Thursday, June 26, 2014


by John Merrow  in his blog, Taking Note |

26. Jun, 2014  ::  How much does a sign reading “CHARTER SCHOOL” reveal about the education being offered inside the building? My answer: About as much as a ’RESTAURANT’ sign reveals about the food it serves. That is, nothing at all. This sad state of affairs makes me wonder whether the charter school movement has been hijacked or, at a minimum, has strayed off course. If it has lost its way, whose responsibility is it to restore order and integrity?

I posed that general question to a number of leaders in the charter school arena and will share some of their answers below, but let me explain why I am bringing up the subject.

I’ve been following the story since 1988, when a number of educators convened near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota to develop an idea that had been put forth–separately–by Albert Shanker, the teacher union leader, and Ray Budde, a Massachusetts educator. You will recognize the names of some of those who participated: Mr. Shanker, Joe Nathan, State Senator Ember Reichgott, Ted Kolderie and Sy Fliegel. (I was there as the moderator.)

The basic idea that emerged was than any school district could create a ‘charter school’–essentially free of nearly all regulations–that would allow exploration of new models of teaching and learning. These charter [1] schools, people hoped, would incubate and then spread innovations.  Taking risks would be OK because only a small number of willing parents, students and teachers would be involved.

In the era of great enthusiasm for parental choice, the planners didn’t want people to be allowed to open charter schools just because they were ‘enthusiastic’ or public-spirited.  As Ted Kolderie explains in his new book, the planners insisted on an authorizing body that would scrutinize applicants and grant charters only to those who had the qualifications to run a school. [2]

Three years later Minnesota passed the first charter school law, and in 1992 the nation’s first charter school opened [3].  Today at least 5,000 charter schools [4] in 41 states enroll about 2.4 million students–but almost none of these charter schools are ‘incubators of innovation’ working with a school district, as the planners had envisioned.

Both school districts and teacher unions ended up opposing the idea. The ‘authorizer as means of setting a high standard’ was diluted to the point of meaningless when some states decided to allow just about anybody to authorize the opening of charter schools. And in some states, authorizers have in turn allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to set up charter schools.

Some states banned charter schools outright, while others set limits, often low ones, on the number that would be allowed.  Some states appeared to approve charter schools but added a crippling condition: no state funds could be used for facilities. That meant would-be charter school operators had to first raise enough money to acquire a building before they could enroll students or hire teachers and quality for state funds.

A few states–notably Michigan, Ohio and Florida–specifically encouraged for-profit charter schools. To see how disastrously that’s turned out in Michigan, you must read the results of a 1-year investigation by the Detroit Free Press.  It’s a stunning story of greed, mismanagement and failure of oversight that is being reported this week.

Earlier this year the left-leaning Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education published “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse,” its title taken from a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General.

This report charges that $100 million in taxpayer funds have been lost, stolen or misspent. it cites six areas of abuse:

Charter operators using public funds illegally for personal gain;
School revenue used to illegally support other charter operator businesses;
Mismanagement that puts children in actual or potential danger;
Charters illegally requesting public dollars for services not provided;
Charter operators illegally inflating enrollment to boost revenues; and,
Charter operators mismanaging public funds and schools.”

Overall, charter schools have not been a smashing success academically speaking.  Several studies (.pdf) have indicated that about one-third of charter schools significantly outperform their traditional counterparts, while another third underperform them.

These waves of bad news threaten to obscure the movement’s successes. Over the years a number of Charter Management Organizations (called that to distinguish them from the for-profit charter groups, which are known as “Education Management Organizations”) have established successful chains of charter schools. The best-known CMO is KIPP, for Knowledge is Power Program, but Yes Prep, Achievement First, IDEA Public Schools and a few others have attracted a strong following among parents dissatisfied with traditional public schools…and have demonstrated significant academic gains.

The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools will be meeting soon in Las Vegas, which is why I raise the issue of the movement’s future at this point. In fact, I posed my questions to Nina Rees, the Executive Director of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, Reed Hastings, the Californian who strongly supports charter schools, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, two who were key players at that 1988 meeting, and Greg Richmond, the leader of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Greg Richmond and Reed Hastings were quick to point out that the influence of the profit-seekers was diminishing. Here’s part of Greg’s response:

The share of charter schools run by for-profit companies appears to have been flat for the past few years. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows a range of 11% to 13% over their most recent years of data (2008 to 2011) with a decrease in for-profits as a percent of the whole sector from 13% to 12.3% for the most recent year. The National Education Policy Center, no fan of charter schools, in its most recent report (released November 2013 with 2011-12 data) states “we estimate that the actual number of EMO-managed public schools has remained relatively stable over the past few years, and that large companies are diversifying into supplemental educational services rather than expanding in the full-service management area.

However, Richmond believes that the profit-seeking 100% virtual charter schools, which are growing in number, are a big problem in the charter community.

Their results are uniformly bad, and they have undue political influence in state capitols. Some important charter advocates would like to figure out a way to “kick them out” of the charter school movement.

