Despite Success in New York City, It’s Time for Charters to Guard Their Flanks

School districts and teachers unions are fighting charters with renewed energy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio pretty much lost the charter school fight in New York City. When the New York Times summarized Hizzoner’s “proud recitation of campaign promises kept” during his first 100 days, the list included “universal prekindergarten, an end to unconstitutional policing,” and “paid sick leave.” The paper criticized the mayor’s silly proposal to disband the Central Park carriage horses, but the charter school debacle is a better example of mayoral horse sense gone awry. Outmaneuvered by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the mayor conceded, at least for now, unfettered charter access to public school space.

Still, charter enthusiasts should not rest on their laurels. Although the movement has acquired a critical mass of about 6 percent of all public school children, school districts and teachers unions across the country are fighting charters with renewed energy. The counterattack has been especially fierce in Chicago ever since new union leadership in 2012 led a weeklong strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff. In the aftermath, the reform-minded mayor has had to take one step back. Recently, his appointed school board approved only 7 of 22 proposed charters, and it decided not to sell 43 abandoned public-school buildings to charter operators. In Los Angeles, charters enjoyed a growth spurt during the mayoral tenure of Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, but now that he has left office, the school board is putting the brakes on, closing two successful charters—on the grounds that they did not contract with the district for their special education services. In Ravenswood, California, the school district shuttered a Stanford-sponsored charter, allegedly for poor performance. Yet other factors seem more important. The school’s financial officer told the board, “If we could pull back 200 or 300 kids to our district, that could offset the [district’s] entire deficit.” As the superintendent explained to a reporter, “I know that it’s not the [charter’s] intent, but when you take [students] away it makes it more difficult to work through these challenges.”

For two decades, charters have quietly spread, and today about 2 million students are attending more than 6,000 charter schools. In some cities, including New Orleans and the District of Columbia, more than one in five pupils attend a charter school.

Charter growth has been facilitated by the ferocious, partisan debate over school vouchers. Charters are the middle way, as they are sponsored by governments and lack religious affiliation. Republicans can support them as alternatives to the traditional district-run school, while Democrats may view them as centers for educational innovation. They have been embraced by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and they have gained strong support in African American and Hispanic communities, where students are benefiting the most from charters.

Yet charters have never had to make much of a case for themselves. In 2013, an Education Next poll found that even though half the public supported charters, and just a quarter opposed them, another quarter had no opinion at all. Half the public had no idea whether charters charge tuition, and another quarter incorrectly thought they do. More than 60 percent didn’t know whether charters can hold religious services.

With a potential breakout moment at hand, but with as much public indifference as public support, charters must guard their exposed flanks. The conventional wisdom on charter schools nationally is that their performance is “mixed.” More specifically, studies show outstanding successes in urban settings such as New York City and Boston, but plenty of mediocrity—and worse—in the nation’s heartland. Why is there so much unevenness? Partly it’s baked into their very design. Charters are granted significant autonomy over their operations, so they have the freedom to innovate, to move nimbly, and to take action. In the hands of smart educators who know how to run great schools, that can lead to success.

But the autonomy afforded to charters also means that they don’t have much of a safety net. Inexperienced or incompetent educators can drive a charter into the ground—fast. This past fall, in Columbus, Ohio, nine charters closed just months after launching. Like other small nonprofits, charters are at risk of falling into financial trouble. Wrong-headed ideas around curriculum and instruction also lead more than a few charter schools to falter.

Then there are the outright financial shenanigans. Charter history is rife with stories about small-time crooks taking advantage of lax public oversight to steal dollars meant for education to enrich friends and family. One case in point is Cincinnati’s W. E. B. Du Bois school, which was among the highest-performing urban schools in the state—before its founder and leader, Wilson Willard III, pleaded guilty to five counts of theft and records tampering, and was sent to prison for four years. (The school closed a few years later.)

Such problems aren’t new—they emerged in the early days of charter schooling—but some states have been more willing than others to address them. How have those states done it? First and foremost, they’ve paid attention to the regulators that oversee charter schools—the “authorizers” in charter-speak. To be effective, these authorizers must want to be in the charter schooling business, need to have the resources and staff to do the work, and must be committed to the idea of charter school autonomy.

It tends to be in the big, creative-class, coastal cities of blue-state America where authorizers are doing their job and quality charters are thriving. Smart entrepreneurs, a surfeit of young talent, and rigorous but open-minded authorizers have allowed for measured, well-designed expansion. In many red and purple states, charters have grown apace but with less direction.

Today, we read of Gotham charters bravely defying teachers unions and politicians. But tomorrow’s headlines could as easily be dominated by tales of charter irresponsibility. The one thing we know for sure is that sharpshooters have set their sights on the charter bulls-eye.

-Paul E. Peterson and Michael Petrilli

This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Peterson, P.E., and Petrilli, M.J. (2014). Despite Success in New York City, It’s Time for Charters to Guard Their Flanks. Education Next, 14(3), 5.

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