How to Earn Public Support for Charter Schools

The education world continues to digest the headline finding from the 2017 EdNext Poll: a dozen-percentage-point one-year decline in support for charter schools, with similar drops among Republicans and Democrats. Those supporting the creation of charter schools still outnumber opponents by a 39%-36% margin, but the gap has narrowed dramatically.

For charter supporters, there’s been plenty of ammunition for defense and explanation. Perhaps most important, a Gallup survey, released just after the EdNext Poll, found that Americans continue to perceive charter schools as providing a better education for students than traditional public schools. Others attribute erosion in support to well-organized anti-charter PR campaigns or to the association of school choice with an unpopular president (though the EdNext Poll finds no evidence that the decline reflected a “Trump effect”).

The more important question is how proponents of charter schools can expand the nation’s support for them. As a leader who co-founded a high-performing charter school network and charter support organization, and who now leads Chiefs for Change, an organization of state and district leaders committed to educational excellence, I’m an ardent charter supporter – and I’m arguing for taking a look in the mirror.

Maureen Kelleher argues in Education Post that the decline in support is likely caused by “the failure of too many charter operators to live up to the highest standards of transparency, accountability and professionalism.” (Not everyone agrees; Chris Bertelli writes in The 74 that charter quality and political support aren’t well-aligned.) While many attacks on charter schools are misleading, critics have raised legitimate concerns about uneven quality and equitable access in some places. We need to acknowledge those concerns, remedy the problems, and focus on good practices.

At Chiefs for Change, we believe high-quality school choice can expand opportunity for underserved students. We have identified three key principles to ensure school choice programs accomplish that goal: 1) quality assurance through clear accountability; 2) equitable access for all students; and 3) equitable funding. But in too many parts of the country, weak authorizing systems have encouraged a proliferation of charter schools – particularly virtual and for-profit ones – that don’t serve students well and taint the broader reputation of charters.

In Ohio, for example, a tax-funded online charter school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), led the nation in the number of students who failed to graduate within four years. In 2015, one of every six high school dropouts in Ohio had been an ECOT student. ECOT’s four-year graduation rate is 39 percent.

Contrast that kind of failure with the portrait of excellence among the nation’s largest charter management organizations found in a new study from Stanford University. Schools operated by Achievement First, for example, have helped their students gain an additional 125 days of learning in math and 57 days in English over traditional public schools. Similarly, Denver charter school University Prep Steele Street had the most academic growth in math of any school in the state and was in the top ten for reading. High school students at the charter network I helped to launch, Blackstone Valley Prep, are 91% more likely than their peers across Rhode Island to be college and career ready.

The future of the charter sector must be more Achievement Firsts, University Preps and Blackstone Valley Preps – and fewer failures like ECOT. But the path to more success takes smart leadership – a vision for building portfolios of schools that serve students well in both district and charter schools.

The first step to gaining back and building support for charter schools is to combine our first principle – holding them accountable for providing a quality education – with our second principle – ensuring that they are accessible to all families. Cities such as Denver and Washington, D.C. provide excellent examples. The District of Columbia’s public schools are 45% charter, have high accountability standards, and make it easy for families to evaluate their options and enroll in both district and charter schools. With the district offering free transportation, students have better school access, regardless of neighborhood and socioeconomic background.

Denver Public Schools has a similarly easy enrollment system, transportation options, and a transparent accountability system – and, perhaps most important, an enrollment system that gives all families fair and practical access to all public schools, district and charter. They also have made a recent push around our third principle – to ensure equitable funding by allowing charters to benefit from voter-approved local tax increases. Both the District of Columbia’s and Denver’s charter schools have strong community support, which coupled with demand for high-quality charter schools, continues to spur growth.

If we want charter schools to earn a broad base of popularity, we need to build stronger authorizing systems that enable school leaders to drive innovation while setting clear expectations about outcomes and accountability. And we need to make sure that the many charter school success stories, like those in D.C. and Denver, get the attention they deserve. Otherwise, stories like Ohio’s ECOT will continue to dominate the public dialogue and subvert support for all charters.

Ultimately, the most important goal for charter folks is to expand the number of great schools in this country. Our communities will be – and should be — more willing to do that if we as charter advocates can with a straight face say that the charter schools that exist today accept all kids and serve them well. That’s the right way to serve students and families — and the right way to win public support.

— Mike Magee

Mike Magee is Chief Executive Officer of Chiefs for Change.

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