Education Chat

Chat Transcript: Charter Schools: Policy and Practice

Andrew Rotherham, director of the Progressive Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project, and Michael Goldstein, founder and CEO of the MATCH Charter School in Boston, discuss the role of charter schools in today's education landscape.

Charter Schools: Policy and Practice

Caroline Hendrie (Moderator):
Welcome to Education Week and’s chat on charter schools. I’m Caroline Hendrie, a senior editor at Education Week, and I’ll be moderating our discussion today. We are pleased to have with us two strong and knowledgable advocates of charter schooling: Andy Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington and Michael Goldstein of the MATCH Charter School in Boston. We’re looking forward to learning what’s on your minds about charter schools and their evolving place in the nation’s education landscape!

Question from Bonnie J. Perry,staff assistant, student community relations, omaha public schools:
Are we likely to see more charter schools now that Bush has appointed a new secretary of education?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Bonnie,

That’s a great question to start with since the appointment of Margaret Spellings is the news of the day.

The Bush Administration has strongly supported charter schools and I don’t think that will change with the new secretary. Overall, however, Spellings has not been an outspoken supporter of charter schools. You’d have to ask her why that is, but if I had to venture a guess I’d say it’s because that while many states have done a great job with charter schooling others, like Texas, have much uneven quality. Her experience may be less positive than someone with a background in other states.

That said, there is a great deal of Democratic support for charter schools at all levels of the party from local state legislators to governors and senators. Senator Tom Carper (DE) is a leader in the U.S. Senate on the issue, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is chartering schools there (and is the only mayor who can do so), Virginia Governor Mark Warner just strengthened that state’s charter school law and local Democratic legislators across the country are starting to see charters as a good way to increase the supply of high quality options for underserved youngsters.

I think the bipartisan support means that charters are an area where there can be some bipartisan action as opposed to some other issues where there are deeper disagreements between the parties.

Question from William R. Gretton, III Assistant Superintendent for Business Affairs, Harrisburg School District:
Should public policy allow individual Charter Schools that duplicate efforts of the local public schools to survive when student performance is not equal to or greater than those public schools?

Michael Goldstein:
Hi Bill. Great question. My sense is charter public school leaders differ on that question, and the public policy aspect is complicated since charter law varies by state. Speaking only for myself, if the original 5-year charter claimed that they’d have students outperforming distict public schools, and they don’t, then I’d be inclined to shut them down. Given the phrasing of your question, I bet you agree! I can think of a mitigating circumstance, however. What if the charter tends to draw parents whose kids were doing poorly in the district schools, and therefore arrive with lower test scores than the district? In that case, I’d personally allow a charter to survive if its “gains over baseline” were equal or higher than the district. For example, let’s say a charter high school attracts incoming 9th graders who’d scored at the 30th percentile statewide in their old middle schools, and get them to the 40th percentile by the end of 10th grade. And say the district’s incoming 9th graders scored 50% in their old middle schools, and those kids go on to the 55th percentile two years later. I would personally think the charter has a good public policy rationale to continue its exist, because of its “Value-Add.”

Question from Carolyn Guthrie, Teacher, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and parent of a recent charter school graduate:
Recently released research seems to show that charter school student performance is not better than that of students in regular public schools, and, in fact, may even be lower. Please comment on these results.

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Carolyn,

Good question. As I indicated earlier, the research on charter schools is mixed. This is not surprising because a charter school is just a school and there is nothing magical about having a charter, it still takes the same hard work and discipline to create an excellent school.

In terms of the research, as with research about other public schools it’s important to make sure that you view the research through the right analytic lens in terms of what different studies and data sets can and can’t tell us.

You’re probably specifically referring to the recent American Federation of Teachers “study” about charter school scores. Unfortunately the AFT report itself could tell us very little because of the limitations of the data and the New York Times front page story on it was very misleading for readers and poorly done (for example it offered no interpretation of various statistics for readers making it easy to draw incorrect conclusions). And quite frankly, though this was lost on the New York Times, you should have about as much confidence in a charter school report from the AFT as you would in a military outsourcing report from Halliburton.

A second study that came out shortly afterwards by Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Harvard. While also limited in several ways in terms of what it can tell us, her study offers a more complete picture of charter performance. It finds, as several other reputable studies have, that charters are doing, generally, as well or better than comparable public schools but that there are still too many low-performing charters and too many places and some states that should concern us.

The bottom line is reason for cautious optimism but charters are also bumping up against the same challenges that traditional public schools face. The challenges of educating some students are substantial and more complicated than rhetoric about “No Excuses” and so forth. On the other hand they can be met and our profession can do more to meet them than we do now.

Unfortunately though, lost in the ideological back and forth about charter test scores is an opportunity to have a discussion about those issues.

Question from Julie Woestehoff, parent, Chicago Public Schools:
First, I wonder why you chose to have both guests from the charter school business rather than a balanced program? Second, parents are concerned that they have little recourse when they have problems with a charter school; if these problems are not resolved to the parent’s satisfaction, they have nowhere else to go, and their only option is to remove their child from the school. How can parents hold charter schools accountable other than lobby for them to be closed?

Michael Goldstein:
I was invited by an EdWeek moderator. Andy Rotherham, however, is not in the charter business. He is an analyst with the Progressive Policy Institute, since indeed it was President Clinton who pushed for charters. I would assume EdWeek sometimes has charter opponents.

Good second question. In our school, each parent gets regular phone calls from the principal, just to check in. They can serve on the Parent Council, which meets monthly. Or they can complain to the state Department of Education.

I’m open to other ideas. Do district public school parents have other recourse?

Without charters, by the way, parents locked in district public schools lose both those options you name - they can’t lobby to close the school, and they can’t remove their kids.

