Education Chat

Policies That Promote Quality Charter Schools

Our guests included Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead of Education Sector and Jason Botel of the KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore.

At the campus ACE shares with two other small schools we are always looking to best utilize space. We share the cafeteria (sometimes our lunches are seperate, somethimes they overlap) the library media center, and a central building where new students come in order to be assigned to one of the three small schools. As principals we communicate constantly to ensure an equitable distribution of space and facilities. We meet regularly to discuss the best ways to use space to serve th eneeds of kids. For us, this emant buying couches and chairs to utilize hallway nooks and crannies as meeting space. It meant transforming the traditional “teacher’s lounge” into a space where both students, staff, and visitors use as conversation space. It is important that space is negotiated based upon what best supports student learning.

Policies That Promote Quality Charter Schools

Andrew J. Rotherham
is co-director of Education Sector and a member of the Virginia Board of Education. He is also on board of directors of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Sara Mead, a former senior policy analyst at Education Sector, is now a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Jason Botel is founder of the KIPP Ujima Village Academy, one of the highest performing public middle schools in Baltimore, Maryland.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s live chat. Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead, authors of a report on charter school policies, and Jason Botel, founder of KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, will be taking your questions.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

There are lots of great questions already, so let’s begin.

Question from Catherine Rich, Special Educator, Meridian Public Charter School:

Are there policies or practices that have demonstrated noted success in the Special Education programs of charter schools?

Sara Mead:

Hi Catherine, I’m glad to see our D.C. charter schools participating in this chat--I actually walk by Meridian’s Florida Avenue Campus all the time, so it’s nice to hear from someone who works there! Special education can be a challenge for charter schools, because they are small and often don’t have the same resources or access to school district supports for special education that traditional public schools do. But, as public schools, charter schools are obligated to serve children with special needs who come to them, just like other public schools are. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers have been doing a lot of work to help charter schools better serve students with disabilities: I’d urge you to look at their Primers on Implementing Special Education in Charter Schools, here: We also found that the existence and quality of support organizations or resource centers that provide charter schools with technical assistance on issues like special education is an important factor affecting charter school quality. For most charter schools, special education must be a very important core part of an educational program designed to help students with and without disabilities to succeed together. But one of the most intriguing things to me in our research has been learning about charter schools created with a specific mission of serving students with disabilities. Here in D.C. we have the St. Coletta of Greater Washington Charter School, which opened in 2006 to serve students 3-22 years old with mental retardation, autism, or multiple disabilities. Before the school opened, the District government was paying to send many of these children to private schools for students with severe disabilities in Virginia. The new charter campus saves the District money and allows these children to receive a free, appropriate public education closer to their homes and families. Here’s the link to St. Coletta:

Question from Ron Maynard, Vice President / Board of Directors, Evergreen Community Charter School:

Here in NC, a vast majority of our legislators are opposed to charter schools. Our charter schools do not receive funding for capital expenses, and we do not receive funding from the so called NC “Educational” Lottery. We have a very strong community, but our fundraising is not enough to pay our exceptional teachers what they are worth, make improvements, and buy equipment for our 375 students. What can we do to access more financial support? What’s going on with charter school funding policy in other states? Do you see any trends?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Ron, thank you for your question. The issues you raise are not unique to NC. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation put out an important report a year or so ago looking at charter school finance across the states and finding that on average there were substantial gaps between what charters received and what other public schools received. On one hand, charter supporters have no one but themselves to blame for this. Remember that in the heady early days of charter schooling a lot of people were claiming that charters could do it better and cheaper than other public schools and so some disequities were built into state policies. On the other hand, we’ve been at this charter initiative for a decade and a half and hardly anyone these days doesn’t acknowledge that delivering a high quality education to economically disadvantaged students is an expensive proposition. Consequently, it’s time to have a conversation about what a rational funding system would look like for a system that does have more choice within it and aims to serve all students at higher levels than we do today. That’s a conversation that is broader than just charter schools but does include ideas like weighted-student funding. In addition, charter proponents should think about ways to strike deals that can bring both sides to the table. For instance in this policy brief I recently published I put forward an idea for “Smart Charter School Caps” that take into account the concerns of charter critics and proponents. Here’s a link to that paper:

Question from Reed Markham, Associate Professor, Daytona Beach College:

What role do parents play in KIPP schools? And how do you motivate parents to be involved in the school?

Jason Botel:

At KIPP Baltimore, we begin engaging families even before enrollment. All our staff members go out and visit the homes of families living in the four lowest-income public school enrollment zones in Northwest Baltimore. We talk about our school and our goals for our students and ask families if they would be interested in enrolling their children. In this way, we make sure we reach families who may not have previously been engaged in their children’s education. In fact, the mother of our first valedictorian tells us that she never went to her daughter’s previous school – she did not feel welcome there – but at our school she felt treated “like family” and therefore she became involved. She currently serves as a community organizer at our school and thereby engages other families, with the help of a parent who serves on our Board of Directors, a parent who leads our KIPP Parent Association (KPA), and a teacher who serves as the liaison between families and our staff. Two quick examples of parent involvement in our school: a week and a half ago during Saturday school a group of parents spent several hours helping to organize our science materials. This past Friday night our parents held a “movie night” for students and parents: $2 to watch a movie in our largest classroom. The KPA made snacks available and raised some money selling them. The idea for movie night was generated and executed by parents with staff support.

