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What does "Chartering Schools" Represent?

Today Joe Nathan describes what he thinks "chartering" public schools represents. Deborah Meier will respond next week.

Deb, we've agreed to discuss what I call "chartering" and the "charter public school movement" represents. Here's what I see, both good and bad.  As Ted Kolderie, one of the founders of chartering explained, it's a "simple yet radical idea: allowing enterprising people -- including teachers and other educators -- to start innovative public schools." I'd add that chartering permits people to create new public schools within some limits. The schools must be non-sectarian,  open to all, no admissions tests permitted, and required to have a contract (also known as a charter) specifying results to be achieved over a set period. In exchange for explicit expectation for results, charters receive waivers from many state requirements. Charters are required to use buildings that meet state requirements, take state assessments, and follow federal laws.

Thus, chartering does not represent any single curriculum, instructional approach, or philosophy about the best way to organize learning and teaching. There's no "typical" chartered school.

Charter laws vary, but these expectations are included in the model state law that some of us developed, and which has been refined by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

At best chartering provides:

1. Opportunities to help youngsters like Pierre and Alia. These were high school students who had not succeeded in traditional high schools.  They blossomed at High School for Recording Arts, a terrific charter in St. Paul that St. Paul that helps youngsters use their love of music to create videos, as develop stronger academic and social skills. This school doesn't have a terrific four-year graduation rate or high test scores.  But it has helped hundreds of previously unsuccessful youngsters "find themselves," graduate and enter some form of further education or work. 

The same is happening in many charters.  I've charter all over the nation, such as Grizzly Prep in Memphis and Codman Academy in Boston.  Both are great inner city schools promoting character development, arts and academic excellence. Among many other examples are the Yes Prep group of schools in Houston.  This is a group of junior/senior high school charters with many youngsters who report they are doing far better than they did before. Yes Prep also has encouraging statistics about the percentage of their students from  (mostly) low income families who are continuing and graduating from some form of higher education.

I'd say the same for several of the KIPP schools that I've visited. In many, art and music are strong promoted, along with strong academics and a belief that young people can succeed.

2. Opportunities to create professional opportunities for educators.  For example, Minnesota New Country School,  and EdVisions. This group developed to support MNCS and more than 30 other schools, are great examples. (Full disclosure - EdVisions serves as our fiscal agent). At Minnesota New Country and other "teacher led" or "teacher powered" schools that MNCS has helped develop, teachers are a majority of the board that runs the school. They set their salaries, hours and working conditions. A poll last year found that a majority of teachers would like the opportunity to work in such a school.  There are other examples of conversions from district to a chartered school.   For example, Yvonne Chan and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center converted from a Los Angeles United district school. Educators were able to obtain equipment and supplies much more quickly and sometimes less expensively by negotiating directly with companies, rather than through the complex district process.

3. A new environment in which sometimes districts respond to chartering by providing e new opportunities to their own educators. For example:

* Boston (District) Pilot schools, initially suggested by the Boston Teachers Union and rejected by the local school board. But when Massachusetts' legislature adopted a charter law, the local board reconsidered and approved the Pilot idea. The Center for Collaborative Education
has done a wonderful job documenting what's happened with Pilots.

* A Minnesota law suggested by teacher unions allowing them to create new district options. We're currently working with unions to obtain startup funds.

* Traditional districts that asked their educators to create, for example, Montessori or Core Knowledge options after parents proposed them, were rejected and discussed creating charters.

4. Interest in broadening how student growth is assessed.  Some charters use, for example, portfolios, performance and other, broader approaches along with state tests. This is in part because they have contracts for performance and are expected to show progress with students. Responsibility for results beyond anecdotes helped produce a recent report on how to assess "alternative" public schools. Another is the effort to assess persistence and goal setting, called the "Hope Survey." 

5. Support for two deep, important beliefs:  First, that a wide variety of youngsters, regardless of background, can do better. I think this is one of the reasons chartering has grown so far in the last twenty years. It's not a belief that schools can solve all of society's problems.  But it's a belief that we can do better. Second, a belief that educators should have opportunities, within some limits, to create the kinds of schools they think make sense. Teachers legitimately complain that they are being held accountable for results but often are not given opportunities to organize schools as they think the schools should operate.

6. Alternatives in rural communities to school consolidation. Some of the finest charters are in small, rural communities which were threatened with, and in some cases, had their local school(s) closed by school boards that bought into the "bigger is better" or "bigger is less expensive" ideas. Often, neither is true.

Those are good things. Now here are a few of the things that concern me:

1. Failure to skillfully, successfully monitor how some charters operate.  You're familiar with scandals involving charters.  Some people have exploited opportunities. This happens in some traditional schools and teacher unions too.  But it is infuriating, wherever it happens.  We are learning more about how to monitor schools.  But there have been scandals and unacceptable exploitation of opportunities that chartering provides.  

2. Abuse of freedom to sometimes make huge profits and pay unseemly salaries.

3. Some over-reliance on traditional standardized measures.   You and I have agreed on the importance of multiple measures.  Some involved with chartering agree.  Others promote their schools primarily on the basis of test scores and/or graduation rates.

4. Unwillingness in some cases to work creatively with students with special needs.  Again, I see this in the district sector as well, with creation of district or regional magnet schools with admissions tests that exclude many youngsters with special needs.  Public schools, district or chartered, should be open to all.

5. Unwillingness, sometimes, to learn from some district school successes, and previous efforts to improve schools.  There are some great district schools and educators.  We all need to respect and learn from them.  So a big "shout out" to Educators for Excellence-Minnesota.  They regularly convene district and charter educators to learn from eachother.

6. Unwillingness by some charters to share information about public funds are spent. Most state laws requre yearly financial audits, made available to the public. But some schools resist providing information about how they are spending public funds.

These are not my only concerns. But any fair assessment of chartering ought to acknowledge strengths and shortcomings.

My apologies, as I've gone on too long. But you asked important questions.  So I wanted to try to give comprehensive answers. 

On balance, I think chartering is a lot like America.  Freedom provides great opportunities for creativity, innovation and progress.  However, among our biggest challenges are to maximize constructive use of freedom, and minimize abuse. 

 Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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