Question from Rolff Christensen, Connecting Waters Charter School:
Tension exists between the need for autonomy and accountability. What accountability measures have you seen around the country that most inhibit autonomy. Also, does limited autonomy have a corresponding negative effect on innovation? please elaborate

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Rolff,

The autonomy - accountability relationship is a tricky one and different states are dealing with it in different ways.

Right now the Progressive Policy Institute is in the midst of a seven state/city evaluation of charter school quality. We’ve looked at CA, MN, AZ, Indianapolis, New York City, and will be releasing studies on OH and TX soon. You can see this work at

What we’ve clearly found is that there are trade-offs that policymakers must recognize. Arizona is a great example of this. That state has a very “loose” charter law with a great deal of autonomy and one that makes it pretty easy to get a charter. The result is that while Arizona has a lot of great charter schools, it also has some real disasters. Essentially looseness is going to cause a wide variation like that. Conversely, some states have laws that are so restrictive, offer so little autonomy, and make it so difficult to get a charter that they have hardly any charter schools at all. There are problems with both approaches.

I think states like Minnesota have struck a good balance on the autonomy - accountability balance. Laws like the one in Minnesota protect the public interest by ensuring that charter schools live up to their obligations as public schools and provide not just choices for parents but quality choices but at the same time ensure that groups and individuals seeking to provide public educational options to students are able to do so.

Another good place to look at this issue right now is Colorado. A state representative there, Terrance Carroll (D), just put forward, and got passed, legislation making it easier for would-be charter school operators to get a charter, even if the local school board is opposed, but the legislation also ensured accountability and monitoring for these schools.

Personally, I believe that you have to strike a balance here and can do so in policy. However, there are plenty of folks who think that autonomy and ease of opening a school is the most important thing and others who think that the more regulations that are put on charters, the better. I think both those viewpoints are counterproductive to the goal of creating more high quality public education options.

In terms of specific provisions, provisions that allow local school boards to veto the creation of charters with no appeal process to another entity and requirements that teachers have state certification are among the most problematic provisions right now. The former holds kids hostage to local politics and interest group pressure and the latter has no basis in empirical research. Also, in various state laws there are plenty of compliance and reporting issues that are problematic but that’s par for the course in this business and something that all public schools have to deal with.

Question from Trish Creegan, Project Cooordinator, Institute on Disabilities, Temple University:
I am interested in the impact of charter schools on the education of students with disabilities, particularly in terms of inclusive education and the larger context of school reform. If charter schools are meant to be “incubators of innovation” how can we take what is learned in some charter schools and use it to inform the larger reform efforts of a school district? I have seen isolated examples of some charter schools doing some really wonderful things for students with disabilties with a true vision for inclusion, but I am unclear how that can be translated to the bigger picture.

Michael Goldstein:
Trish, it’s a great question. Your role may be ideal for disseminating some of those “Wonderful isolated examples"; when charter school leaders say to district school leaders “Hey check out the great things we’re doing,” you can imagine how that might sound like boasting. What if you identified 3 of those wonderful practices that you think are “portable” (don’t need huge changes to school structure or staffing or $$$), then create a little bus trip for Philadelphia area principals and special ed directors to visit charters? Most public school leaders of all stripes are looking first for the low-hanging fruit - easy-to-implement, sensible strategies. If a few of those work, maybe you can use the credibility to interest them in some more systemic changes....

Question from John Cairns, Briggs and Morgan, P.A. charter school attorney:
Uniquely, Minnesota permits sizeable 501c3 tax exempt entities to charter schools. Nearly half of Minnesota schools are chartered by such organizations (e.g. Volunteers of America - MN; YWCA; Ordway Theatre; Audobon Society, among others).

Is this a viable option in other states?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi John,

I’m watching closely what happens in Minnesota with this. There are some things that make Minnesota unique (relatively small population, good charters now, a history of innovation with public school choice and charters, and a reasonably bipartisan climate on education policy, etc…) so I want to see how things play out there before I’d want to draw any conclusions more generally. Right now there are some states where I’d be leery of an approach like this.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting strategy and there are some smart folks out there doing a lot of great work on it. I’m hopeful it may open some new doors.

Question from Kathleen Hagen:
As a parent and long time observer of the public education system, I would like to know: How realistic is it for a layperson to spur the creation of a new charter high school in a district that would whole heartedly oppose it? Is a school board justified in believing a charter would drain funds from the existing high school? I’ve created an outline for the concept of a charter that I believe would greatly benefit many teens in our area. What are the next steps?

Michael Goldstein:
Hi Kathleen. It’s daunting but realistic. Many parent lay groups have successfully spurred new charters despite district opposition, which ALWAYS argues that it will drain funds. They see it as: we have 2,000 kids @ $8,000 each, any time you take a kid, that’s $8000 less for us to pay the 200 teachers et al. Charters respond: the public money should follow the kid. If we start a charter that attracts 400 of your students, then we should get the public money to hire the 40 teachers we need, and you can lay off your worst 40 teachers, or more likely with union rules, your 40 youngest teachers. Then there’s an hour long back and forth of vituperative debate on this issue that you can find on various websites. The school board people are almost never convinced but many moderates in the locality can be swayed. We’ve found it politically useful to stress that the explosive growth of charter schools was led by President Clinton and the 2004 Democratic National Platform calls for more of them... Next steps? Try to find the existing charter school in your state that most reflects what you want to do (high school; district opposition; parent created). Visit. Find out their founding history. I’ve learned the most through other local charter leaders (Boston in my case) that had “been there before.”

Question from Cel Holloway, Teacher, S.O.S. Charter School:
We are interested in knowing more about the changes in different states and/or counties that have successful charter schools. What is the role of the local school districts in the success and /or failure of the schools? What is the ratio of parental involvement? Was the original role of charter school(s) a parental choice or an alternative for children with behavior/academic problems.

