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Education Opinion

Three Keys for Taking Charter School Success to Scale

By Guest Blogger — May 05, 2014 5 min read
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Note: Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Strategies, is guest posting this week.

Hi there! Thanks to Rick for giving me the reins for RHSU for the week. I’m Karen Hawley Miles and I’ve spent the last 25 years working (and struggling along) with urban district leaders to help create more powerful district-level strategies for improvement and to organize, people, time and money in ways that have a chance of reaching them.

In the world of urban district leaders, charter schools are among the hottest strategy and resource related topics around. And, since it’s National Charter Schools Week, it seemed like a good moment to share some thoughts. There’s no debate that the movement has produced high-performing school models worth emulating and strong pressure for change in failing districts. But we shouldn’t assume that districts can just copy great schools the way amoebas replicate: split, mutate, clone, repeat.

Though charter schools have many merits, we can’t rely on that approach to close the achievement gap. As of 2013, just 9% of students in the 100 largest urban school districts attend charter schools, which leaves the vast majority of students in the traditional public school system. And though there are inspiring examples of incredible charter schools, there are at least as many that don’t serve students as well as traditional public schools do.

It’s time to pour more of the charter energy, attention, talent, and money into redesigning our urban school systems so that every child has the guarantee--not a lottery chance--of attending a school that works. (Without spending hours on a bus to get there.) The plain fact is that district leaders need political and financial help if they are to replicate--and even improve upon--charter models. Traditional districts face many barriers to change that might seem invisible to outsiders; additionally, we need to help both sectors clearly identify best practices and the system-wide conditions that make those practices thrive.

This week I’d like to call out three areas not often discussed in even-handed ways in which we can better understand districts’ constraints, and all work together to promote “scaled up” solutions:
• Funding
• Strategic school design
• Restructuring the teaching job

In this blog post, I’ll tackle funding; human capital and strategic school design will be covered in future posts.

The Problem with Funding: Drain and Maintain

When students leave traditional public schools for charters, they take much--but not all--of their funding with them. However, that’s not typically offset by anything close to an equal reduction in costs for the district. That’s because students leave in random patterns--a few 3rd graders here, a few 5th graders there--which doesn’t allow the district to reduce the number of teachers, close buildings, or even necessarily buy less cafeteria food. This means that districts are stuck with high costs, lower revenues, and underutilized buildings. It also means that the public and philanthropic communities are essentially paying for duplicative administration and facilities costs--at the charter and in the district. If enough students leave, school districts could consolidate, lose the overhead, and become lean. Unfortunately, contracts, legislation, and community pressure often keep districts from doing what’s needed to adjust to the new reality: closing schools, firing teachers, or experimenting with flexible models of resource use. Free market advocates suggest that this is just the point--districts need to “change or die.” But it’s the children stuck in these schools that lose out. So--we’ve got to find a faster way.

To make matters worse, the exodus of students to charters often leaves a concentration of high-cost, struggling students in traditional schools. Though they have good intentions, charters are often simply ill-equipped to serve students who struggle the most with learning--those with special needs, English language learners, or those who have fallen way behind grade level. That means that traditional districts must educate some of the most challenging students with reduced funding. A recent GAO report confirms that charter schools average 8% special education students while traditional schools average 11%. (Another CRPE study found that this gap is mirrored in New York City.) These numbers don’t reflect the whole story though since some special education students cost more to serve than others. Our analysis routinely shows that districts spend up to 4 times more on the most needy special education students. Further, federal and state funding intended to cover the extra costs of educating these students only covers a fraction of the additional spend. We work in districts where as many as 40% of students in a school are classified as requiring special education services, and the vast majority enter more than two years behind grade level--for which they get no extra resources.

Fixing Funding: Create a Coherent System

Traditional districts could act more like charters--that is, more nimbly and innovatively--if they had funding that reflected the true needs of their students, support for the transition to new service models, and flexibility in how to use their own remaining resources.

Some ways to accomplish that include:

Provide transition funding: Massachusetts currently provides transition funding which reduces the funding loss for the district by slightly less than the full amount in early years.
Support “in-district” chartering: Legislation can enable “in-district” chartering so that higher capacity districts can use their existing infrastructure, while still exploring new ways of staffing and organizing schools.
Reduce restrictions on lay-offs due to enrollment changes: Contracts and legislation can be altered to allow lay-offs related to enrollment reduction or service provision restructuring--while protecting schools and districts from huge and unpredictable swings in resource levels.
Promote pooling of “centralized” services: With support to reinvent, districts could restructure centralized services like curriculum support, special education services, purchasing, recruiting, transportation, and payroll to make them more responsive and cost-effective for charter needs.
Weight funding for student need: State funding systems must adjust dollars to match student needs, including poverty, special education need, English language status, and incoming proficiency levels at the secondary level.

Wednesday, we’ll look at some of the lessons we are learning from charters about how to organize schools for high performance and how this might inform policy and practice.

--Karen Hawley Miles

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.