Charter School Districts

May 2001

This article was originally published by the Progressive Policy Institute, May 16, 2001

Across the country charter schools are becoming an established fixture on the educational landscape. Although some zealots still attack charter schools as elitist or private, overall there is a growing awareness and acceptance of these innovative public schools. In fact, discussions of charter schools now center more frequently on how the charter model can be used to leverage more widespread change. One idea attracting a lot of attention and some experimentation is charter districts—school districts composed entirely of charter and contract schools.

School superintendents have proposed making Seattle and Portland, Ore. both "charter districts," and Cincinnati is taking steps in this direction. Four small California districts advertise themselves as all-charter, as does Inkster, Mich., which has brought in for-profit Edison Schools to manage the district. Pennsylvania intends to charter all the schools in Chester-Upland, one of the state's lowest-performing districts. In Florida, the Volusia and Hillsborough districts are becoming all-charter, and four others have been authorized to move in that direction. President Bush has recently proposed chartering at all levels of the education system—between the federal government and states, states and districts, and districts and schools. And, during the 2000 campaign, Al Gore proposed using the charter district concept in the most distressed urban school districts. Still, despite all this attention, the general public knows relatively little about charter districts.

What Is The Difference Between A Charter School And A Charter District? Who Is Interested In Charter Districts And Why?

A charter school is a public school operated by an independent group under a performance agreement with a state agency, usually a local school district. Groups of parents and teachers and nonprofit community organizations may open and operate charter schools. A charter school receives public funds on a per-pupil basis for every child it enrolls. The school then uses the money to pay for the teachers, administrators, books, technology, and other assets necessary to deliver its instructional program. Charter schools have much more freedom than conventional public schools: They can hire any qualified teacher, decide whether to have a large or small administrative staff, deploy student and teacher time in novel ways, and even extend the school day and year. They are not, however, completely autonomous. If it does not perform as promised, a school can lose its charter, which is essentially a contract saying how students will be taught and how much they will learn. A charter school can also go broke if too few families decide to enroll children there. Hence, there is both public accountability from the top and market accountability from the bottom acting on charter schools. Right now there are more than 2,000 public charter schools in the United States, and 36 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing the creation of charter schools.

A charter district is a locality in which all public schools are charter schools. In a charter district, the local school board has decided not to directly operate any schools itself, but to provide schools exclusively by working through independent groups. Thus, rather than employing large numbers of teachers, principals, custodians, and central office administrators, a charter district employs contractors—one for each school or perhaps several schools—and those contractors do the hiring, teaching, spending, and administering.

Many local school districts now have one or a few charter schools, but these typically coexist with much larger numbers of public schools staffed and run in the conventional way. Chicago, for example, has 15 charter schools and more than 400 conventional public schools.

Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, and New York City are all using chartering as a strategy to create schools to serve children who would otherwise be stuck in failed schools. In those districts, charter schools make their own decisions about staffing and methods of instruction, while the larger number of conventional public schools run as before. Thus for conventional public schools in Chicago, the massive central office on Pershing Road still determines what methods, materials, and schedules will be used and how money will be spent.

A charter district is not just a district with a few charter schools; it is a district with only charter schools. And this model provides benefits for all school districts, not only those that are distressed or low-performing.

Where did the idea of all-charter districts come from? A good idea has many parents. Ray Budde probably originated the idea in his 1996 report, "Strengthening School Based Management by Chartering All Schools." Larry Pierce, James Guthrie, and I further developed the idea of all-charter districts in our book Reinventing Public Education (University of Chicago Press 1997). The Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute have popularized the idea in articles published in The New Democrat (November/December 1996), Blueprint (Fall 1999), and Building the Bridge (1997). The first practical steps toward all-charter districts were taken by Rep. Gary Hart, author of the California charter school bill (1996). He drafted a provision allowing districts to become all-charter; although no district picked up the option until 2000, it is now a live possibility throughout the state. Now, Democrat Gary Locke of Washington has proposed a charter districts plan, as has Republican Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Several other states have some variation of a charter district option in their education codes. The mainstream Education Commission of the States recently proposed all-charter districts as a promising course for all states.

What Are The Benefits Of Charter Districts?

Why is the idea starting to catch on? There are several reasons why chartering all the schools in a district might appeal to families, educators, and school district leaders. For families, an all-charter district provides many options, so that every parent can choose the school whose climate and method of instruction works best for her child. For teachers and administrators, an all-charter district creates the opportunity to work in a school staffed by like-minded people and supported by parents who choose the school because they believe in what it offers. Universal chartering also lets schools make spending decisions (on how many teachers to hire and what materials, technology, and teacher training to buy) that were previously made by bureaucrats in the school district central office.

Chartering all schools also benefits school board members and superintendents. These entities face pressures to improve student performance across the board and to rescue children from chronically failing schools, but they have little leverage over conventional public schools. They can shuffle principals, bolt new programs on to the outside of existing schools, and exhort educators to higher performance. But politics and civil service rules prevent them from doing many important things possible under a charter district plan, including:

Creating options for unhappy parents: School district leaders are aware that substantial minorities of parents—and majorities of African-American parents—want options that their public school systems do not now offer. An all-charter district is able to create a wider portfolio of options and create schools that respond to parent aspirations. And because charter schools depend on voluntary enrollment, they must maintain parental confidence and support to stay in operation.

