Charter Paean Disguised as a Donors’ Guide

The Philanthropy Roundtable recently released an exceptional publication produced by an exceptional author.

Even though it’s meant to be straightforward guide for donors interested in charter schooling, were I teaching a course on K–12 policy and reform, it would be an assigned reading. Throughout From Promising to Proven, author Karl Zinsmeister provides thorough, trenchant analysis of this remarkable sector of public education. At its best, it serves as a fitting, even moving, encomium to the vision and work of the civically minded social entrepreneurs who’ve brought it to life.

This short book works masterfully on three levels.

On the surface, it is exactly what the doctor ordered if you’re a charter-intrigued philanthropist. It explains chartering practice and policy and describes the activities of the field’s leading organizations.

A cursory tour of the guidebook will leave the reader wiser about the distinctive characteristics of charter schools (autonomous, accountable, choice-based), its innovations (longer days and years, new approaches to staffing), and key strengths (increasing parental engagement, empowering educators).

The reader will also become familiar with the most important nonprofits in this space. These include direct-service providers (e.g., Building Excellent Schools, the Mind Trust, Charter School Partners), human-capital organizations (e.g., Relay, Sposato, the Ryan Fellowship), advocacy groups (e.g., charter associations, BAEO, 50CAN, Stand for Children), and foundations and intermediaries (e.g., the Walton Family Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Choose to Succeed, New Schools for New Orleans).

The guidebook also offers an extensive treatment of the sector’s most challenging policy issues, including inequitable funding levels, acquiring suitable facilities, and human-capital obstacles such as inflexible rules on certification and collective bargaining.

On this surface level, the guidebook answers philanthropists’ “how” questions— “How should I allocate my scarce resources to maximize impact?”

But the guidebook also subtly answers the fundamental “why” questions—“Given all of the other possible giving areas, why should I support chartering?”

As the title implies, the book argues that the debate about charter performance is now over. It offers numerous anecdotes. Philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, after giving to urban education for years, have realized that the charter sector disproportionately produces high-performing high-poverty schools. It also points to the outstanding results of organizations like KIPP and Uncommon Schools.

It also points out that tough accountability is a necessary condition, noting that there are too many low-performing charters and that authorizing is often still too lax. Efforts to fix these problems, like NACSA’s call to close 1,000 failing charters and authorizers’ tougher standards for charter approvals, are showing signs of success.

But the guidebook’s coup de grace is its deft use of the 2013 CREDO charter-performance study. This Stanford-based research institute released a now-famous study in 2009, showing that, nationwide, when compared to district performance, charter performance  was equivocal.

Charter antagonists gleefully made hay of these results. “A sophisticated study design employed by a well-respected research organization demonstrated charters were, on average, no better than assigned neighborhood schools!”

However, charter foes had unwittingly boxed themselves into a corner. The updated 2013 report—by the same organization using the same methodology—found that the charter sector had improved substantially and was now significantly outperforming the district sector. More importantly, in a series of studies of individual cities, this very same research organization found that charter students were realizing huge academic gains. In Boston, charter students are learning a full year more in reading and math per year compared to similar students in district schools.

This leaves anti-charter forces in a bad way. Continue to hail the 2009 study and you must concede that more recent results are far brighter. Denounce the 2013 study and you must explain why the 2009 study is worth attention.

The book’s only weakness is on the “why” level. It’s too optimistic about chartering’s ability to improve “the broader system”—that the good examples and competitive forces produced by charters will help urban districts get much better. This simply hasn’t happened in any city, even those with large charter sectors. On the upside, though, the book does treat the “portfolio-district” model with a skeptical eye, compelling funders to ask whether the district will ever be able to generate the results we need.

But the guidebook’s greatest success comes when it seeks to answer the deeper “what” questions—“What does charter growth mean for public education?”

It argues convincingly that chartering is more than a sector of schools. It is an uprising of families and civically minded individuals who took it upon themselves to ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s low-income kids have better opportunities than did yesterday’s. This moving passing says it all:

The nearly 7,000 charter schools that have been formed from scratch over the last two decades represent one of the great self-organizing social movements of our age. It is an independent citizen response to heartbreaking educational failures that the responsible public institutions showed no capacity to solve on their own.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working for Karl Zinsmeister, the book’s author. A prolific writer, voracious reader, and top-notch thinker, Zinsmeister is a model for compassionate conservatives interested in policy. He cares deeply about the disadvantaged, understands the limits of government action, and appreciates the power of civic institutions and private charity.

A meditation on the history, status, and future of charter schooling proved to be a perfect vehicle for his vision of advancing the public good. This book is a terrific contribution to our understanding of the role of choice, equity, social entrepreneurialism, philanthropy, and the “public” in public education.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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