Andrew Rotherham:
Hello Cel,

This just varies tremendously by place. As with all schools, many of the things that make a charter school successful are intangibles. Terrific leadership, a school culture fostering success, high expectations for everyone, etc…

I don’t think you can point to any specific thing and say that if all schools did this we’d be better off. For instance, some successful charters have very specific expectations for parental involvement others don’t and some have great relationships with their local school districts, some don’t. And the same is true of charters that are struggling.

But this variation in what works is key to the policy rationale behind charters. Because there is not one best thing that works, it makes sense in public policy to allow more pluralism in how we provide public education services so long as providers, whether community groups, groups of teachers, non-profit networks, etc…are willing to abide by a common framework to ensure universal access and accountability to the public --the important hallmarks of public education.

In terms of at-risk students and those struggling with various issues it’s worth nothing that the nation’s first charter school, the wonderful City Academy in St. Paul, MN, was founded specifically to serve students who had struggled in the traditional system. This is a common theme in charter schools in general and the reason that overall they serve a more disadvantaged population than the traditional public schools.

Different people will give you different answers about the role/rationale. Mine, in a nutshell, is that they help provide high quality public options for students who currently don’t have them. While we can always do better, overall in this country we have public schools we can, and should be, proud of. But in some communities and for some groups of students, we’re simply not getting the job done and we need to provide more options and customization in the public sector for these students.

Question from James Rathbun, Teacher William C. Abney Academy:
What is the best practice for colleges to team with sponsored charter schools? Have charters had visiting professors or curriculum teams to help chartered schools perform better or has it been the practice to let charters “go it alone”.

Michael Goldstein:
We’ve had two close collaborations with universities - less on the advice side, and more direct service. Boston University lets our seniors take one of their classes each term, exposing our kids to “real” college level work. M.I.T. hosts our summer school, and 70 of their undergrads work 20 hours per week as tutors in that program. Each university has a commitment to the larger Boston community.

As for as “visiting professors,” I think it’s all about the individual. There are a few profs who we seek out for advice, but it stems less from “institutional partnerships” and more “personal relationships.” With high-poverty schools in particular, I’d be wary of those who are pie-in-the-sky idealists and paper over implementation challenges.

Question from Scott Thompson, Assistant Director, Panasonic Foundation:
I have gradually come to the conclusion that charter schools represent an incomplete Theory of Change: they address the value of freeing educators from bureaucratic constraints, but there is a raft of important factors that this model does not appear to address: the importance of high quality instructional leadership, the importance of highly qualified teachers and of high quality teacher professional development, etc., etc. Some charter schools have high quality instructional leaders and others don’t; some have highly qualified teachers who receive ongoing professional development, and others don’t. Can you make the case for charter schools as a complete and powerful Theory of Change? If not, does this not make them a weak focal point for policy initiative?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Scott,

You’ve hit on an important issue that I tried to address a little in an earlier question. A charter is just an opportunity; it’s not a curriculum, pedagogy, teacher quality initiative, or anything else.

What charters do is allow for the public sector to harness a lot of creative energy that is out there and get more people involved in school improvement efforts.

But, the same hard work of teaching and learning remains. The theory is that given more freedom to do things differently in exchange for public accountability will better facilitate this work, but it’s there regardless. There are no shortcuts that I’ve seen.

I do think that some charters have underestimated the magnitude of the challenge and are struggling. But again, many others are showing what’s possible when people are given the opportunity to take initiative and responsibility.

Question from Paul Dunphy, Citizens for Public Schools, Boston:
Mr. Goldstein, I notice from Massachusetts Department of Education data that in Boston, where almost one in five children in the public schools are learning English as a second language, no students at your charter school are English language learners. I also note that, compared to the public school system, your school enrolls a far smaller percentage of children with special needs and no children with severe disabilities. I was also curious to see that the attrition rate at your school is quite high, as students move from 9th to 12th grade. Could you outline why there are such dramatic demographic differences between your school and the public system and speculate on where students go when they leave your school before graduation?

Michael Goldstein:
Hi Paul,

You know, I’d love to meet you actually. I know you work very hard opposing charters, and perhaps we could find some common ground.

Anyway, for readers, I suspect even Paul would concede that his question skews the numbers in a way that leaves me as a respondent either leaving his assertion unchallenged or seeming “defensive.”

Our school does enroll *more black and Hispanic students than Boston as a whole, slightly *more low-income students than Boston as a whole, the same percentages of mild/moderate special needs kids than Boston as a whole, and slightly worse incoming 9th graders in terms of their standardized test scores than the district as a whole.

We enroll fewer severe special needs students because we have a clear college prep mission and therefore fewer severe special needs students choose to apply for our lottery - although it’s interesting that we have had a number of “severe” kids who we reclassified with their parents and new diagnoses as “moderate” and who went on to pass MCAS.

But we may have some common ground, Paul. I hope you’ll work to help us enroll more limited English students. We’ve requested from the district the names and addresses of all 8th grade students, offering to mail, at our expense, the lottery info; and that we would translate it into languages as designated by the district. So far the District has declined.

Question from Joanna Farmer, Scholar-Activist, Building Community Capacity:
Have charter schools advanced the movement toward educational equity and how has that been measured?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Joanna,

Thanks for this important question.

In terms of equity, the fundamental equity problem we have is that we too often give poor and minority students a second-class school system. Charters are disproportionately opening in the communities most impacted by that problem. These are not schools for the affluent or privileged. If you’re concerned about equity and educational opportunity, that should be encouraging news.

