Thursday, February 13, 2020

A More Skeptical Take on Charter Growth

Steven Wilson, CRPE’s new Senior Fellow, makes a strong and compelling case here for the expansion of charter schools. 

Steven’s argument comes at a crucial time. The charter school movement is under full frontal attack. Opponents who have long viewed charter schools as an annoying sideshow have finally come to see their strong track record and rapid growth as a significant threat. They have artfully managed to paint nonprofit schools—often started by liberal do-gooders and chosen by families who are desperate for better options—as an evil, corporate, right-wing, and elitist plot to destroy public education. 

For all these reasons, Steven’s spine-stiffening call for a new political push to lift caps and expand quality options is a welcome reminder of what CRPE has long argued: the goal of improving public education should transcend partisanship and institutional protectionism.  

Our research has repeatedly shown that parents do not care about labels, that forward-thinking district superintendents value partnerships with charters, and that charter schools can play an essential role in public school innovation and improvement, especially for historically vulnerable populations. 

And yet, my many years of studying charter schools has convinced me that while Steven is essentially right (there should be no artificial barrier to expanding quality schools and political leadership cannot wilt against organized resistance), the charter movement must face up to self-inflicted wounds and missteps that hamper growth and exacerbate political resistance. 

Our research has shown that charter growth is slowing to a near halt, even in places where there are no caps and plentiful start-up funding. CMOs are dealing with the challenges of growth, including increasing tensions between labor and management and struggles to operate geographically far-flung networks of schools. Attracting and keeping quality teachers and leaders is an increasing challenge. 

Charter quality is still hugely uneven across the country. In recent years, large funders and the federal Charter Schools Program have increased their focus on not just growth, but quality. However, state and local authorizers still vary widely in their ability to properly vet prospective charter school operators. Some turn out to be ineffective, unqualified, or unscrupulous. When their schools fail to serve all students effectively or are forced to shut down due to mismanagement, they hurt the families who entrust them with their children’s education, as well as the credibility of their movement. 

Even the most successful charter school organizations are learning that closing achievement gaps in neighborhood schools (with students who lack the parental support of choosers or have more intense needs) is a humbling challenge for which most charter schools are unprepared. Finally, the No Excuses brand is obviously laden and usually wrought with the disempowering instructional and discipline practices Steven worked so hard to rethink at Ascend. 

District financial distress is not charters’ fault but it is their political problem. Funding should follow students to the school of their choice, but district unwillingness or inability to reduce costs accordingly usually ends up hurting students and fueling political resistance. 

Finally, communities are increasingly opposed to reforms people see as being done to them, not by them. 

For all these reasons, charter schools rarely hit a tipping point that causes school districts to compete or quietly go away. And the very rational idea that better-funded political fights will open up a new wave of charter growth is an excellent but incomplete argument. 

Charter schools deserve equitable funding, but providing it could increase their fiscal impact on school districts and make the political fights even more difficult. 

Yes, people who are serious about outcomes have to double down on political fights. But that work will not succeed until the charter movement—and its funders—own up to challenges and mistakes.  

Still, Steven’s argument has pushed me to think hard about whether CRPE’s long-standing push for district-charter partnerships has compromised their ability to focus on their missions, or to effectively wage the political battles they now face. And I wondered anew whether our past critiques of charter shortcomings gave ammunition to their enemies. 

To me, this back and forth, practitioner to researcher, is exactly why I am so pleased that Steven is part of our group and why we’re enjoying pushing each other’s thinking. 

Sat, 03/28/2020

This week has been a crucial period of preparation in states from Washington to Florida, where distance learning is expected to begin in earnest by the end of March.

Fri, 03/20/2020

Three much-admired school networks in Indianapolis didn’t skip a beat in going virtual.

Fri, 03/20/2020

We will track how districts shift instruction, student support, and organizational operations in the weeks and months to come.