What’s Holding Back the Growth of the Best Charter Schools?

Are high-performing charter schools destined to pop up in every city? Not quite, says Richard Whitmire in the following excerpt from his new book The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and reinvent) America’s best charter schools. As Whitmire explains in this excerpt, charter advocates must address three troubling trends to clear the way for further growth.

Do the many charter school success stories recounted in The Founders mean that high-performing charters will soon show up in every city?

Not at all. There are three blunt realities that need a full airing. First, any reader looking at the photos and studying the résumés that accompany these stories can’t help but notice that the first wave of charter pioneers is nearly all white with excellent college credentials. Brown University appears to play a special role here, especially with Uncommon leaders (full disclosure: my wife and youngest daughter are Brown graduates, and my daughter works in the charter sphere).

Given that the targeted school population for charters is almost all low-income minorities, the contrast seen during school visits can be startling: black and brown students who are taught by white teachers. This is a race reality that’s rapidly shifting as charters diversify, but will it shift fast enough to avoid the pushback that’s already bubbling up around the race issue?

ednext-aug16-whitmire-founders-coverNext, we have to be real about where these high performers can actually take root. Their performance is tightly connected to their ability to attract talented teachers, and in a lot of cities, that just isn’t going to happen. Plus, the powerful anti-charter movement led by unions and superintendents is fully capable of blocking charters in some cities.

Finally, and probably most significantly, the top charters will be held back until hundreds of poorly performing charters get shut down. Let’s start with that one:

Low performers allowed to linger

This is the biggest failure of the charter school movement, and no one saw it coming.

The assumption that bad schools would close as better ones opened looked great on paper but fell apart in real life. What wasn’t predicted was the reluctance to close bad charters. As it turns out, charter parents cling to their failing schools just as closely as parents of traditional failing schools. Thus, the danger comes from within — the hundreds of mediocre, struggling or just flat-out awful charter schools that authorizers allow to stay open.

It is no accident that some of the biggest supporters of charter schools are the most alarmed by the failure to shutter low- performing charter schools. James Merriman from the New York City Charter School Center recently pleaded with charter operators to acknowledge the unique agreement into which charters entered: “Charter schools are free from a lot of the bureaucracy that entangles district schools. That’s autonomy, and it’s key to charter success. But that freedom isn’t free. It comes at a high price: accountability,” wrote Merriman. “Unfortunately, this is a lesson that needs to be relearned by some of my allies in the education reform movement who champion these independently run public schools.”

Too often, said Merriman, low-performing charters fight legal battles with their authorizers to stay open — a betrayal of the trade-off that charters agreed to: freedom in exchange for accountability. “Without the penalty of closure, charter schools, which often succeed with students when the district often doesn’t, simply don’t make sense. For charter schools to do the hard work of getting students educated, they need both autonomy and accountability.” Why are bad charters allowed to persist? Weak laws are the biggest culprit, followed by operators who are chummy with authorizers, followed by inertia. And then you have authorizers rationalizing that the least crummy charter schools are safer than the alternative. Who in Florida thought that allowing scores of for-profit charters was a good idea? And a question for authorizers everywhere: Who thought that allowing scores of online charters was worth a go? That’s just a starter list to answer the “why” question.

Until there’s a very real crackdown on bad charters — well beyond the recent push to get tough with troubled online charters — we should expect charters in the top 20 percent to be viewed cautiously as well. This is a problem that calls for solutions that range from setting firmer charter laws to eliminating conflicts of interest among authorizers who lack incentives to close bad charters. Will it happen? It already is, with cities such as Washington, D.C., showing that great accountability leads to great charters.

That’s also happening nationally, but at a far slower pace, unfortunately. There are talented people pushing hard on the quality-versus-quantity issue, including Nina Rees from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The biggest player in the campaign to close bad charters is Greg Richmond from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. His group’s One Million Lives program aims to open up high-performing charter seats for one million additional students — a strategy that leans heavily on closing the bad charters. This is important work: The “elite” charter groups you’ve read about in this book can never expand fast enough to meet the need, which means new high performers have to be groomed at the local level. Picking those future winners all comes down to great authorizing. Richmond and his association are making progress.

Much of the reason for the strengthening charter performance between 2009 and 2013, concluded the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, was the closures of poorly performing charters. One more data point: Between 2014 and 2015, the number of charter shutdowns rose from 223 to 272.

There’s progress. But is it fast enough?

Chasing elusive talent while evading critics

I was struck by what Ednovate’s Oliver Sicat told me about trying to expand his charter group in Los Angeles, where resistance from the union and district has become intense. L.A. may be hostile, said Sicat, but it’s talent rich, and that counts far more for charters that rely on recruiting top talent. “Until our model becomes less dependent on top talent, I’d rather do a tough political fight and get into a high-density-talent environment than just go to a place where it’s more politically viable but a low-talent environment.”