There are more than 3,000 charter schools around the country. Many are absolutely outstanding and are giving the lie to the notion that we can’t or shouldn’t expect a lot from economically disadvantaged or minority students. Many more are good and are providing students with better options than they previously had. And, unfortunately, some, for various reasons, are not getting the job done and need to be dealt with.

But while we should be concerned about that latter group, and policymakers need to take steps to deal with it, but doing so should not come at the expense of the good and great charter schools around the country.

In terms of measuring educational improvements and equity, parental demand and parental satisfaction are good indicators but so are measures of student achievement. Overall, though certainly not without exception as I pointed out, charters compare favorably to schools serving similar populations of students. And, recent studies (see, for example, the work of Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution) show that they’re making faster gains than other public schools, meaning they are showing potential to close the achievement gap. Right now, because charters disproportionately serve a disadvantaged population, comparisons of charter school achievement to overall public school achievement are deliberately misleading.

However, the goal of charters should not be to do as well as mediocre urban schools but to do much better. Over time meeting that goal will be the real test of the value-added on the equity question.

Question from Kate Neville, Practice Group Leader, The Finance Project:
What do you consider the primary challenges charter schools face around financing? To what extent is their start-up and sustainability limited by financing issues? How so? What information and/or tools would be helpful?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Kate,

Charters face a lot of problems here. Some are the same as those facing traditional public schools, namely that in too many states the state finance systems favor more affluent communities and hamstring low-income communities where the educational challenges are greatest. Charters also face similar challenges with regard to special needs students.

But some are unique to charters. For instance in most places charters cannot go to the voters for facilities and they frequently get less per pupil funding than other public schools.

There is a lot of work to be done to make these policies more rational.

Sounds like a great project for The Fianance Project to take on!

Question from Kevin Nerz, St. Joseph’s University:
Do you feel that charter schools are taking advantage of their license to innovate? If not, how could charter schools better realize their innovative potential? Also, what factors may be hindering some charter schools from becoming truly innovative?Thanks.

Michael Goldstein:
Great question. I think there is a lot of “small innovation” that happens in charters. Think of Jet Blue, considered a very innovative young airline. Leather seats for all; online booking only; lower fares; TV on every seat; no meals. Little things that improve the customer experience. Many charters have slight changes to curriculum, teacher conditions, school hours, etc., that add up to “big differences” in student outcomes.

One hindrance is that charter schools are usually the only public schools that have to somehow privately finance their own school buildings. So a lot of energy and money is spent to solve an issue that don’t affect most district public schools.

Question from Milree Keeling, Vice chair, Lunenburg School Committee, Massachusetts:
My district has not met AYP for 2 years solely because a sub-group of special needs students in a single school has not met targets for improvement. Our state and federal government have not fully met their obligations for funding education of this subgroup. Yet, in Massachusetts, charter schools receive ample funds from many sources not accessible to our schools, in order to meet the needs of a variety of (non-special needs) sub-groups of students. Aren’t you establishing a dual system of public schools, competing for the same pool of public funds, but “pulling out” groups of students, either by interests, talents, level of parental involvement, even social class, etc.? To me this impoverishes education for all to enrich it for some. Please account.

Michael Goldstein:
Fair question, Ms. Keeling. Are you saying you think the AYP is fair and you want to make sure it applies to charters? Or do you think AYP is unfair and therefore you want exemption? I’m afraid I’m not that familiar with the situation there. Many charters are small enough that they have fewer subgroups than districts, but they still are subject to AYP. Before 1993, were you receiving “ample” funds? Remember that charters were invented in Massachusetts in 1993 as part of the Ed Reform Act that gave massive new amounts of state funding to all districts, including yours. I’m curious if you’d want to unwind the legislation - return to pre-1993 levels of state funding for education if it would eliminate charters and other reforms... I’m not sure I know which funds we receive which aren’t available to “your schools.” The local foundations that help our school also help many district public schools in Boston. Meanwhile, our state spends $400 million per year, for example, on the School Building Assistance fund; charter schools are the only public schools, I believe, which are excluded from that cash cow...

Question from Pamela Riley, education consultant, Berkeley CA:
Should a charter school’s academic achievement be measured by the same state and federal achievement goals that regular public schools are? What if a charter school falls somewhat short of the state mandates but scores high on parent and student satisfaction or on the school’s own internal achievement goals?

Michael Goldstein:
Yes, great question, see (above?) earlier variation on the second part of your question. In Massachusetts, for example, charters are held accountable for the same state and federal achievement goals.

Question from Robert B., Administrator, Orleans Parish:
It seems like the charter movement is far more partisan in Washington than it is everywhere else. From an expert’s view, what can local supporters do to bridge this gap?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Robert,

Great question. This is something that worries me a lot. Washington is a partisan mess right now and that’s probably not going to change soon.

So, the best thing that local supporters and operators of charter schools can do is get people into the schools. I’m talking about community leaders, policymakers, elected officials, researchers, etc…Just spending time with students, parents, and teachers tends to temper a lot of the opposition. It’s a lot easier for people to attack these schools from an office somewhere or in the abstract than when they’re seeing the changes in kids lives particularly in our most challenged communities.

Charter operators should also be vigorously reaching out to elected officials at all levels of government. The first time electeds hear from charter supporters should not be when there is a legislative issue at hand or an attack on charters, it should be well in advance to build that relationship.

A lot of the misunderstanding about charters could be eliminated if there was more communication like this. I reviewed a paper at a conference recently; it was about charter school performance in a particular city. The researchers had never visited any of the school they were profiling…

Question from Stephanie Brown, Homeschool Teacher, San Jose:
Can you comment on charter schools in relationship to homeschooling...for example, are you seeing a trend of homeschooling programming becoming formalized or customized via charters?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for this important question. I think that over the next few years this is going to be a very important policy question.

