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Turn and Face the Strange... Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow at AEI, is guest-posting this week.

Greetings devoted RHSU readers! I'm Andrew Kelly, Rick's colleague at AEI. Before I begin, let's first hear it for Robin Lake of CRPE for her prolific and thought-provoking week of guest-blogging.

In thinking about what I'd like to write this week, it dawned on me that this coming fall will be 10 years since I first got cooking in education policy research and writing. For those who don't know, I was the Rickster's first research assistant at AEI way back in 2002. No Child Left Behind was still in diapers, the oldest charter school had just turned ten, and only a small percentage of Yale's graduating class was yet applying to Teach for America. (I subsequently left DC to do graduate work, and returned to find NCLB had turned into a petulant teen).

What struck me most was just how far the education reform world has come in less than a decade. If you had told me back then that we'd have a Democratic president stumping for charter schools, (another) effort to write and implement national standards, and new laws empowering parents to unseat their principals, I would have been hard-pressed to believe you. A quick case-in-point: my first substantive (and I used that term loosely) task as a research assistant was to work on the footnotes for Rick's manifesto on reforming principal training and certification, A License to Lead?. The white paper--released by the Progressive Policy Institute under the watchful of eye of pre-EduWonk Andy Rotherham--called on policymakers to remove certification barriers and rethink the way educational leaders are trained. To say these ideas have become conventional wisdom may be a stretch, but they have become commonplace. Back then, they ruffled quite a few feathers.

To be sure, it would have been tough to predict where education reform was headed back in 2002. But that's why it's important for reformers to keep their eyes peeled for the next set of trends that might affect the education policy in the decade to come. Easier said than done, I realize. Tell that to the guys warning us about global cooling in the 1970s.

But making predictions is just too much fun! So I'm going to use this week to explore a few key trends that will shape the charter school landscape in the years to come. Full disclosure: I sit on the board of a new DC charter school (BASIS DC), my wife works for KIPP DC, and I've done my fair share of research on charters, so this stuff is on the brain on a daily basis.

Trend #1: Learning to Love "Bright Flight"

We tend to think of urban charter schools as serving majority low-income, minority students. In part, this is due to the success of the most high-profile charter management organizations, who have made a name for themselves by setting up shop in America's toughest neighborhoods and beating the odds. But while "charter" has come to be synonymous with "low-income" in many cities around the country, there is nothing preventing urban charters from capturing another audience--the young, educated, predominately white families that have begun moving back into some American cities in droves. Others have made supply-side arguments, calling for the creation of middle class charters or socioeconomically integrated charters. But it seems more likely that new sources of demand will drive supply.

Indeed, Census data suggest that this could be a key emerging market for urban charter schools in a handful of big districts. In a 2010 Brookings Institution analysis, demographer William Frey and colleagues found that in contrast to decades of "white flight" out of American cities, cities like Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, New York, DC, and several others actually experienced an increase in the share of the city population that was white. Atlanta's white population actually grew by four percentage points. Frey calls this new phenomenon "bright flight:" "cities . . . have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction." Alan Ehrenhalt of the Pew Center on the States has made a similar argument, detailing the "demographic inversion" that is currently underway in many American cities.

Most of you have seen this anecdotally in your own area. It's called gentrification--code for "young and educated but unable to buy a house in the tony neighborhood across town"--and it has caused considerable gnashing of teeth across the country (and in my neighborhood). Whatever your feelings on gentrification, though, the fact remains that these new families will eventually need schools to send their children to. Anecdotally anyway, DC is chock full of progressive parents with an affinity for the idea of public schooling but little tolerance for the reality. City governments have an interest in creating options to entice these folks to stay within the city limits. Enter entrepreneurial charters.

Some leaders are already moving on this front. Eva Moskowitz's efforts to start schools on the Upper West Side and in Cobble Hill are self-professed aims to attract middle-class parents. As Steve Brill has argued, Moskowitz's effort to build these schools was a political gambit. Middle class parents have more political clout and savvy than those from lower income neighborhoods, and providing them with a high quality charter school is a sure-fire way to enlist a powerful political ally. As the Times pointed out last fall, New York City officials have been actively working "to turn charter schools into viable options for middle-class families whose neighborhood schools are too crowded or too weak to be attractive."

If you believe the demographic trends, this kind of encouragement is likely to become more and more common in cities across the country. So what? Two things: First, new providers will likely emerge to fill new demand. Existing "no excuses" networks may have little interest in taking on a different challenge, presenting an opportunity for a new breed of charter management organizations focused on serving middle, and lower-income students alike.

Second, broadening the scope to include middle-income urban families will have political costs as well as benefits. Moving away from an exclusive focus on low-income minority students may make outside fundraising more difficult. It seems to me that most donors want to hear those keywords more than any others. The same concern can apply to the authorization process, where racial and ethnic politics can bog down even the most well-intentioned organization.

Luckily, city-level policymakers may increasingly recognize that a thriving charter sector is key to encouraging "bright flight" into their cities, greasing the wheels for a more diverse array of providers to blossom.

Tune in Wednesday for trend number 2.

--Andrew Kelly

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