That has always been the challenge in the big charter experiment in Memphis, a city that one charter expert diplomatically referred to as a “low-resource” city. The talent question also seems to favor the larger CMOs over the one- or two-school clusters. Although there are plenty of great charters with only one or two schools, a large CMO will find it easier to attract top talent and then aggregate that talent, said Kevin Hall, CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund.

A charter group with 20 schools and 10,000 students, said Hall, offers a better platform for nurturing a fast-learning and improving curve. There are strategies to draw the best charter operations into cities, as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools lays out. And there are places that definitely qualify as “low resource”: the Rio Grande Valley, for example, where IDEA charters have flourished. But these places may prove to be the exception.

Just as the Walton Family Foundation illustrated as it pruned the list of grant cities, not all cities will prove to be fertile grounds for these schools. What’s happening in Washington, D.C., and San Antonio won’t be happening in Milwaukee. Sometimes the reason is political opposition; sometimes it’s because a low-resource city is not poised to produce the teaching talent that’s needed.

Here’s the real issue about talent: In the future, the challenge of finding great teachers is only going to worsen. And that affects all charters, including the top performers.

Talent isn’t the only roadblock; there’s also the charter pushback movement. In Massachusetts, for example, home to the highest-performing charters in the country, success has not inoculated charters from their critics: unions, competition-wary superintendents and progressive Democrats. The unions certainly aren’t going to give up the fight.

There are possible compromises with these critics, as Greg Richmond lays out. Paul Reville, former Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, offers suggestions, as does Paul Hill from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. And the group Third Way gives similar advice. Union-supported groups such as New York’s New Visions offer solutions that straddle charter and district schools. Frankly, however, I don’t see any truce on the horizon. Most threatening to these critics are the charters described in this book, the top 20 percent. Those are the charters most likely to take and retain their students; those are the charters that step on their poverty-explains-all explanation for low-performing schools.

How bad can the fight get? Really bad if the pushback forces succeed in drawing in white, middle-class, suburban parents by convincing them that charters drain money from their high-functioning schools. I wouldn’t bet against that happening — it’s exactly what happened with the testing issue. The white suburban opt-outers have a point: Those basic skills tests do nothing for their college-bound kids. They only get in the way. That’s true, and it’s true with charters as well. What do Brooke charters in Boston offer suburban parents in Newton? Absolutely nothing, unless they care about the future of Boston. That leaves me fearful of the upcoming referendum on charter expansion in Massachusetts. Brooke, for example, needs one more middle school to feed into its high school. Will that happen? Maybe, but the odds are dicey. Understandably, parents are going to vote in their self-interest.

But it is easy to become overly paranoid about the damage charter critics can inflict: After all, if the goal of the teachers unions has been to stop the spread of top charters, then that campaign would have to be considered a failure. In states such as Massachusetts, the best the unions can hope for is to keep the current cap on the number of charters.

Union leaders face tough choices in their battle to stall charter growth. Their most effective strategy — working with superintendents to create far more high-performing traditional schools that would lure parents away from charters — might require dramatic changes to teachers’ contracts that unions have spent decades winning. …

Another player here, one that it is too soon to measure, is the growing political power of charter school parents. We saw them rally in New York, and now we see them banding together as voters in Newark. The same phenomenon played out in 2015 in Los Angeles when charter co-founder Ref Rodriguez prevailed over an incumbent anti-charter school board member with close union ties.

My guess: For each instance where school district leaders and unions succeed in stopping a high-performing charter, there will be two instances where expansion gets approved and/or district leaders and charters agree to some form of collaboration. It’s all about necessity.

More teachers who look like their students

For the most part, especially inside elite charter schools, the students and teachers don’t look alike, and that escapes the attention of exactly no one. It’s one reason charters in Newark, despite the fact that they greatly outperform Newark neighborhood schools, remain the target of effective whispering campaigns that charters are the leading edge of a movement to reclaim Newark for white folks. The stark race gap between students and charter staff is a concern on multiple levels. Is it important to see people of your race/ ethnicity/gender standing in front of the classroom? Here’s how Teach For America, which for years has been a major supplier of teachers to top charters, comes down on that: “We believe that committed, talented individuals, whether they come from privilege or not, can be powerful classroom leaders,” said TFA spokesperson Sharise Johnson. “We also believe that teachers who share the background of their students can have a profound additional impact. This belief is grounded in all that we’ve seen in the field, and emerging research on how and why students benefit from teachers with whom they share a background.”