I support charter schools because they are public schools, accountable to the public and open to all students. These are not minor issues.

I worry that going forward the funding streams available to charter operators are going to be very attractive to home-school parents and we’re going to see applications for charter schools that are essentially home-schools, particularly with regard to virtual schools.

There is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is that the more people who become direct stakeholders in public education, the better. Then more people have a stake in issues like state school finance and passing local bonds and levies. This is going to be particularly important as the population continues to age.

The obvious downside is that public dollars are intended to serve public school students through schools meeting basic public purposes. These issues are not irreconcilable but they are complicated. If parents want to start a school that is open to all students and publicly accountable, that’s one thing. If the intent is to run what is essentially a private school with public money, that’s another.

As a practical matter, addressing this issue means states must ensure that their charter school authorizing processes and their monitoring processes are rigorous. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been a real leader in this area and has developed principles and guidelines for high quality authorizing.

Unfortunately, however, rather working these issues and developing appropriate policies, charter opponents use issues like this to attack charter schooling. That’s unfortunate. Just because some lenders red-line and discriminate we don’t allow only one entity to finance homes in this country. Instead, government develops policies to protect the public interest and monitor and encourage non-governmental groups to monitor for abuse as well. The same is true here.

Question from Britt Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Special Education, Minnesota State University Moorhead:
A colleague of mine distinguishes between “charter schools” and “public schools.” Are “charter schools” also “public schools?” Why?

Michael Goldstein:
Depends on who you ask.

Technically, hard to argue that charter schools are “public": they are taxpayer funded, free for parents, generally answer to the State Board of Ed instead of the local Board of Ed (though varies by state), admit kids by random lottery, follow all state and federal rules, etc. Our opponents (the teachers union and its funded surrogates) have cleverly tried to separate charter from “public.” That’s because the vast majority of Americans like the idea of “independent public schools that admit kids by random lottery.” So they’ve focus-group tested a line of attack is try to paint charters as “elitist organizations which cherry-pick the good kids”....

In Boston, for example, the “district public schools” serve 47% black students and “charter public schools” serve 70% black students - and there is a huge racial achievement gap here, detailed on the school district’s website - yet as you can see even in this chat, the idea is to try to discourage the average moderate citizen from the fact that charters are indeed public schools.

Question from Sade Bonilla, student, Brown University:
Dear Mr. Rotherham and Mr. Goldstein,

Many conservatives are in favor of charter schools because of the market competition it offers traditional public schools. Is there any advantage to having for-profit companies run charter schools? How do progressive education reformists deal with this privitazation of education?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Sade,

There are a lot of different views about this issue. Mine is that I’m interested in whether public schools are meeting public purposes and what the results are. I’m less concerned about whether a public school is operated by a local school district or Edison (for instance) than how the students are doing and whether it’s meeting its public obligations to serve all students and be transparent to the public.

There is for-profit work all around education from supplies to textbooks to curriculum vendors and professional development. Lots of people are making A LOT of money. I think most of the concern about for-profit school management is just ideological because education certainly is not a profit free zone right now. In fact, some people make a lot of money complaining about for profit companies…On the other hand, some proponents of for profit schools seem to think that anything private is axiomatically better than something public. That’s nonsense, too.

In any event, I don’t think there is a great deal of money to be made in school management in low-income communities and most of these companies are “for profit” in name only right now…the money is in the suburbs and they don’t want or need outside management.

Over time, keep an eye on the non-profit networks of public schools, that seems a more viable model assuming that the intensity of philanthropic interest does not significantly wane.

Question from :
What do you think lies in the future for virtual charter schools? Where can I find more information about their impact on the education world, including successes and/or failures?

Andrew Rotherham:

I’m not sure. For some students they offer a lot of promise and the technology can be exciting. I don’t however see them as a large-scale model (if for no other reason than most parents want their kids in school during the day).

They also present some unique challenges in terms of accountability and ensuring that public dollars are being spent in the public interest.

This is a small corner of the charter sector though and I think the more exciting action is elsewhere with the kind of work that people like Michael are doing.

Question from Kimberly Speight- Bennett, Educator, Memphis City Schools:
When developing a charter school, what are the funding sources available for the support and maintenance of facilities, staffing, and instruction?

Michael Goldstein:
It really depends on the locality. Usually the basic package is: a per-pupil sum from the city/state, and, in high-poverty schools, some additional per-pupil Title I funding from the federal government.

Then it’s up to the school to decide how to spend that budget. Do you want smaller class sizes or perhaps a guidance counselor? Do you want to provide more teacher training or perhaps new textbooks?

In Washington DC, the mayor and several city council members (all African-American) have slammed past charter opponents and created significant funding opportunites for charter school building assistance.

That’s unusual, however. Most charters (like us) either have a mortgage or rent.

Question from Dr. Ed Fuller, Univ of Texas at Austin:
Texas has had Charter Schools since 1998. Students in such schools typically perform below their comparable peers in public schools. Given that Charter Schools typically fail to increase student achievement above and beyond what public schools can accomplish (based on comparisons of similar students in the two types of schools),why should the public support Charter Schools?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Dr. Fuller,

See my answer above. That’s really not a very accurate presentation of the state of play nationally (though as I pointed out Texas is a different kettle of fish).

Texas should be looking at other states to figure out how to do better on the quality side.

Question from Trina Abbott, parent of kids in public (not charter) school:
My understanding is that charter schools were set up with the idea that we could look to them for best practices that could then be brought to the non- charter public schools. I have seen very little sharing- is it happening anywhere and why does it seem that the charter school movement has fallen short on this front? Thanks for your answer.

Michael Goldstein:
Fair question. Do charters not share ideas? Or do they offer to share but regular district public schools don’t want to listen? Or is there are lot of sharing?