Increasing the funding available to individual schools: School district leaders know that money needs to be spent in the classroom, where it really matters to students. However, decades of bureaucratic growth in the central office have made many districts, especially the big urban ones, top-heavy. District leaders have a tough time attacking central office units one by one because they all have friends in the federal or state government. An all-charter district cuts the Gordian knot, allocating all funds to schools and letting central office bureaus either compete for schools' voluntary fees or disband.

Creating smaller schools: School district leaders know that small schools can offer more coherent instructional programs and create closer bonds between students and teachers than can big schools. They are frustrated by traditional public education staffing rules that load each school with many administrators and specialists; these make the per-pupil costs of small schools look too high. Chartering eliminates mandatory staffing tables and allows schools to choose bare-bones administrative structures (typically, no one is a full-time administrator and every adult teaches). Thus, under chartering small schools are affordable.

Attracting new teachers and school leaders: School district leaders face a worsening shortage of capable people who want to work in schools. The number of education graduates is dropping, and new teachers, those in their first few years of teaching—early half in big cities—leave teaching because of adverse working conditions. Charter schools, on the other hand, are appealing enough to bring experienced educators out of retirement and encourage capable people from other fields to get involved in teaching and school leadership. Overall studies indicate comparable or greater levels of job satisfaction among charter school teachers when compared to teachers in traditional schools. As all-charter districts become more common, barriers to teaching will fall and individual teachers become more empowered, attracting more and better-educated people to teaching.

Enabling officials to hold schools accountable for performance: School boards and superintendents know that the standards-based reform policies enacted in 49 states will soon require them to judge the performance of individual schools and decide what to do about low-performing ones. Conventional public school systems don't oversee schools in these ways and have little leverage over chronically low-performing schools. Districts that go all-charter get a head start: They learn how to oversee schools on the basis of performance, and they have real options if a school performs badly—including the option of canceling the charter and sponsoring new schools.

Attracting philanthropic and private investment: School district leaders know that central office bureaucracies do a poor job creating and testing new instructional methods and developing strong new schools. Simply maintaining the system as it is stretches traditional schools and central offices to their limit. An all-charter system, however, encourages tremendous new investment, particularly in developing new schools. These investments range from the sweat and time donated by teachers and parents who start new charter schools to foundation grants and major investments by private entrepreneurs who want to start networks of allied schools.

Integrating community resources into public education: Many localities have museums, orchestras, libraries, dance troupes, and high technology companies with sources of expertise that the school bureaucracy cannot duplicate. Now, these are relegated to sideline duty—hosting field trips, running assemblies, and providing after-school programs. An all-charter district would allow such organizations to run whole schools and to offer regular instruction in their fields of expertise. This could improve the overall quality of public education and redefine it to include instruction provided by the community's most outstanding individuals and organizations—not just those employed full time by the school district.

Working around space limitations: School district leaders are caught between decaying school buildings on one hand and a growing student population on the other. Many districts have faced years of overcrowding and musical-chairs assignment of schools to buildings and students to classrooms. An all-charter system, however, can allow independent public school operators to lease facilities, like commercial space and abandoned private school buildings, that the school district itself cannot use. Private developers can also build or renovate buildings for lease by charter schools, thus helping to solve the space shortage.

These advantages are real, but they come only to those who take the charter district idea seriously. Many school board members and superintendents are wary about the charter district idea because it forces them to learn whole new methods of performance-based school oversight. Some pretend to support charter schools but hold important support back. The most common example of this is inequities in facilities financing.

Localities that claim to support charter schools but continue to divert money in support of expensive district central offices will not get the innovation and single-minded focus on teaching and learning that charter schools can provide. For example, trying to preserve collective bargaining agreements by assigning teachers and principals to schools will only perpetuate the inefficiency of fractured schools, inequitable distribution of high-quality personnel, and little accountability on the part of individuals. Superintendents and board members who insist on imposing new rules whenever it suits them will discourage teachers and principals from thinking that their school's success or failure is determined by their own effort.

Who Can Create Charter Districts?

What localities can make their districts all-charter? Any locality in California, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico can do it under current law. The District of Columbia could go all-charter now.

State charter laws that strictly limit the number of charter schools might not permit whole-district chartering. However, troubled districts, especially in big cities—including Atlanta, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; Hartford, Connecticut; Cincinnati, Ohio; and St. Louis, Missouri—could almost certainly get their state legislatures to approve blanket chartering authority as part of a state-supported transformation strategy.

The charter district strategy does, of course, present its own set of challenges, and local officials who see the idea as a way to lessen their responsibility and effort with regard to public schools, particularly low-performing schools, are mistaken. And, although the charter district strategy helps ameliorate many of the political challenges now confronting school reformers, it does not eliminate political obstacles to intervening in low-performing schools and displacing adults who have grown accustomed to the current arrangements.

However, charter districts offer a way to improve big-city schools within the framework of public education. They preserve and, in fact, greatly enhance the power and effectiveness of democratically elected school boards. And they offer hope and choices to millions of parents who have nearly given up on government's ability to provide the quality of education their children need.