Jun 17, 2011

Understanding Public Charter Schools (Or, More Spin From A Shyster)

Charter schools are public schools that operate with more flexibility than traditional district schools. Yet, many people mistakenly refer to them as "private," or say they simply don't understand what category they fall into. We wanted to answer some of the common questions we have received about charter schools. So, we turned to James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center for some answers.

James D. Merriman is Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Charter School Center, and is one of New York's leading experts in charter school law, authorizing, and operations. Before joining the NYC Charter School Center in 2007, he worked at the Walton Family Foundation where he helped develop and implement the foundation's grant making in the charter school sector. James came to Walton after serving as executive director of the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York (SUNY), an authorizer of charter schools in New York State. In this role, he helped create a structure in which a high quality charter school sector could flourish.

SF: Charter schools are public schools, but there seems to be some confusion over this. Why, and can you clear it up?

JM: Part of the confusion is in the name. "Charter school" sounds like an alternative to “public school,” and the longer label of "public charter school" has never really caught on. Also, charter schools are not operated by a department of education or school board. Like all non-profits, they are governed by a board of directors.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded. They are non-sectarian, tuition-free and judged by public school academic standards. Public officials, usually known as charter authorizers, oversee them. Charters are open to all students, regardless of background, making them more accessible than even some district schools. (Think of selective magnet or gifted schools in many districts).

SF: Why do charter schools sometimes struggle to find building space? How do the policies around housing charters vary geographically?

JM: The top reason is lack of funding. In most states, charter schools do not receive funding for facilities. Many schools have to turn to private fundraising, using operating dollars to pay rent, and/or sharing space with other organizations or schools.

The policies around this vary by state and sometimes by school district. The underlying challenge is charter schools can’t fund buildings the way traditional districts do, by directly levying taxes or issuing bonds. The most generous states provide loans, grants, credit enhancement, or even (usually modest) direct funding. Still, finding a facility is a big challenge for charter school founders anywhere.

SF: Can you talk about the demographics of charter schools?

JM: The demographics vary quite a bit, by state and city. A suburban charter school in Arizona will have different demographics than an urban charter school in Chicago. In general, charter schools spring up to reach underserved and disadvantaged student populations. Nationwide, a majority of charter school students are African-American or Hispanic. In New York City, that number is over 90 percent, and three in four students are from families in poverty.

SF: Do charter schools fall under the same accountability standards as traditional schools?

JM: Charter schools are held to the same academic standards as district schools, and their students take the same tests as district students. The actual accountability is different, though and generally tougher. A charter school that is failing academically is supposed to lose its charter and be closed, and that routinely happens where charter school authorizers are strong. In many traditional school districts, unfortunately, a school can fail children for years or even decades without running out of second chances.

However, it must be noted that in many states, charter authorizers have not done as good a job as they should enforcing accountability. There is a strong movement for increasing accountability within the sector.

SF: Talk about charter schools and student achievement.

JM: We are not launching charters schools just to buck the system. The number one priority for nearly every charter school is ensuring that all of their students are academically proficient.

Not every charter school is achieving that goal; there are certainly some charter schools that should be closed for under-performance. At the same time, there are many charter networks and schools across the country that are helping their students achieve at exceptional levels. These are the schools we should be focused on -- these are the schools everyone should be studying and learning from.

SF: Charter schools are sometimes criticized for taking more advanced students and financial resources away from traditional district schools. Can you address this?

JM: When charter schools were first created, critics warned that they would "cream off" the best students. This hasn't happened. As charter school leaders will tell you, charter schools attract many families who have not seen much success in district schools. On the other hand, families who feel well served by district schools are loath to switch.

Part of the worry was that the need to fill out a charter school application, even though it's a simple one-page form, would screen for more motivated parents. There's little evidence that this true. In a study of the KIPP charter schools, Mathematica researchers found that KIPP students tend to come in with achievement levels that are lower than the average for their districts. The study also found KIPP schools have a positive impact on student achievement.

It is true that charter schools don't always reach every high-need student group. In general, charter schools enroll fewer students receiving special education services and students who are English Language Learners. The charter sector is focused on this, and we are seeing a trend towards more schools opening that are designed to serve these populations.

SF: Charter schools are also sometimes criticized for "draining" financial resources away from traditional district schools. Is that accurate?

JM: Public schools receive funds for each child they educate. If a student moves from a district school to a charter school, the district school no longer receives funding for that student, as they no longer have the expense of educating that child. The charter school now receives funding to do that.
The real question is whether charter schools take an unfair share of resources per student. The answer is clearly no. While each state funds charter schools differently, in most places charter schools receive less on a per-pupil basis.

SF: Charter schools are described as having more flexibility than traditional schools. What does this look like and how is it beneficial?

JM: Most charter schools have four crucial forms of flexibility. First, they control their own staffing. That means they can hire the teachers and leaders they want, compensate them in flexible ways, and dismiss those who are ineffective. The best charter schools use this flexibility to create a professional atmosphere that is high-energy and focused on student achievement.

Second, charter schools control their own curriculum and instruction. They can choose a program, then tweak or replace or expand it, based on what's working.

Third, charters schools control their own schedules. If they adopt a longer school day and/or school year, they can choose to spend more time on core subjects without sacrificing other areas of learning.

Finally, charter schools control their own budgets. That allows them to move resources where they are most needed. It also means that they don't have to worry about a central office taking money back, a fear which can lead district schools to spend their money in an end-of-the-year rush. That's not a recipe for effective spending.

Of course, freedom can lead to failure or even abuse. That’s why we need good charter school authorizers to grant charters only to qualified groups, and then provide effective oversight without trampling autonomy. That capability doesn’t exist in every state yet, so we need to keep investing in it.

SF: Can charter schools drive improvement in neighboring traditional schools? 

JM: At this point, when change does come, it is usually from above. In Washington, D.C. and New York respectively, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein authored reforms that are intimately associated with high quality charter school practice, including paying much more attention to teacher evaluation, giving principals more autonomy over curriculum and budget, as well as imposing the threat of closure on schools that did not perform.

There is anecdotal evidence that individual district schools, under their principals’ leadership and vision, are absorbing lessons that high-quality charter schools have to teach and using educators who have been in those schools to drive reform within their buildings.

SF: What does the future look like for charter schools? Are they growing in number? How are they changing?

JM: By every measure, the charter school sector is growing and becoming an ever more important part of the public school landscape. There are currently over 4,900 charter schools operating in 40 states. The number of students served has grown from about 350,000 in the 1999-2000 school year to over 1.6 million students in 2009-10. Charter schools’ share of enrollment is also on the rise in many cities, most dramatically in New Orleans (71 percent of students) and Washington, D.C. (38 percent).

With this strong growth, we are seeing three important trends. First, non-profit charter school networks are finding ways to grow and gain advantages of scale without losing results or autonomy.

Second, we are seeing an increased focus on charter schools designed to serve particular, high-need populations.

Third, there's a growing recognition that charter schools are here to stay. Districts are embracing charter schools alongside traditional and selective schools. Perhaps most importantly, politicians and interest groups on all sides are talking less about whether charter schools have a role to play and more about what that role should be. I think that's a healthy development, because the distinction that matters most isn't whether a school is district or charter, it's whether it works or not.

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