Influencing Traditional Public Schools - Working With Districts
Charter schools have been able to use their flexibility to implement innovative classroom and organizational practices that traditional public schools have been unable or unwilling to do: longer school days or academic years, urban boarding schools, experiential education programs, etc. Some of these innovations are paying off through gains in academic growth and parent satisfaction. Nevertheless, many traditional schools and districts have not yet embraced the opportunity to learn from charter school successes. What examples can we cite of charters seeding positive change in traditional public schools? How can districts and charter schools come to view each other as partners, striving for the same, shared goal of increased academic achievement for all students? What obstacles must be overcome? How is innovation best communicated between schools and from schools to districts?
The dialogue on charter schools creating innovation in the larger public school system, spawning healthy and unhealthy competition, and sharing common goals with districts drew the most participants this day.
There were positive stories about how charters spurred districts on to improve. A panelist shared the story of the evolution of choice in North Carolina. That state instituted its charter school law at a time when very few traditional public school systems had open enrollment, extensive magnet programs, theme schools, etc. As charter schools were approved, the school districts began looking at these options for students. School systems put in programs that mirrored the charter programs that had been approved for the area. As the movement grew school systems became more receptive to the perceived needs of the community. Also these areas of change have experienced some of the greatest academic improvement as reported by the state's accountability testing program.
A participant pointed out a study released last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research that showed that the introduction of charter schools in North Carolina affected the performance of traditional public schools on statewide assessments. Researchers found that charter school competition raised the composite test scores in district schools, even though the students leaving district schools for the charters tended to have above average test scores. The introduction of charter schools in the state caused an approximate one percent increase in the score, which constitutes about one quarter of the average yearly growth.
The line between competition and partnership drew much attention. A panelist suggested that a change is needed in the metaphors that charter and district schools use to describe each other. Too many traditional systems and charter operators use the competition metaphors, which denote winners and losers. Students should not be labeled as winners or losers because of the school they choose to attend. The systems and charters that have adopted a set of descriptors, those that put children first, have made the most progress toward partnerships. This panelist pushed for goal of partnership out of the belief that once you partner you are no longer in competition for whatever you were seeking competitively against them, but now you have repositioned yourself and your partner to be better able to meet your desired end. If this is the case your have created a win-win for you and your new partner.
Some panelists said partnering is a fine goal, but felt that competition, even the talk about losers and winners, is what allows for the action and reaction of parents and the education providers. These individuals felt that the most socially just and responsible thing to do as part of the charter school community is to provide high quality options for all families by fostering an environment where the education providers have to compete for those families. One panelist pointed out that competition exists in just about every other aspect of a capitalistic society, so why should public education be any different?
Another panelist introduced a radical idea - to end the traditional district system. He thinks that districts can't change fast enough and sees traditional geographic districts as obsolete. He said we can't change traditional schools by hoping they will look at charter schools and deliberately change. Education Evolving, the new non-profit policy group made up of many long-time charter folks, has been saying, "we can not get the schools we need by changing the schools we now have. A new schools policy must prevail in every state and an "open sector", of which charters are only one option, must be created."
Some participants said "not so fast" - that some districts are changing and making strides in improvement. For example, small school districts from Barnstable, Massachusetts to Chula Vista, California and large urban districts from New York City to Philadelphia to Chicago charter schools are blazing a trail of innovation that is beginning to impact the governance and management of all schools in their system. The focus becomes less one of compliance reporting and more about fostering unique school environments that can best respond to and meet the needs of students.
Some in the group suggested that the real question should not be "how can charter schools innovate and influence traditional school districts," but rather "how can the best traditional public schools and charter schools learn from each other to replicate, sustain and scale excellence"? A panelist offered that replication is difficult if not impossible because so many factors dictate the success of any one school. Programs can be replicated, but the personnel, administration, board, school culture, etc. are more difficult to reproduce. With that, educators must look beyond the surface of the program and into the foundation of the school for the critical factors that must be a part of any attempted replication. There are universities, foundations, etc. that have realized this and are focusing on those factors to help make the replication of successful programs a reality. Teaming with local universities and research foundations may be a viable way to move successful replication forward.
One participant recommended the Massachusetts-based Project for School Innovation (PSI) as an exemplary example of collaboration between charter and traditional schools. It provides a network within which educators can share their best practices and push for educational reform. (PSI website - http://www.psinnovation.org/PSI/index.html)
Others felt that replication was a dangerous path. A participant said that the beauty of small, innovative schools is that their primary mission can be to meet the needs of the current population with the local resources available at the time. Finding the "perfect" model and then shelving critical thinking skills is not the way to keep a school/program vibrant and meeting the needs of students and preparing them for society.