TFA, which has long drawn criticism for sending too many white teachers into all-minority schools, has moved fast to diversify: In 2009, said Johnson, 9 percent of the corps identified as African-American; today, 20 percent do (nationally, that figure is 7 percent for traditional schools). In 2011, 8 percent of the corps was Latino; by 2016, that number doubled.

“We’re one of the largest single providers of teachers of color in the country, and roughly half of all this year’s corps members identify as people of color,” said Johnson. “And diversity among our corps members becomes diversity among our alumni leaders. Eighteen out of about 100 Teach For America alumni holding elected office today are Latino; 8 percent of our policy, advocacy and organizing leaders identify as AAPI [Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders]; and 16 percent of our alumni school leaders are black.”

That’s a fast transition, but matters of race in America are rarely that simple. Regardless of race, new charter teachers or TFAers entering traditional district schools in cities such as Washington, D.C., Newark, Chicago and New Orleans are often seen as replacing older teachers from the neighborhood, which then saps the neighborhood of important economic assets. Usually, those actions happen because the older teachers weren’t viewed as getting results.

Former Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller, a longtime school reform advocate and founder of Black Alliance for Educational Options, is not surprised by the controversy that generates. From the perspective of many in the black community, said Fuller, education reform has meant black schools getting closed and black teachers getting fired.

“The long-term sustainability of this is not possible unless we have a conversation with our veteran teachers about how to get better. It’s one thing to say they are not getting results; it’s another to conclude they have no value and can’t acquire new skills.” In big cities, schools are about far more than educating kids, Fuller points out. “A lot of people see school [jobs] as an entry to the middle class. When a lot of these people lose jobs, many in the black community view this as an attack on black economic value and black power.” There’s a reason Dale Russakoff’s book about Newark school politics was named The Prize — “the prize” was the jobs generated by Newark schools, the jobs that kept so many in the middle class. Where else was employment to be found?

That was clearly a huge issue in Washington, D.C., where black voters felt education reform was something being done to them (and by a Korean-American woman, Michelle Rhee) and not being done with them. So they voted out the mayor who made schools better, Adrian Fenty, which got Rhee ejected as well — all documented in my book The Bee Eater.

A similar phenomenon is obvious in Newark, where Ras Baraka got elected mayor in part because of his opposition to charters. And yet the Newark charters, which by any measure are outperforming Newark public schools, continue to draw long wait lists for their schools.

“It’s an irony,” said Fuller. “People who are trying to find a better education will continue putting their kids into charters, but they will continue to vote for people who oppose those schools.” That’s because the charters, led for the most part by whites, never felt like homegrown school reforms. And longtime Newark residents have seen too many neighbors lose their jobs.

In late May 2016 that tension within the school reform movement boiled over with the Fordham Institute’s publishing of an essay by Robert Pondiscio: “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of the school reform movement.” Pondiscio wrote that a social justice agenda prevailed at the annual NewSchools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco.

“Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like NewSchools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.”

Conservatives, Pondiscio reported, are left wondering: When are we going to talk about better schools? Roughly defined, the two sides of the argument were cast as: equity versus markets.

This is no minor issue, given the increasing focus of the school reform movement on charters. (The fierce and often successful pushbacks against Common Core, realistic teacher evaluations and data-driven accountability within traditional districts have left charters as the best reform option.) It is hard to name a state legislature where the survival of charter schools doesn’t hinge on a fragile coalition of traditional liberals teaming up with conservatives to fend off anti-charter attacks from progressives, unions and powerful school superintendents.

If conservatives pull back, that coalition crumbles. It’s really that brutal.

One obvious compromise is to pioneer more charter schools run by minorities, thus marrying the interests of the two parties: better school options and school reform that’s more reflective of local communities.

That pretty much defines the “Emerging CMO Fund” at the Charter School Growth Fund overseen by Darryl Cobb, the former chief learning officer at the KIPP Foundation. Cobb still recalls the day in the fall of 2002 when he looked over the crowd gathered for a Growth Fund meeting in Seattle: nearly all the attendees were white, a sharp contrast to the students in the schools funded by the Growth Fund, who are nearly all minority.

“That was the spark of an idea,” said Cobb, who worked with Fund President Kevin Hall to create a separate charter fund for up-and-coming minority charter leaders. The guiding principle: There are plenty of highly successful minority charter leaders who rarely dream of expanding beyond one school because they lack the financing and/or connections to a larger network that could help with crucial resources such as finding top teachers.

Richard Whitmire is a veteran newspaper reporter, a former editorial writer at USA Today, and the author of several books about education. The Founders is available for download or purchase at https://www.the74million.org/the-founders

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