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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

How to Create a Charter District—And Some Concluding Thoughts

By Neerav Kingsland — January 27, 2012 3 min read

Note: Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the United State of America Part V

How to Create a Charter District - And Some Concluding Thoughts

The Details: How to Develop a Charter District

New Schools for New Orleans (where I work) and Public Impact will be publishing a more extensive guide on how to develop charter districts in the coming months. If you’d like an early copy, email me ( and I’ll send you one. But the highlights are listed below. To develop a successful charter district, you need to execute on three primary strategies:

Govern Aggressively and Fairly

First, build a state or local accountability system that allows schools to be compared on an apples-to-apples basis. Define the bottom 5 percent with this metric. Next, create a new government entity with the authority to (a) takeover failing schools from districts and (b) authorize new charter schools. This will give you the pressure and cover you need to be aggressive. Then rigorously approve charters. Maintain a high authorization bar. Give the schools you do approve free facilities. Close failing schools. Repeat for five years.

Attract and Develop Talent

Start by doing what everyone else misses: encourage your best talent in traditional schools to convert to charter schools. Yes, relinquish power on your best. Remember, you believe educators will do better with fewer constraints. This is one of the untold stories of New Orleans: the first wave of charter school development was led by veteran New Orleans educators. Then utilize alternative human capital providers to grow your talent base. Eventually, once the recruitment pipelines are where they need to be, begin focusing on development. Allow entrepreneurs to develop training programs. Put pressure on education schools, or just start new ones.

Promote Charter Growth

First, as noted above, begin converting your best district schools to charter schools. When you conduct your 5 Year Rule analysis, you will ideally observe increased achievement gains in these schools due to real autonomy. Then work with non-profits to build an incubation pipeline for new charter organizations. Last, develop and recruit CMOs--organizations capable of operating multiple charter schools. Long-term, these organizations will be key drivers in developing charter markets, as once they mature they can scale at quicker rates than pure incubation.

Alright, that was nine bullet points. I cringe at how much was left out and how many assumptions went unjustified. As noted above a more extensive guide will be available soon.

Also, right now New Orleans is the only charter district in the country. I imagine we’ll know more when you all, Superintendents, create some more. If you haven’t been convinced to do so yet, well, here goes:

Concluding Thoughts: Brimstone Edition

Superintendents, I’ve tried to maintain a measured tone. But let me end with some (relative) fire and brimstone.

First, you wrong parents when you deny them the choice of where, and how, to educate their children (even worse to arrest them). A family will make few more important decisions than where to send their child to school. It is a sign of hubris that you would presume to tell a family which school is best for their child.

Second, only the naïve try to predict--and develop centralized rules for--what will be best for every student in every situation. You occupy a political position far removed from the actual work of educating children. At best, you will mandate mediocrity. It is a sign of hubris to think that you can mandate top down solutions from a bureaucratic post.

Third, it is worthwhile to study other industries. In doing this, you will notice that most industries consist of this formula: entrepreneurs develop solutions to meet people’s needs; soon enough, a market forms; then government develops laws that set the guidelines for this market; then government creates regulatory bodies to oversee this market; and then non-governmental entities do the work and continually innovate to better meet the needs of the people the market serves.

Some call this capitalism, but this is a misnomer. Rather, call it innovation-ism--in that it is a system that is designed to promote, reward, and scale innovation. If you think that somehow education is different--and that your educational ideas will continually outperform a market place of ideas--well, this is a sign of incredible hubris.

In sum, dear Reformers, beware of your own hubris. Neither you, nor anyone else, is as smart as your strategy requires.

Ultimate Concluding Thoughts: Optimism Addition

Alright, I can’t end on that. Superintendents, I like you too much. And you all did not build the institutions that you inherited. So let’s talk about the opportunity that is before you.

From 1900 to 1970, the United States led the world in educational opportunities by creating a system of government run primary and secondary schools and a more decentralized system of post-secondary institutions. Today, our universities remain the envy of most nations. Our primary and secondary schools do not.

How to change this?

By harnessing the greatest strengths of our nation: our immense talent and entrepreneurial spirit. If New Orleans is any indication, charter districts will do exactly this.

What has occurred in New Orleans may or may not transform how our country serves its most at-risk children. Superintendents, this all depends on you. But I believe the principles of the New Orleans system are sound: government should delegate school operations to nonprofits and hold these organizations accountable. Great schools should expand. Failing schools should close. Parents should have choices in where to send their children to school. Educators should have choices in where they work.

By themselves, none of these principles are particularly radical. Together, however, they provide a potential roadmap to transform urban educational systems across our nation.

Superintendents, the future of our educational system thus perhaps comes down to this: in your hearts and minds, which identity will prevail--that of the Reformer or that of the Relinquisher?

Time will tell.

Take care,


--Neerav Kingsland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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