Check out on the web

It shows a number of charter-district collaborations.

On the whole, I think you’re generally right - there’s some charter sharing but not a lot. For example, we help the local district high school and actually provide them with significant amounts of tutoring for about 100 of their kids. We disseminated a new tutor model that some other traditional public schools are now using.

Privately, many local school leaders tell me “A lot of the cool things you do are possible because your teachers seem to want innovation. It’s harder here because if I want to even train teachers to put them in a position to help the kids, they can’t get that training without more pay, and my budget is strapped. Your teachers simply work more hours for the same salaries. Therefore, I can’t really use your innovations because my managerial constraints are different from yours.”

And I don’t blame those leaders. Put in their position, I don’t know how many of the successful charter practices could be implemented if I couldn’t get the teachers on board. It’s true that, generally speaking, our teachers are willing to put in more time for no pay if they feel it will help them do better with kids...

Question from Linda Sharp, Founder, Village Charter School, Anchorage, AK:
What can our Congressional delegation and the US DOE do to help states with weak charter school laws (Alaska’s is a “D” on the Center for Education Reform ranking of “A” to “F”) to get their law changed to rank an “A” or “B”? We realize that state legislators make state laws. However, l0 years of lobbying Alaskan legislators for a better law leaves us with the same “D” ranked law. Can’t money given for states for strong charter schools laws be an option? Alaska has l7 charter schools (and has for about 8 years) with a couple entering and a couple dying each year. About half of them are struggling for existence at any given time. Thank you for any solid recommendations.

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Linda,

I spent a few weeks in Alaska this summer and the buzz on charters there was very interesting.

There not a lot that US DOE can do on this front aside from using helping with facilities financing and using the bully pulpit to encourage states to pass strong charter laws or improve their existing laws. Within some broad parameters most state laws are eligible for federal start -up funding.

The best thing people in your state and other states can do is convince state legislators that charters are one way to help improve educational options and outcomes for students. That’s best done by people locally rather than in Washington.

Question from Daleen Melis, Member, Salem School Committee:
How do you explain to the Salem taxpayer that now they must pay for an additional school by the dictate of the Massachusetts Education Board?

Salem taxpayers had become accustomed to: small class sizes, librarians in every school, literacy specialists, bus service and free athletics; all of which have been lost due to state cut backs. Now with a charter school in the city, the taxpayer must compete against the state’s fiats to get these programs back into the schools. With the new funding formula raising the charter school tuition by $1,000 to over $9,000 per pupil, the taxpayer is going to feel the burden through their property taxes.

Michael Goldstein:
Hmm. I may have my facts wrong here, but I believe...this is the first year of your charter school...yes? So in that case, the State actually reimburses you $9,000 this year NOT to educate the kids who have left for the charter school.

Barring that reimbursement, taxpayers pay the same amounts.

Anyway, as you’re someone who is on the School Committee, I wonder: what have you learned when you speak to the Salem parents who felt that the district schools weren’t helping their kids, and therefore they chose to enroll at the charter school? Do you conclude they’re elitists? Or did they seem like “real Salem parents whose kids had real problems”?

Question from Chris Morehouse, Analyst, US GAO:
Which No Child Left Behind Act requirements appear to be most challenging for charter schools, and why? What do you believe are the implications of the NCLB Act for charter schools?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Chris,

NCLB is a broad and complicated federal law and as such is creating all manner of challenges and opportunities. Historically it’s always taken a while to get these issues worked out (today, for instance, a new IDEA is getting finished, after a generation there is still a lot of work to be done there).

Right now the biggest problems for charters that I hear about are the teacher quality requirements and problems for new schools and small schools. The small school issues are a more general problem because there are plenty of traditional public schools that are small. The others are more particular to charters.

AYP is also a challenge since students going to charters are most likely to be struggling but that’s not an insurmountable problem. A small subset of public schools and charter schools do need alternative accountability arrangements but most schools can operate in the current framework. That’s an issue for the next reauthorization.

Concerning the teacher quality requirements, most charter operators are not too concerned about the subject matter requirements for teachers but the certification requirements are causing some problems in states that require charter teachers (or some percent of them) to have state certification, too. While there is evidence supporting the subject matter requirement the research base on certification (as even the Education Commission of the States conceded recently) can most charitably be described as extremely weak.

Question from Milree Keeling, vice chair, Lunenburg School Committee, Lunenburg, MA:
Mr. Goldstein, your answer to the parent who asked about what recourse parents have with a charter school was incorrect when you said, “parents locked in district public schools lose both those options you name - they can’t lobby to close the school, and they can’t remove their kids.”

School boards are elected by the public; there are governing or advisory councils required by law in public schools; there are many legal protections for prents, especailly re: specail needs; amd there is the press, who attend every meeting of the school boards, because they are PUBLIC MEETINGS. The privacy and business model of charters is a real barrier.

Michael Goldstein:
In Salem, if a parent is dissatisfied, he can choose a charter public school. That’s immediate potential help for a student.

I’m not sure if there’s a charter in Lunenburg. Assuming no, a parent can show up at a meeting, but what is his or her realistic probability of getting structural change that will help their failing child?

Each charter board member must be approved by the state Department of Education, and all charters answer to a State Board of Education, which is appointed by the Governor who is elected by the people.

Question from Sally Wade, Director, FL Partnership for Family Involvement:
Do you think that generally Charter schools have more parent involvement than traditional schools? Are there unique challenges for charter schools in parent involvement?

Michael Goldstein:
Charter parents are probably more involved, though that’s hard to measure. One reason is: the parent must actively choose to enter the charter lottery. Another is: many charters were at least partially formed by parent teams, and not surprisingly, parent involvement is very important to them.

