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Executive Skills & Strategy Commentary

Ensuring Equity in Charter Schools

By Richard D. Kahlenberg & Halley Potter — October 28, 2014 6 min read

Not long after Maryland passed its comprehensive charter school law in 2003, parent and educator Bobbi Macdonald began holding monthly meetings in her northeast Baltimore home. She and others tackled the question, If we could have the best school we can imagine, what would it be? Their answer was City Neighbors Charter School, a Baltimore K-8 school founded by 17 families in 2005.

Chartering gave City Neighbors’ founders the flexibility to do things that are fairly unusual among charter schools. The charter school model has allowed them to pioneer a collaborative governance structure that includes teacher representation on the governing board and provides large blocks of shared planning time—while remaining part of the city school district’s collective bargaining agreement.

Chartering also allowed those founders to choose a socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhood in which to locate the school. Today, the student enrollment of 217 is roughly 53 percent black and 42 percent white; 41 percent of the students come from low-income families, and 27 percent receive special education services. Every year, the school hosts a Progressive Ed Summit that brings together educators from district, charter, and private schools to share best practices and participate in joint professional development.

City Neighbors is part of a small but growing number of innovative charter schools leading the way in creating environments where good teachers want to teach and stay teaching.

For example, the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minn., has implemented a teacher co-op model, while the unionized Amber Charter School in New York City has a so-called “thin contract” that gives management greater flexibility, but preserves the most important employee protections for teachers.

Studies of teacher voice and student integration, and the underwhelming outcomes of much of the charter sector so far, should be a call to action."

Some charters, like Brooklyn’s Community Roots Charter School in New York and DSST Public Schools in Denver, are succeeding in educating students drawn together from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds using weighted admissions lotteries.

Still others prioritize engagement and dialogue with traditional district schools, such as E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, which has led professional development on the Common Core State Standards for charter and district teachers across the nation’s capital.

These schools are aligned with the earliest vision for charter schools from American Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker. In 1988, Shanker proposed starting teacher-led laboratories for educational innovation that would enroll students of all backgrounds.

But today, charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, or collaborate with other public schools are rare.

Rather than giving teachers greater say in school decisions, most charter schools have focused on empowering management. Chester E. Finn Jr. of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute expressed in 1996 what is now a common idea among policymakers: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Only 7 percent of charter schools are unionized, and teacher turnover in charter schools is higher than in traditional public schools. On average, nearly one in five charter teachers leave their schools each year.

Despite the fact that charter schools are in many ways well suited to facilitate socioeconomic and racial integration, they are on average more segregated than traditional public schools, according to research from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In some cases, this is the result of conscious decisions by policymakers, philanthropic foundations, and charter school leaders to seek the greatest bang for the buck by targeting the most disadvantaged students. As Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank) notes, charter schools are under pressure to serve “the highest-octane mix of poor and minority kids,” making it difficult to encourage integrated schools, “even though just about every observer thinks that more [integrated] schools would be good for kids, communities, and the country.”

Further, many policymakers see the role of charter schools as competing rather than collaborating with traditional public schools.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2011 about his work overseeing the creation of more than 100 new charter schools in the city: “Traditional schools and the unions have been screaming bloody murder, which is a good sign: It means that the monopolists are beginning to feel the effects of competition.”

This narrow focus on managerial control, concentrating at-risk students, and competing with district schools might be satisfactory if charter schools as a whole were showing record achievement. But while some high-profile charter schools have posted strong test scores, many others have floundered. According to the most comprehensive research to date, a 2013 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, charter schools on average perform about the same as traditional public schools.

By contrast, research suggests that student outcomes improve when teachers have influence in school decisions and schools bring together students of different backgrounds.

One of the best ways to curb excessive teacher turnover, which has been shown to have negative effects on student learning, is to give teachers more control.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Richard Ingersoll finds that in schools where teachers have greater influence, just one in 20 leaves each year, compared with one in five at schools where teachers have little or no voice in school decisions.

Likewise, a large body of research spanning six decades confirms the educational harms of concentrated poverty and the benefits of diverse learning environments.

Dozens of studies provide, as a meta-analysis by University of North Carolina at Charlotte researchers found, “consistent and unambiguous evidence” that socioeconomic and racial integration improves student academic outcomes. To take one particularly powerful example, Montgomery County, Md., students in public housing randomly assigned to more integrated schools outperformed those assigned to schools with concentrated poverty, even though the latter received more funding per pupil. Integrated schools also promote tolerance, reduce stereotypes, and prepare students to thrive in our increasingly diverse society and economy.

Studies of teacher voice and student integration, and the underwhelming outcomes of much of the charter sector so far, should be a call to action.

The tired and poorly framed debates over whether charter schools are good or bad must give way to a consideration of how to design charter schools that can consistently deliver.

Charter schools like City Neighbors may hold the best chance of finding new ways to meet the educational demands of 21st-century society. In these schools, students work together with a diverse group of peers, and teachers are treated as professionals who model collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

Charter schools can give teachers room to experiment and develop more productive models for union-management collaboration that can in turn provide a model for districts. Charter schools can use their enrollment flexibility to fight school segregation.

Charter schools can commit to improving outcomes for kids in all public schools, charter or district. But policymakers must take notice of the innovative schools already leading the way and shift priorities away from today’s adversarial model.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Restoring the Promise of Equity in Charter Schools

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