How Charter Schools Can Help Districts and Change the Debate

BY SALLY BACHOFER | Our national debate on charter schools is toxic and – tragically – thrives on oppositional rhetoric. Charter schools or traditional district schools?  Same students or different students?  Serving private interests or truly public schools?  Sure, simplistic binaries make for lively debate in op eds and talk radio, but they don’t help districts and charters work together to solve educational problems on the ground. This is unfortunate for everyone involved.

Yes, adding new, high-performing charter schools to a community is a good thing for the children who win seats through lotteries, but charter schools could do so much more to improve our nation’s public education system as a whole.  Thankfully, public charter schools are uniquely positioned to do this.  By using the legal flexibilities afforded to them, through their non-profit governing boards, charter operators have the potential to transform the fabric of public education by explicitly working to fix some of the most thorny issues facing school districts today.

Charter schools come into being through contracts with their authorizers – legal arrangements that outline how the charter school provides public education and how many students the school serves at which grade levels. Such contracts are usually standardized and, unfortunately, very few schools and authorizers push beyond the standard contract provisions. If they took the opportunity, however, strong charter network operators could easily use their contracts to address specific district needs and find creative ways to contribute to the overall wellbeing of their communities. Three needs in particular are ready for attention.

One persistent district need is the enrollment of students who transfer into a district or change schools after the start of the school year. It can be difficult to find appropriate seats for these students, many of whom come with educational needs that surpass their more geographically stable peers. Under the typical contract, charter schools cannot help: they are often over-subscribed and must follow strict federal and state mandates to fill available seats through lotteries. Instead of following this well-trodden path, charter school operators could hammer out add-on contracts with their authorizers for additional seats – seats not under their initial charter – for these mid-year transfer students.  A charter school operator could also contract for a fixed number of mid-year transfer seats to be filled by the district’s central office, in exchange for a stable, multi-year lease on a public facility. This kind of reasonable, collaborative legal arrangement could make a real difference in districts with high transient or high mobility rates, especially when public school space is at a premium.

A second persistent public need is to reverse the chronic failure of middle and high schools to prepare disadvantaged students for college and career – particularly in urban districts. Plenty of federal and state incentives encourage school take-over, transformation, turnaround or re-design, yet pubic charter school operators across the country have historically shied away from engaging in this work.  It is much easier for them to start schools from scratch, “grow” schools up and down into K-12 continuua, or replicate from an established anchor school.  The messy and uncertain work of taking over an existing school, students, and possibly teaching staff that go along with that school, is not appealing. In addition, if they chose to take on school turnaround, charter school boards are wary of the dismal accountability status of the chronically failing schools and the threat this can pose to their charter renewals in the future. Furthermore, the competencies that charter school operators have honed to establish new schools and replicate successful schools are a different set of muscles than those that are needed to bring “turnaround” schools on-line.

Successful veteran charter networks should step up to this urgent challenge and take on needy school populations in partnership with their districts and states.  States should make more explicit the range of federal resources available to charter school boards to engage in this work.  Charter authorizers can collaborate with schools in modifying charter contracts so that they take into consideration the starting accountability points of these schools. This becomes especially important in negotiating high stakes charter renewal decisions.  Philanthropy should reward charter schools which reach outside of their growth plans – and in some cases outside of their neighborhood or city expansion plans – to partner with districts in transforming these schools.

Finally, educational leaders are increasingly aware of the urgent need to support schoolchildren with health and mental health services, expanded and extended day services, and integrated partnerships with public service agencies. Public charter schools could use the flexibility inherent in the contract process to negotiate partnerships with a range of service providers, both private and governmental. Some states, such as New York and Massachusetts, prioritize funding to support integrated services in new schools through Governor’s initiatives, federal Race to the Top incentive funds, Title I funds and Charter School Program grant funds. With this unique funding mixture, public charter schools have the chance to be nimble in coordinating a suite of partnerships and services to meet the needs of students, their families, and the communities in which they are located.

A number of schools and networks across the country (such as Camino Nuevo Charter Academies in Los Angeles and The SEED School in Washington, D.C.) are following this pattern to great effect in student achievement. The Children’s Aid Society in New York has launched an exciting new community school in New York City, building on its longstanding experience with such schools across the country.  Charter schools should use their flexibility to create the types of schools our cities and towns need, changing the experience of public schooling within their districts for the good.

The three examples that I offer are concrete needs faced, every day, by our public school districts. Experienced charter operators can no longer shy away from the opportunities afforded by the contract process to address the challenges of transient and mobile students, failing middle and high schools, and social services and medical supports in schools. Government and philanthropy need to use their levers of policy and incentive funding to make it more appealing, especially for the veteran, high performing charter networks, to stretch beyond merely providing additional quality seats.

Sally Bachofer is Senior Advisor to the president of City Year Inc., and a former Assistant Commissioner at the New York State Education Department where she led the State’s Office of School Innovation and oversaw the performance management of New York’s public charter schools. 

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