Independent Charter Schools Aim to Elevate Their Status

Teacher’s aide Valarie Person works with 6th graders from left, Dehvin Lowe, Chloe Bales, and Sean Thompson, at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, an independent charter in New York City.
Teacher’s aide Valarie Person works with 6th graders from left, Dehvin Lowe, Chloe Bales, and Sean Thompson, at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, an independent charter in New York City.
—Alex Flynn for Education Week
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Students dressed in uniforms standing in military-straight lines under a dangling line of college pennants. An ethos of "no excuses" for low academic achievement.

That, perhaps, is the most popular notion of what makes a charter school. And that's because a relatively small number of charter networks—KIPP, Success Academy, and YES Prep to name a few—dominate the sector in ways that over the last decade or so have shaped the national debates and policy agendas around charters.

But that dominance, say some charter school supporters, has to change.

To do that, a group of independent charter schools and some founders of the 25-year-old charter movement are organizing efforts to muscle their way back into the spotlight. An inaugural national gathering of leaders in independent charters is on tap next month in New York, and its organizers are hoping the event will spawn a new national organization to represent their specific interests.

But the bigger, more important challenge for independent charters, supporters say, will be to shift the public perception of the "franchise" charter school model that they argue is undermining the sector and get back to the movement's roots: creating innovative schools that serve as education laboratories.

"We believe that the ideas are on our side," said Steve Zimmerman, the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools. "If the choice is just between a poor-performing district school, and a no-excuses charter school, that's a false choice. Our schools offer real choices."

What Is an Independent Charter?

Independent charter schools—sometimes referred to as "mom and pop" charters—are the oldest type of charter and they remain the most common. But with the rapid growth over the last decade in networks such as KIPP that draw vast resources from deep-pocketed philanthropists, their market share has been steadily shrinking. Without that same financial heft or the megaphone that comes with operating multiple schools serving thousands of students, independent charter operators say it's hard to get their message out.

But what, exactly, counts as an independent charter school?

The 5-year-old Brooklyn Urban Garden School, a middle school of about 300 students, is the epitome of an independent charter.

Created by a group of community members in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn, the impetus for the school was twofold: Parents believed there weren't enough middle schools in the community. And those that did exist weren't very diverse. BUGS, as the school is affectionately called, set out to provide a new option for middle school and to be diverse. It has no racial majority and serves a large proportion of students with special needs. Environmental and economic sustainability are also infused into all parts of BUGS' curriculum.

David Kelly and Iyonna Green, both 6th graders at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, tend to the school’s garden last month. Founded by community members, the charter focuses on teaching sustainability.
David Kelly and Iyonna Green, both 6th graders at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, tend to the school’s garden last month. Founded by community members, the charter focuses on teaching sustainability.
—Alex Flynn for Education Week

Although there's now a high demand among families for a spot in BUGS, the school has struggled to compete for facilities and philanthropy dollars in a city that is home to many of the biggest and highest-performing networks.

"Funders seem to really want to support scalability … it's sexier and they're looking, of course, to leverage their dollars," said Susan Tenner, one of BUGS' co-founders. "Rather than investing in a school like ours, which is an innovative pilot, or a lab if you will, they would rather see something that's finished, and has been proven, and is being replicated."

Charter school networks run sophisticated operations, often managing more schools than the average-sized school district. Success Academy in New York City has more than 40 schools. KIPP, the nation's largest charter school network, has more than 200 schools scattered across the country.

The share of charter schools that belong to large management organizations, which can be both for-profit and not-for-profit, has grown from about 31 percent of all charters in 2010 to 40 percent in 2017, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Independent charter schools, on the other hand, represented 69 percent of all charters in 2010 but only 60 percent today.

Most of that growth for network charters has come from charter management organizations, or CMOs, which are nonprofit and include many of the country's highest-profile charter networks. Their fast expansion—they now include over a quarter of all charter schools—has been fueled by billions of dollars from the federal government and wealthy philanthropists such as Eli Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his money from home building and insurance businesses, and the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.

Funders have shifted their philanthropy dollars over time from implementing new charter laws in states and seeding new schools to funding networks, said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But she doesn't see the growth of networks as threatening the existence of independent charter schools.

"We're not at a place where one can take over the other because [the charter sector is only] about 6 percent of the total education market," said Rees.

Advantages of a Network

But the large networks do dominate many of the debates and conversations around charter schools. When critics, particularly teachers' unions, say charter schools focus too much on testing, have overly strict discipline policies and student suspension rates, and are less diverse than traditional district schools, they're generally talking about charter management organizations, said Zimmerman.

But independent charters are painted with that same broad brush, he said.

To distinguish themselves and raise their profile, Zimmerman is helping organize the first of what he hopes to be an annual national conference for independent charter schools, taking place in New York City in mid-October.

The conference is bringing in independent charter school representatives from 25 states, as well as several of the people who hatched the idea for the first charter school law in Minnesota 25 years ago.

Among them is Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change. He said that although he anticipated the rise of networks of charter schools, the sector looks very different today from what he predicted.

He expected more teacher-led charter schools to be up and running and a more robust exchange of ideas and solutions between districts and charter schools.

"We want to make it a priority that we have greater collaboration between districts and charters," he said.

Despite their position that independent charters represent the original intent of the charter school movement, both Nathan and Zimmerman say many charter school networks do a good job of educating disadvantaged students.

And part of the success of the network model is because it's an effective one, said Tenner, the co-founder of BUGS. Running a stand-alone charter, she's keenly aware of the benefits of belonging to a charter management organization.

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There's a central office to handle human resources. Operators can offer more competitive pay and benefits to teachers. And they have lots of experience launching new schools and can easily meet the goals for academic achievement and fiscal responsibility set out in their charter contracts and expected from their authorizer. (BUGS tries to tap into that expertise by having representatives from a couple of the large networks sit on its board.)

But Tenner said she wouldn't trade those conveniences for the connection she feels her school has with its community.

"The disadvantage to being a stand-alone charter school is the resources," she said. "But the other side of that is that we are even more responsive to our community needs and student's needs because we are not accountable to a larger system."

Vol. 37, Issue 07, Page 6

Published in Print: October 4, 2017, as Independent Charters Aim to Elevate Their Status
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