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Why Aren't All Charter Schools Great?

I'm away this week, but I'm happy to report that author and veteran educator Sarah Tantillo has graciously agreed to step in. Sarah works as a consultant at The Literacy Cookbook after a career as a New Jersey high school teacher. She'll be sharing some thoughts and reflections on her forthcoming book, Hit the Drum: An Insider's Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement. This week, she'll be exploring why charter schooling took off, why some charter schools are lousy, and why chartering is one reform that's stuck around. 

Critics often ask: If chartering is such a great idea, why aren't all charter schools great? Charter school founders face an array of challenges. Here are eight worth considering:

1) Finding and financing the facility. Except in a few states, charters receive no facilities funding and must pay for renovations and facilities expenses out of their operating expenses. It's hard to secure a bridge loan when your school isn't open yet and you have no collateral. Even if you happen to find a "free" building, as one charter school founder said, "Free isn't really free." You still have to pay for renovations and maintenance—even if the building comes with a janitor.

2) Startup costs. In the early days, it was difficult to start charters because so few people knew what they were. Potential vendors were suspicious of these unknown entities. I've personally met several founders who mortgaged their homes to cover startup costs. Before the federal government began offering startup grants in 1994, the absence of startup funding was not only challenging for founders individually; it also created some unanticipated problems for the movement as a whole. 

3) Some bad apples. The state of Arizona, which suffered from a lack of philanthropy, was seen as fertile ground by for-profit EMOs (Educational Management Organizations). In an interview, Jim Ford, who consulted there in the late 1990s, explained: "People thought EMOs had the magic sauce because they brought capital. So the Arizona State Charter School Board received a lot of political pressure to approve for-profit EMOs." Some people drew negative conclusions about the motivations of founders when they heard about the involvement of "for-profit" entities.

The perception that charter founders were "in it for the money" was exacerbated by the actions of some nonprofit community-based organizations and community development organizations, which treated charters as "cash cows" for their parent organizations: having students meant a guaranteed income stream. A Progressive Policy Institute study of Arizona's charter schools from 1994 to 2004 noted that there had been "serious problems at individual charter schools, ranging from egregious financial misconduct to illegal religious instruction to discrimination against children with disabilities."

Arizona saw rapid charter growth. By 2003, 495 schools—nearly one out of four public schools in the state—were charters. Not surprisingly, there were questions about quality control. As of December 2003, only seven charters had been revoked; 36 had voluntarily surrendered their charter (or closed under threat of revocation), and three revocations were pending. 

As a result, Arizona became known as "The Wild West." Some of the toxic seeds planted there grew into three sweeping lines of attack that critics have since used against charter schools nationally: A) Charters were "private" or "just another attempt to privatize education and make a profit," B) Charter founders "just wanted to start religious schools," and C) "Many" charters were terrible.

4) Staff recruitment and retention. Finding talented educators is an ongoing challenge for the field. Along with the routine difficulties of "getting the right people on the bus," as Jim Collins would say, brand-new charters face an additional struggle: It's hard to recruit staff when your school doesn't exist yet. People want to know, What am I signing up for?

5) Student recruitment. Along the same lines, when you start a new school, you are asking parents to trust you to provide a great education for their children in a school that doesn't exist yet. And if you fail to meet your student recruitment targets, you will be under-enrolled and therefore under-funded.

6) Governance. On the surface, it might seem as though charter school boards have advantages over district boards. One of the open secrets of traditional public schooling has been the inability of many elected board members to meet their responsibilities. Board corruption, nepotism, local feuds, and incompetence have plagued school systems for decades, often leading to high rates of superintendent turnover and causing instability in districts. In charters, appointed trustees have the potential, at least, to develop a stable governance structure.

But being appointed—as opposed to elected—is no guarantee of quality. And being "committed to the mission" is not enough, either. Board members must understand all aspects of their charter agreement, and they need skills and training in order to conduct proper fiscal and academic oversight. Unfortunately, the training they receive is often inadequate or misdirected. 

7) Opponents. Although the idea of chartering has had bipartisan support among political leaders since its inception, it has also had staunch enemies. As Ted Kolderie observed in an interview, the idea "was just automatically, instinctively opposed by all of the associations representing the organized elements of K-12." Opposition from teachers' unions (with a few exceptions) has been unrelenting. In spite of AFT leader Al Shanker's early advocacy, many state-level union leaders have worked aggressively to undermine charters, presumably because in most cases they are not required to be unionized (and therefore do not generate dues).

8) Ineffective authorizers. Ironically, one of the biggest impediments to charter school quality is the authorizers whose job it is to approve and monitor the performance of the schools.  NACSA (National Association of Charter School Authorizers) was founded to address that issue.

In spite of these challenges, many charter schools have not merely survived but thrived. Check out the CREDO reports for more information.

Sarah Tantillo

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