Participants labored over trying to pin down the definition of success. One suggested that a school is successful if it is able to accomplish its mission. Another said successful schools produce high school graduates who:
1. Enter college without needing remedial courses or enter the world of work with the skills needed for an entry-level position with career potential
2. Have an entrepreneurial spirit
3. Are committed to social justice and community service
Another participant says success could come with the following:
1) development and articulation of an accelerated academic curriculum that assesses and demonstrates academic learning;
2) development and articulation of a strong literacy component that assesses and demonstrates student literacy;
3) development and articulation of a deliberate self-management program that assesses and demonstrates student improvement in self-management;
4) development and articulation of a personalized curriculum that meets or exceeds state program standards and goals;
5) development and articulation of a project-experiential-work orientation program that is personalized for the needs of the individual students within the program;
Another participant said by the very definition of success, public schools are doomed to fail. She suggested that the only way to be successful is to be student-centered: caring about where students are and where they need to be, and then developing individualized plans for them and their families. Yet, teachers do not have the time to individualize student learning.
Research has now shown what nearly all charter school founders have discovered - facilities is a charter school's number one start-up problem. What are some creative solutions to today's facilities challenges?
Since the first wave of charter schools opened in the early 1990s, the securing and financing of school facilities has been one of the movement's greatest challenges. In the past few years, however, as schools mature, legislation is amended, and providers see a need for facilities financing, the financial resource options are growing (e.g., loan pools, guaranties, public bonds, credit enhancements, "intercept" mechanisms, leasing of existing public school facilities, per-pupil facilities funding, etc.) The panelists and participants in this discussion discussed creating facilities financing and generated a list of facility options.
A panelist highlighted that schools are now spending more time in the planning process and during that time cultivating partnerships with developers, schools systems, private businesses, etc. that will allow them to open in higher quality facilities. States are also beginning to look at options that will assist schools with funding such as legislation that will make the federal facilities program available.
A participant associated with Innovative Schools Development Corporation (ISDC) discussed the establishment of a loan guaranty program in Delaware. Through this program ISDC works with charter schools and local banks to help secure 100% financing deals. ISDC then guarantees an equity share of the deal so the bank feels comfortable lending to the school. ISDC also provides oversight to the school in relation to key business indicators. This particular loan guaranty program allowed the Newark Charter School to build a new 58,000 sq. ft. facility to house a middle school (grades 5 through 8) and the Delaware Military Academy to close on the second of two buildings to house its Jr. ROTC High School. Both schools employ sound fiscal oversight and are over-subscribed.
A panelist shared how authorizers are now helping with the facilities challenge. One of the most important things an authorizer can do is create a transparent authorizing system. If transparency is in place in regards to an authorizer's approval, oversight, and renewal systems, the less the perceived risk that the lender will awake one day with a surprise (e.g., forced closure). Another panelist cautioned, however, that authorizers should not take on the role of recommending whether schools receive financing.
In addition to the general advice of "anticipate a long planning period," the following recommendations were provided by panelists and participants to charter school developers thinking about solutions:
-- Share facilities: the notion of sharing facilities with other public and private entities should be a logical option, especially in times of tight budgets. There are thousands of underused public facilities around the country and charters are generally small enough to fill that gap. (Examples given: the nation's first charter, City Academy, sharing space with a St. Paul recreation center; the Mesa Arts Academy sharing space with the Boys and Girls Club; the Arizona Agribusiness Charter sharing space with a community college; and, the Vaughn charter, sharing space with a medical clinic)
-- Look to other public agencies facility programs (USDA Rural Development, Dept. of Health etc.)
-- Press for a lease-aid support program
-- Develop public - private partnerships. (One participant shared the experience of developing partnerships to assist in the construction of sports fields, playgrounds and auditorium).
-- Consider the possibility of a tax-exempt bond (it has a lower rate and tax deduction incentives for the bond holders).
-- Obtain Standards & Poor's comprehensive pre-planning list for charter schools that are seeking out a bonding option.
-- Partner with a local developer to provide a facility. (The school would lease the facility with an option to purchase after the first few years.)
-- Lease from a local community organization (Example: a church recreation hall)
-- Seek out donations of land
-- Create a school without walls (virtual schools, etc.)
-- Lobby for a facility voucher program.
A participant who works with charter school financing said that while many gains have been made in the charter school facility finance world, state law issues are much more difficult to overcome and will require efforts to induce law-makers to change the existing statutes to permit charters to access long-term capital. Another participant said we must continue to lobby to correct the facility funding flaw in state legislation. In the meantime, local and national charter school leaders, charter school operators, and the federal government should continue to identify and promote creative facility solutions.
Accountability Roles & Processes (Authorizers & Other Stakeholders)
To whom is a charter school accountable? Who are its most important stakeholders? What should be sought after in a charter school's relationship to its authorizer? Board members? Parents? Students? Local School districts? Business members? Community service providers? Education Management Organizations? Others?
Most of the discussion about to whom is a charter school accountable focused on the relationship of charter schools and their authorizers. Authorizers were described as the gatekeepers, the midwives, and in states without an appeal process, the "supreme court" for charter schools.
One of the day's panelists, the leader of the nation's professional association of authorizers, NACSA, said that authorizers' primary role is to ensure that the autonomy of charter schools is honored while holding such schools accountable for high student achievement.