Many charters in cities try to make parent involvement easier since many are single moms with multiple jobs and no cars. That’s one challenge. It’s not unique to charters, however; district schools have the same challenge.

Question from Ruth Fletcher, Parent:

Most of the charter schools I have heard of are in big cities. Please tell me what charter schools have to do with folks in rural communities like mine?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Ruth,

Great question.

My wife and I live in a rural community so I see this issue firsthand. Rural life has a great deal to recommend it; however, many services are more likely to be limited in our communities. That’s the trade-off. In this case, charters are no exception.

To be sure, there are some rural charter schools around the country but simply because there are more students in urban areas and more capacity to create schools, that’s where most charters are.

But, all of us, regardless of where we live, have a big stake in seeing urban schools improve. We simply cannot continue on the path we’re on in terms of urban achievement and graduation rates. This issue has serious consequences for our society. So, even though charters will touch rural communities directly less often, it’s still an important idea to support.

I should also add that in a lot of rural communities there is only a single high school and often just a single elementary and middle school, too. This works well for a lot of kids, but not all. Charter schooling can help provide more options for students who are not getting what they need from the traditional comprehensive school. Multi-district and multi-county arrangements have a lot of potential here.

Question from David Patterson, Executive Director, Rocklin Academy:
PPI has advocated for Democrats to embrace charter schools as both consistent with the ideals of the Democratic Party and a powerful tool to improve public education overall. However, the strongest opposition to charters in many states is coming from Democratic legislators. Why is this, how much of this opposition is tied to teacher union opposition to charter schools, and what are the reasons for opposition beyond union opposition?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hello David,

Important question.

Many Democrats, from President Clinton to mayors and state legislatures do support charter schools because they are consistent with the Democratic Party’s best traditions of expanding opportunity and they are also consistent with the progressive tradition that is also important to our party.

The politics are tough though, that’s obvious. Still, around the country leading Democrats support charters and the support is growing so I’m optimistic.

Question from Leah Ramirez, student, University of Michigan:
How, as charter school advocates, would you define or determine when charter schools overall (versus individual schools) have succeeded? Is it when every school is a charter school, or what percentage of students would need to be in charter schools? Or when there is a charter law in every state? Or do you want every child to have a certain number of schools to choose from? What is your ultimate goal?

Michael Goldstein:
Good question. Varies enormously among charter advocates.

The meta-theme of this chat, among charter “insiders”, is the hard-core opponents list a million ways why we’re evil and we try to refute them.

People like you are interested in the Big Picture: how are charters part of the larger question of getting more kids to reach their potential?

Boston is an interesting example. In 1994, charters opened here. In 1995, the district responded by creating pilot schools - the “in-district” version of charters, small and autonomous.

There are 19 pilots now! It’s great. Many are very popular.

Interestingly, in 2003, the charter schools recently were “capped” in Boston at 9%. There can no longer be new charters in Boston. In 2004, the head of the local teachers union overruled a group of his own union teachers who, along with the Superintendent, were trying to create a new pilot school, and blocked it.

The lesson - competition creates reform that helps more kids end up in schools they and their parents want. When that competition is stifled, then status quo prevails.

Question from Philip Waring, Trustee, Peabody Foundation:
Is there anything at all that the Charter Schools can do, that they’re not already doing, to gain the support of the teachers’ union members, not to mention the union itself?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Phillip,

Per the previous question, this is a tough issue. The unions think that it’s not in their interest or the interest of their members to have charter schools. I think that’s wrong in a few ways.

First, some charters are showing that even within a collective bargaining framework you can have charter schools. Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles is a good example of this. The teachers there work under a modified version of the LAUSD agreement.

That model will not work everywhere but it shows that this issue is not black and white.

Second, charters create a variety of professional and leadership opportunities for teachers and give teachers the chance to lead and grow professionally. This is why young people, who are obviously the future of the profession, are attracted to charter schools.

That sort of energy is good for teachers and more importantly it’s good for students. I think that in the long run the unions will realize this and come around but change like this takes time. But there are hopeful signs around the country and some enterprising union leaders are stepping up.

Question from Kathryn Hedges, teacher, Campagna Academy:
Our charter school accepts students who have not been successful in the conventional classroom. We used to get state funding for alternative education but this was discontinued. How does the state expect us or for that matter any school to serve these at risk students with out the adequate funding? These are students that the public schools do not want. It seems that either the federal government needs to set aside special funding for schools like ours or the state needs to reevaluate its criteria. ( I was told that we do not have a local school district- it is statewide so we can not be funded by the state as an alternative school.)

Michael Goldstein:
I apologize - no ideas here.

We do have a few “alternative” schools in Massachusetts which are indeed fully funded by the usual charter formula. One, called Boston Evening Academy, serves dropouts.

Incidentally, BEA is actually a “Horace Mann Charter School” - that means they are blessed by the District.

Question from Comfort Okpala, Program Specialist, Education Development & Research Center of North Carolina:
What is your opinion about the research findings of Dr. Ladd of Duke University and others on the academic achievement of students in Charter schools in North Carolina?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Comfort,

I thought that study was well done and important. We need more research using methods like that and data like what is available in NC. Clearly policymakers in North Carolina need to take a close look at what’s going on. I think one issue there is that North Carolina has done a great deal to improve its public schools and focus on its lowest performing students. That means that the bar is higher for all schools and that’s reflected in the data on charters there right now.

However, problems in one state should not be used to cast aspersions on charters elsewhere. It’s an important study for North Carolina, but it doesn’t tell us anything about charters in, for instance, California.

