The future of chartering may look more like the origins of the charter movement than its recent past.
The Main Barriers to Scaling Successful Charter Schools Are Political, not Substantive
With news that federal funding for charter school programs is in question, the time seems ripe for an open debate on the promise of—and the barriers to—charter growth. CRPE has a long tradition of cultivating internal dialogue and debate; every once in a while we have shared that debate publicly. This post from our new Senior Fellow, Steven Wilson, inspired some interesting back and forth over the promise and challenge of charter school growth. We’re pleased to share Robin Lake’s response here. We welcome your thoughts via Twitter or email.
“A lost decade,” one commentator lamented. “Dismal,” decried the New York Times. Such was the reaction to the 2019 NAEP results, flat since 2009. Yet amid the gloom, many acknowledge a bright spot: the striking results of large urban charter school networks.
But we can’t scale charters fast enough, they are quick to add; charters today enroll only 6 percent of students nationally. Recent moratoriums and caps are making growth much harder. Charters aren’t the answer, they insist. We must fix the majority system.
Let me offer a dissenting view.
For all the political obstacles to building the charter sector, doubling down on charters now—making strong networks still better, launching excellent new schools where we can, fighting to overcome legal restrictions on the sector, and winning over hearts and minds—may be our best bet for helping all students in the new decade.
It will be epically difficult. And expensive. But the alternatives are worse.
Yes, charter school openings have slowed in the face of caps and moratoriums, the scarcity of real estate, and partisan division. Schools run by large charter management organizations are only a fraction of charters, many of which are no better and sometimes worse than district schools. The AFT has made networks its targets; unionization threatens to snuff out vibrant organizations with crippling work rules and a culture of grievance. When charters have come to account for a large share of the district, districts have often been unwilling or unable to respond to declining enrollment with budgetary decisions that protect their students’ education. And now charters, long determinedly focused on student results, are increasingly caught up in toxic ideological conflict.
These are daunting challenges for the new decade. But each, with drive and will, can be overcome. Can we say the same of remaking large urban school systems?
Consider New York City, the largest school system in the country. Under the leadership of two mavericks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, and the dazzling team they recruited, the system got better. But despite every effort to ensure that their reforms would endure, much of what they built was swiftly dismantled by successor administrations. Talented staff packed their bags. Achievement sputtered.
Ironically, Bloomberg and Klein’s most enduring reform was their courageous embrace of charters. High-performing, large charter networks, including Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academy are now setting the bar for excellence in public education in the city—and pressing all schools to improve.
A 2018 study by Sarah Cordes found that on average the closer a district school in New York City is to a charter school, the faster it improves. Students in district schools with three or more charter schools within a one-mile radius performed significantly better in math than students with just one charter school in the neighborhood. They were also less likely to be retained. And contrary to long-standing assumptions, the study found the advent of charters neither significantly altered the composition of surrounding district schools nor reduced their resources—proximity increased per-pupil instructional spending in the district school.
Another study, by David Griffith of the Fordham Institute, found that urban districts with a high concentration of charter schools enrolling black and Hispanic students was associated with marked achievement gains for all black and Hispanic students. As charter market share increased, so did student achievement. The gains of one student were not at the expense of another.
After a quarter century of experimentation in the charter sector, models have emerged that are capable of closing—if not reversing—stubborn achievement gaps. The challenge to scaling up these models are, in the main, political and not substantive.
Scaling charters does not come at the expense of quality, the financial investments required to grow the sector are surprisingly modest, and the human capital needs are manageable.
Look at Boston’s charters, which the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found to have the greatest impact on learning gains of 41 urban charter regions. In 2010 the state’s charter law was amended to allow successful charters to open new sites in low-performing districts. Charter market share in Boston doubled over the next four years. A 2019 study by Sarah Cohodes found that the new sites posted large achievement gains similar to those of their parent campuses. Students at the replication sites were more frequently eligible for subsidized lunches than their Boston Public Schools peers, and their rates of special education and limited English proficiency were similar. Charter enrollment growth was greatest in middle schools; as the share of 6th-grade students attending charters grew to 31 percent, the average effectiveness of charter middle schools increased. The expanding networks, it seemed, had successfully transmitted their pedagogical and hiring practices to the new sites.
Similarly, as the New York City charter sector grew dramatically, quality continued to improve. Over the last five years, enrollment rose 44 percent from 85,000 students in 2014 to 122,250 in 2019, while proficiency climbed from 28 percent to 57 percent in ELA, and from 44 to 63 percent in math.