My colleague John Tulenko did a piece for the NewsHour about one cyber-charter in Pennsylvania that you may have seen. Shortly after John’s piece aired, the founder was indicted.

I also asked about the influence of ideologues on the charter school movement. Some dismissed this, but Greg Richmond believes that those with blind faith in the free market–complete deregulation and parental choice–have been hurting the charter movement.

What I saw in New Orleans [5] supports Richmond’s point about the need for some regulation, because Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard learned that the independent charter schools had to be regulated and supervised or else some of them would play fast and loose [6] with the system and weed out (or not admit) students who might not do well academically or who were more expensive to educate.  Dobard saw it happening and worked to create universal standards on behavior, suspension and expulsion.

Richmond cites an activist group, the Center for Education Reform (CER), as the leading voice of this free market philosophy but adds,

The CER is much less influential than it used to be. After two decades of experience, few people in the charter movement believe that choice and deregulation are guaranteed to produce superior results. Those are good things, but talented teachers, great school leaders, adequate funding, facilities and high standards are just as important, if not more so.

Could the threat to the charter school movement come from the non-profits, not the profit-seekers?  It’s possible.  The non-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMO) are the fastest growing component of the charter movement. They represented just 11.5% of charter schools in 2008, but jumped to 20.2% in 2011.

In his new book, Ted Kolderie bemoans the division between these ‘franchise’ operations and the stand-alone charter schools, which detractors dismiss as “Mom and Pop” operations. In turning its back on individual charter schools,the charter movement is losing its way, Kolderie believes.  It’s in those individual schools that innovation is more likely to occur, he told me, because the franchises stress sameness, just like Burger King and McDonalds.

Greg Richmond sees the same divide as a threat. He wrote, in part,

The people who run these (stand alone) schools are interested in running their one school, not growing a network. Many of them came out of their local districts. They don’t like how the district was run, but they don’t inherently hate the district. They want the district to succeed too. These folks have real philosophical differences with the pro-growth, charter network people, while the network people believe that the stand-alone people are naïve.

Governmental and foundation policies support the CMO’s, whether it’s funding from the U.S. Department of Education or the newly established Broad Prize for Charter Schools, a cash award of $250,000 that goes to a CMO.[7]  There is no equivalent award for a stand-alone charter school.

How painfully ironic would it be if the dominance of networks stifled the innovation that the founders of the charter school movement saw as the fundamental advantage of chartering in the first place?

If the clash of philosophies between charter networks and the stand-alone schools is real, relevant and threatening to the stand-alone schools, whose responsibility is it to make sure that the playing field is level?

Nina Rees, the executive director of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, suggested that the responsibility for keeping the movement on course rests with authorizers and, should they fail, politicians. Perhaps, but shouldn’t the Alliance itself support even-handed treatment of networks and stand-alone charter schools? Shouldn’t the Alliance be speaking out against too-easy authorization of would-be charter operators?  Shouldn’t the Alliance stand firmly in favor of more effective and transparent ways of holding failing charter schools accountable?  Shouldn’t it be praising effective state charter school laws, and criticizing those laws that hurt the charter movement by opening the door to unscrupulous people?

I believe the charter movement is off course for another reason: Like the rest of public education, it is hostage to our obsession with test scores as the bottom line measure of school quality.  Charter schools could be leading the conversation about multiple measures of school and teacher effectiveness, but it seems to me that many of them have bought into the bubble test mania.

Charter schools were conceived of as pockets of innovation and cooperation.  We finally found [8] a school district that has welcomed charter schools and is striving to learn from them. Sometime in the next week or two the PBS NewsHour will carry our report about Spring Branch, Texas, where Superintendent Duncan Klussman has invited KIPP and Yes Prep to open schools inside two of his middle schools.  As you will see, the relationship is, so far at least, mutually beneficial, although it appeared to us that the charter schools are having a stronger impact on the traditional schools, not vice-versa.  But that’s as it should be, if charter schools are pushing the inside of the envelope.

The term “Charter School” has to stand for something; right now its meaning is in doubt, and that’s not good. I cannot be in Las Vegas for the annual meeting of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, but I hope some of the ideas above will be part of the conversations there.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

1. Ted Kolderie and others call them ‘chartered schools.’

2. “The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement and Innovation,” Beaver’s Pond Press, 2014

3. In Saint Paul.

In recent years numbers of Catholic parochial schools have converted to charter schools.

5. Our film, “Rebirth: New Orleans,” is available on Netflix. It’s the result of six years of filming there.

6.  For evidence ot that in other places:

7. This year it will go to KIPP, IDEA Public Schools or Achievement First.  The award will be presented in Las Vegas.

8. I learned about the experiment from Richard Whitmire’s new book about charter schools, On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope (Wiley, 2014)


  • John Merrow is a veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of national publications. He is President of Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) media production company based in New York and focused on education. He is also the author of The Influence of Teachers.

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