This panelist and others saw the authorizer's relationship with its chartered school as complex and multi-faceted. He said the first piece of the relationship is about having a clear mission and a deliberate approach to authorizing that advances the purposes of the charter school law (e.g., quality education). This is backed by fair application procedures and rigorous criteria to ensure that charters are granted to developers who demonstrate strong capacity for establishing and operating a quality charter school.
Beyond this important stage, the authorizer's role is about helping the new charter school with its readiness plans, clearly articulating expected outcomes and measures, making appropriate interventions to help rectify any issues with school quality, and remaining true to the end goal at renewal time by making merit-based decisions to renew schools with quality educational programs.
NACSA's newly adopted voluntary "Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing" was recommended and applauded. (It is available at: http://www.charterauthorizers.org/files/nacsa/BECSA/QualityAuthorizing-final.doc).
Another panelist encouraged authorizers to consider those voluntary principles and standards and stressed the importance of the authorizer being a proactive partner in the mission of a school. He said it is critical for authorizers to be actively involved in helping to articulate the unique purposes of their schools. With many charters overstating their purposes, charters and their authorizers also need to align the purposes of the schools as stated in proposals for state approval.
A participant offered a "Charter Schools Bill of Rights" to the discussion. He saw a need for many improvements in stakeholder roles and responsibilities, and stressed the importance for a balanced government/business partnership, freedom for charters to be innovative with their own vision, visionary board members with executive skills, accessible faculty, and creative partnership with community organizations.
The Role of Universities, State Departments, Charter Associations & Resource Centers
How can universities and state departments of education maximize their positive
impact on the charter movement?
How can state charter associations and resource centers do the same?
What are the unique advantages and constraints of each entity?
Early in the day of the dialogue, an active participant suggested the need for another focus point - one that allows for the discussion of the roles of universities, state education departments, and others in helping the charter school movement to achieve its potential.
Suggested roles for universities and state education departments included:
1. Convening conferences and meetings for charter, district, private and parochial school educators at which people from outstanding schools do workshops or make panel presentations, sharing some details of things that have worked.
2. Providing opportunities for replication workshops, in which successful charter schools efforts. Federal charter funds allow states to use a certain % of their fed charter funds to this, and it makes enormous sense.
3. Writing op ed columns in newspapers, as well in professional journals, and seeking out opportunities via radio programs, business and community groups that describe successful charters, and point out how the successful charters are helping narrow achievement gaps and increase achievement.
4. Providing opportunities for successful charter schools to share their experience with state and national level legislators, so that these folks can see the benefits of a charter movement.
5. Organizing charter "lab schools" (examples: John Dewey's University of Chicago Lab School and Florida State University's two charter lab schools).
One charter school participant said he was involved with developing an agreement with a neighboring community college that included sharing facilities and sports fields, sharing staff, enhancing secondary course offerings, offering vocational classes, sharing professional development programs, and more. Another participant said that, in Arizona, charter schools directly connected with community colleges have experienced fantastic results. Another saw a role for universities to authorize charters if the local school district is not willing to do so.
It was noted that those in universities have often been among the strongest critics of the charter movement. A charter school participant said she welcomed negative feedback from such individuals as it served to help her examine her own practices more closely.
An employee at the Minnesota Department of Education said the state's Charter Schools Office has helped to strengthen and support the growth and development of high quality charter schools by balancing advocacy and customer service with ensuring accountability standards and essential compliance requirements are met. She said the department works in close partnership with charter resource organizations, higher education institutions and authorizers to ensure that charter schools are adequately supported, yet at the same time held to high standards of accountability.
An Arizona participant noted that her State Department efforts with improving education for students with special needs in charter settings has created a reduction in complaints issued against charters and an increase in both compliance.
A panelist with the Wisconsin State Department of Education saw her type of agency as having a unique advantage within the charter school movement for a variety of reasons, including:
1. Being a reservoir of charter school educational data.
2. Disseminating information and communicating on a regular basis to the vast educational community.
3. Publishing and disseminating thousands of copies of the annual charter school yearbook.
4. Administering a grant program that provides planning and implementation grants to support the development of exemplar and sustainable charter schools that increase student achievement.
5. Shaping the landscape of charter schools by creating a priority in funding for projects that close the achievement gap, increase literacy skills; increase parent and community involvement, promote vocational and technical skills; and offer early learning opportunities.
6. Encouraging collaborations among planners and schools to maximize the use of grant funds.
7. Disseminating best practice by funding products and services offered by successful charter schools that have been in operation for a minimum of four years.
Unlike universities and their education departments, resource centers were seen, by one panelist, as free to promote and support the development of an undiluted charter school sector. He said the New York Charter School Resource Center is adding value to the movement by doing the following:
-- focusing exclusively on new school development
-- concentrating new school development in key jurisdictions for maximum impact
-- contributing resources (intellectual and financial) only to quality school developers
-- partnering and leveraging the resources of groups that care deeply about scale with quality.
The Minnesota Charter School Resource Center, which is part of the University of Minnesota, was highlighted as helping provide research about the charter school movement by working with students who want to complete their graduate work or do independent study projects related to charter schools (including one research project that helped convince the state legislature to allocate money to help pay for charter facilities).