The public or philanthropic investment to radically increase the size of the sector may be surprisingly modest—and dwarfed by the private and social returns to education.
In the past, the business models of most charter networks had their schools operating at a loss—the per-student public appropriations they received had to be supplemented with ongoing philanthropy—or, at a minimum, losing money before reaching full enrollment. Many networks’ central offices also posted large losses and required ongoing philanthropic or public grant support. Growth was expensive.
But these aren’t necessary features of urban charters. At Ascend Public Charter Schools, we wanted to demonstrate that we could create gap-reversing schools that “run on regular”—offering a superior education at current levels of public appropriation, not thanks to the munificence of wealthy donors. Ascend has broken even in nearly every year of operation.
Even charter real estate should not require substantial investment, provided that states pass on to charter schools the per-student cost of the district’s facilities spending, as New York City approximates with its rent provision. Ascend was able to locate all of its schools in newly renovated, custom-designed facilities, entirely financed by private developers, with little or no equity in the form of security deposits or other Ascend commitments. The private developer’s investment is returned through the rent the schools pay. New York’s public funding for charter school facilities covers this cost, which means schools do not have to pull money out of classroom budgets to pay the rent, even in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.
By avoiding operating deficits and real estate equity, Ascend has been able to keep the one-time cost to create each permanent student seat to $750. With just $4 million in cumulative philanthropic support since its inception in 2007, Ascend has grown to $120 million in revenues, 800 employees, and half a million square feet of newly renovated school buildings. In principle, therefore, a city the size of Philadelphia, with an enrollment of 200,000, could be converted to high-performing charters for a one-time investment of $150 million. Even if that figure rose by an order of magnitude, it would be a modest public investment. We can radically remake urban schools today, with existing resources.
The sector is also discovering that its human capital needs may also be manageable. A decade ago, No Excuses school founders often sought out aspiring teachers from top-tier colleges, many from Teach For America. They placed a premium on teachers who were academically high achieving themselves and had the drive to do “whatever it takes” to ensure their students succeeded. Achievement First’s summary of “teacher quality” put a candidate’s attendance at a “top notch university” at the top of its list of 22 attributes; second was a “high GPA” and “legitimate major.” In a survey I made in 2008 of high-performing No Excuses schools in Boston, I found that 83 percent of their faculty had graduated from a college ranked in the top three categories of selectiveness by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. In comparison, 19 percent of public school teachers nationally had attended such institutions.
Fortunately, the sector has since learned important lessons. First, we now recognize that other attributes of teachers are more predictive of success, greatly broadening the pool of candidates. Second, the development of sophisticated tools—sequential and coherent curricula, highly structured pedagogies, and professional development programs—permit teachers from a broad range of educational backgrounds and teaching experience to deliver outstanding results. The sector’s intellectual property is driving its results.
Another long-standing scaling concern has been the supply of school leaders; excellent schools begin with outstanding leaders and the principal’s job is notoriously challenging. Here too there has been progress. Scale brings advantages. Networks can grow their own deans and principals. In-house principal residency programs nurture aspiring principals (who have proven themselves as deans), acculturate them in the networks’ unique ways, and watch them in action—before giving them the job. New schools can now be opened at less risk than in the past, when networks often depended on recruiting experienced leaders from outside whose alignment and capacity were unknown.
We must continue to build the charter sector and deepen the contrast in performance between charters and districts. If the sector can stay on track—rather than engage in heated distractions and succumb to division—results will continue their climb as networks copy each other’s innovations and sustain their fierce focus on student results. Surrounding district schools will get better, too.
Scaling up will not itself be especially costly. But the political lift and expense will be enormous.
Billions will have to be paid to the majority system to raise charter caps and lift moratoriums, just as was required to enact charter laws in the first place. Charters, truth be told, were often a transactional victory, with massive new K–12 public funding commitments granted in exchange for a beachhead of reform. It’s a bargain we should be willing to make again, especially if it results in higher teacher pay (and not a further bloat in school and central office staffing).
We must also reassert the moral imperative of charters. Years ago the charter community stopped talking about the chronic failure of big-city school systems, their stewardship of intergenerational poverty, their toll on human lives. We substituted anodyne statements about district partnerships and “support for all schools,” talking points devised by “communications” experts whose counsel we foolishly heeded. We obscured our purpose. We ceded the cause of social justice to our opponents.
Let’s reclaim it.
And return, always, to that insistent question: Why do we cap the number of effective charter schools rather than the number of chronically low-performing district schools?
How does the political lift of remedying that incompatibility compare with that of expanding the charter sector itself?