Question from Milree Keeling, vice chair, Lunenburg School Committee, Lunenburg, MA:
Mr. Goldstein, Boston is not the only community in the state affected by charters and charter funding. There are many inequities in finance and in accountability standards that all of us should share information about. We have over 50 new schools in MA, and we have students moving between charters and home districts all the time. Charters and public school decision-makers need to dialogue, in detail, without accusation or defense, to understand the big picture. Otherwise we are at risk of being used to further political agendas. We have more in common than we have differences, but we should all get our facts straight. My email is, if you want correct information about the effect of charters on the bottom line of a public school district like Lunenburg’s.

Michael Goldstein:
Let’s do it, Milree! I’ll send you an email.

Question from Marie Henderson, Graduate Music Education Student, University of Arizona:
In an effort to align charter curriculum with state standards as well as serve students through alternative instructional styles, how do you see the role of the arts and incorporation of arts education in charter programs?

Michael Goldstein:
Great question. Check out the website for Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston - they use music as a way to enlist struggling elementary students

Question from Shaka Mitchell, Director of Policy and Planning, Center for Education Reform:
Andy, What implications will the WA state referendum loss have on the charter movement in WA and throughout the nation?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hello Shaka,

I think that referendum was really unfortunate and a classic example of adult interests trumping those of kids.

I hope we do not see similar referendums in other states but I think we may. It’s a remarkable waste of time, effort, and resources, on all sides, that could be better spent.

Washington voters also defeated a referendum that would have slightly increased the state’s sales tax to help fund schools. It’s unfortunate that these two initiatives were not linked so that the message could have been invest more in schools and offer more choices within the public system.

Parents want both.

Question from Sarah Mendonca-McCoy, Policy Analyst, Florida Legislature:
What national trends have you observed in terms of the financial accountability and viability of charter schools, and what are some “best practices” that you have observed in the financial management of charter schools?

Michael Goldstein:
Charters in Massachusetts have an outside audit each year by a private auditor. That certainly helps.

The ever-shifting political landscape makes charter school budgeting challenging...hard to have a long-term plan, therefore higher borrowing costs et al. A public policy that “locked in” a charter formula for 5 years would lead to better financial management.

Mass Development has set up a public-private charter school loan guarantee program here. This helps charters to purchase and renovate facilities, reducing their long-run facilities costs.

Caroline Hendrie (Moderator):
Our guests are working on answering a few more questions. We thank them for going above and beyond!

Question from Rosetta Brown, Charter School Consultant:
Do you see the need to mandate board member training for all charter schools to ensure leadership and staff are effectively and consistenly working toward the school’s mission, and finding preventive ways to deter mismanagement?

Michael Goldstein:
I think GOOD board training is of course helpful. We’ve certainly done some.

I’ve seen, however, some examples of bad board training.

The basic idea of charters - less regulation in exchange for more accountability - suggests to me that mandated board training isn’t the way to go.

It’s like teacher training - of course GOOD training is helpful but in many public schools the teachers feel “Geez this is such a waste of my time!” because the training is lame.

Question from Diana Dahl, Curriculum Development Project Leader, Learning by Grace, Inc:
I am a young educator interested in applying to open my own charter school. I am just interested in advice from elders in the field...

Michael Goldstein:
Find a charter near you and immerse yourself to learn the lay of the land!

Put together a great team!

And do it! I love coming to work each morning; I love our kids and our team and the opportunity to work together.

Thank you all for the chat...

Best, Michael

Question from Susan Phillips, Editor, Connect for Kids:
In your opinion, who is doing the most rigorous research on charter school achievement? Why do we hear so little about the District of Columbia, which has I believe close to 50 charters now, but which no one seems to be paying much attention to?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Susan,

Unfortunately there is not a lot of good research on DC, which is unfortunate because it looks as if, overall, charters sponsored by the DC School Board do not do nearly as well as those sponsored by the DC Public Charter School Board.

The Charter School Board has, in my opinion, a much better authorizing and monitoring process and more research would allow us to learn more about the impact that has on school quality.

Note to funders out there, we’re seeking funding for a research project on DC right now!

In terms of overall research there is a lot of good stuff out there. Recent studies worth looking at include that Hoxby study I mentioned earlier, the Ladd study that was mentioned, the Goldwater Institute did a good study of charters in Arizona, RAND has examined the research overall, and Tom Loveless at Brookings has done good work. For state specific reports you can look at our evaluations of CA, MN, AZ, and Indianapolis and New York at

There is a lot of research going on now and a lot of charters are also participating in several national research projects that are going to shed a lot more light on this soon. In fact, the willingness of most charters to subject themselves to scrutiny and evaluation is refreshing.

But again, remember, a charter is just a license, it’s what the school does with that license that matters so there is a lot that is subsumed under the label of “charter”. When looking at the research it’s important to keep that in mind.

Question from Karen Y. Palasek, Ph.D., Policy analyst, John Locke Foundation:
Do you believe that the greatest value in the growth of charter schools will be in increasing academic achievement, in getting government regulation out of a larger segment of the education arena, or something else?

Andrew Rotherham:
Hi Karen,

Good question to end on. I think the value is in expanding educational opportunities for disadvantaged students who today are too often horribly served by the current public system.

Charters don’t get government out of education, and I frankly think that’s an ideological goal that would do nothing to change the nature of educational arrangements for underserved students.

The goal is making this government service work for kids and we need to be pragmatic about how we do that and too often both sides of this debate are driven by ideology rather than pragmatism. Locke had a healthy stream of pragmatism, didn’t he?

Thanks for all the great questions, sorry we couldn’t get to all of them!

Caroline Hendrie (Moderator):
Thank you all for joining our live chat. Your questions were thoughtful and provocative. And our special thanks to our guests, Andy Rotherham and Michael Goldstein. A transcript of our chat will be posted shortly at

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