPE is affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell and based in Seattle. CRPE’s work is funded entirely through philanthropy, federal grants, and contracts. Learn more at crpe.org.

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