Resolving the Charter School Debate
The debate over the future of our nation's education system continues to divide the country. On one side we have advocates of market-disrupting charters looking to eliminate the bureaucracies they believe inhibit education. On the other, public school activists are committed to preserving a system that has failed many students for decades. There is, however, a third option that would allow both charter and traditional public schools to thrive and serve students with diverse needs across educational levels.
Cities like Newark, N.J.; Washington; and Denver are pursuing groundbreaking approaches by embracing both charters and traditional schools. Leaders from both sides have begun to step up and assume collective responsibility for providing a quality education to all students, regardless of which school they attend. They are building a mixed education market that draws on economic principles of competition and our country's founding commitment to equity so that all families have access to a variety of great educational choices.
The original concept behind charters was sound: Create new options in poor communities with low-performing schools so children have an immediate chance for success. Charter schools would be held accountable for results and their leaders freed from antiquated policies and practices. Charter proponents hoped this flexibility would create the conditions for higher student achievement outside of district schools and generate promising practices for reform more broadly.
And the initial plan worked. In places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, high-performing charters serving student populations similar to traditional schools delivered radically better results. Excited by early successes, reformers and advocates pushed for more charters, faster. Private-sector funders cheered because it meant injecting competition into a broken monopoly.
But charters are not a silver bullet, and their expansion can create unintended consequences for communities. In my time as the superintendent of schools in Newark, I came face to face with the realities of aggressive charter-market-share expansion. While high-performing charters offered better options to lottery winners, their rapid growth had the potential to make things worse for families that lost.
An analysis for our One Newark plan projected that over the course of seven years, charters would grow from serving 5 percent of students in 2010 to 40 percent of students in 2017. This trend threatened to leave more than half of Newark's students in dysfunctional schools that were, at the time, losing students and resources, while being staffed by the most senior—but not always effective—teachers.
When students leave a traditional school to attend a charter, the money goes with them, along with jobs and contracts that sustain fragile economies and fuel local politics. My team and I needed to find a way to help charter schools increase their positive impact while lifting up traditional schools so that all of Newark's students and neighborhoods thrived.
The first step was to level the playing field so everyone had an equal chance to get into a good school. Traditionally, each charter ran its own lottery, which resulted in confusion and difficulty for already-burdened families. We created a one-stop enrollment system that every school—charter and district alike—was required to participate in, giving all families access to the same options.
This universal-enrollment system, staffed with family advocates, began to change the dynamic that favored charter-school-lottery winners and left everyone else—often those schools with the fewest resources—with the leftovers.
Next, we worked to give district schools the same flexibility and tools that allow charters to succeed. We overhauled our teacher-evaluation system to retain high performers and let go of low performers. Excellent teachers were included in the process, and passionate leaders with entrepreneurial spirits and effective management skills were installed in schools. Our focus on best-in-class training and coaching encouraged teachers and leaders to move the district toward the future.
Finally, we sought to end the divide between the district and charters by aligning charter-growth plans with community needs. We asked charters to take over schools in the toughest neighborhoods with high family demand, instead of growing one grade level at a time in new buildings where they got the best real estate deals. Charters agreed, renovated historic buildings, and kept the traditional school names. Schools that would otherwise have closed, hurting our poorest neighborhoods and making politics even tougher, are now community anchors.
Our mission from the outset was to ensure 100 percent of schools in Newark were excellent, located in thriving neighborhoods, and supporting all students. The early results are encouraging. Graduation rates are climbing. Overall enrollment is up for the first time in over a decade—a critical sign of health. A recent study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education showed that 40 percent of Newark students are enrolled in "beat the odds" schools—those that outpace demographically similar schools statewide—far above the average of only 8 percent across the 50 cities studied.
Even with this progress, cities like Newark and states like New Jersey have miles to go to truly create the charter-like conditions necessary for district schools to compete. This will take courageous public policy and leaders to completely rethink laws governing tenure, civil service, and service contracts. Ironically, those organizing to protect a broken status quo are creating the very circumstances that make charters feel like the only option for advocates and families who want results now.
Cities and states across the country can embrace and build on Newark's example to foster a diversified market with more choice, higher quality, equal access, and a community focus.
The mixed-market approach will work only if we redefine success. It is not about expanding charters or saving districts. We all need to stop the polarizing discussion and come together to create a blended model, a third way, of giving all students in all neighborhoods access to the best education possible, rather than treating children like pawns in our political games.
Vol. 35, Issue 19, Page 32Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as The Third Way: A Mixed-Market Approach to Schooling