Question from Jeffery Johnson, Teacher, South Division High School, Milwaukee Public Schools:

What is being done in the twelve states to work through the question of certification in the appropriate content/grade level areas? In WI, we have a licensure classification that our district has a tendency to overuse/abuse in opening charter schools. The district - while positively enabling teachers to explore opening charter schools - is allowing educators to open charter schools with little or no certified staff for the appropriate areas.

Sara Mead:

Wisconsin is a bit of an odd case here. The state has created a “charter school license,” and the state deems teachers who hold that license qualified to teach in any subject area or grade in a charter school. That’s pretty unique--most states don’t have something similar--none of the states in our sample do. Most states require charter school teachers to be certified--5 states, including several in our sample, do not (several other states allow some charter teachers to be uncertified). There are good reasons to give charter schools some flexibility to hire teachers who don’t have conventional teacher certification: to foster innovation in teacher training/induction/professional development, draw talented people from other professions into the classroom, and because many charter schools are small and teachers need to teach multiple subjects. Just because a state doesn’t require certification doesn’t mean teachers aren’t certified: In D.C., where charter teachers don’t have to be certified, some charter schools will hire only certified teachers, because they believe it’s an indicator of quality that parents care about when choosing where to send their children. But that puts the onus on school operators and charter school authorizers to ensure the quality of the people they hire. In addition to certification, charter school teachers are also subject to NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” requirements. That means that, even if state laws don’t require them to be certified, charter teachers in core subject areas must still meet NCLB’s requirements for content knowledge--for new teachers, a major, graduate degree, or passage of a test in the content area they teach in. Wisconsin claims that teachers who have a charter license are highly qualified in any content area or great. This seems to subvert NCLB’s intent to ensure all teachers have content knowledge in the subject they teach. My former colleague, Kevin Carey, has written about the many ways Wisconsin is subverting NCLB’s intent--this seems like one more. Kevin’s report is at

Question from Janice Gallagher, Principal, Joe Carlson Elementary, Douglas Unified School District:

How important is the makeup of the Board to a charter school’s success? How active in decision making should the Board of a charter school be?

Jason Botel:

Charter schools need, and need to do, a lot to succeed at educating students. Local control is the hallmark of KIPP and, as Ms. Mead and Mr. Rotherham note in their report, a cornerstone of charter school success across the country. The board’s job is to make sure that the school has all it needs to succeed. Some boards do this by recruiting community members with expertise for the board itself. Other boards do it by acquiring the resources to compensate and equip the staff to get what the school needs. I think that either way can work depending on the strengths of the prospective board member pool and of the prospective staff pool in a given region. What’s absolutely essential is that the school leadership - the education experts who work on and think about the school’s mission the most - are empowered by the board to make the education-related decisions, and the board makes the decisions about how it will equip the leadership to fulfill the mission and how it will monitor the school’s progress toward achieving the mission. The KIPP Baltimore Board has been instrumental in the successes of our school.

Question from Jacqueline Brown-Williams, Instructor, Greenville Tech Charter H.S.:

Why do so many public school districts, their boards of education and their superintendents refuse to support Charter schools? Why is there an “us and them” sense of possession towards students and state money?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Jacqueline, thanks for this question. I do not think the opposition to charters is universal. For instance superintendents like Joel Klein in New York, Steven Adamowski in Hartford, and Arne Duncan in Chicago are supportive and some are in smaller districts as well. However, there is hardly anything approaching broad support right now either. There are likely several reasons for that. For starters, no industry embraces competition and implicit in the charter school idea is a strong criticism of the existing system. It’s unrealistic to expect those who have built careers around that system to simply greet this sort of change with open arms. In addition, resources are tight and so increased competition for what are often insufficient resources is not welcomed either. Finally, some superintendents who are very reform oriented just see charters as a distraction from the system-wide initiatives they are trying to implement. For instance one large city superintendent I know is very committed to reform and school improvement but sees charters as a distraction from some human capital initiatives he’s trying to implement to improve the quality of the labor force in that city. So this person is not opposed but not out there encouraging them to open either. I don’t completely agree with him/her on that point but it’s certainly a legitimate one.

Question from Dr. M. J. Garcia, Program Manager, UTSA:

What do you think are the most important qualities for a Superintendent of a Charter School as compared to a Superintendent of a non-charter school?

Jason Botel:

I’m not sure that there is a difference in the qualities that the different Superintendents need to have. KIPP’s basic premise is that it takes great school leaders with a great deal of autonomy to start and manage great schools, and it takes great teachers to manage great classrooms and lead students to achieve at high levels. Therefore, KIPP Superintendents and Executive Directors usually put the recruitment, selection, development, and support of school leaders as their main priority, and KIPP Principals do the same when it comes to teachers. I think this focus on the people who work with the students is essential for making public education great, whether it be charter or traditional.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

We’ve had several questions about staffing...

Question from Kent Strong, President, K12connect, Inc.:

How are the most effective charter schools recruiting staff? What type of compensation and benefits packages are they offering?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Kent, thank you for your question. The biggest competitive advantage that effective charter schools have in the labor market is just that -- they’re effective public schools. More than salary or any other benefits, being able to offer people who want to teach a work environment where they can be successful and effective is an enormous advantage. In education today there are too few opportunities for teachers to be innovative and entrepreneurial in their work -- something many teachers and especially younger teachers really want -- and charter schools are, right now, the sector that offers the most opportunities for that. Whether it’s the teacher run cooperatives in MN, or the United Federation of Teachers charter school in New York City, or KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and the other high performing networks, teachers in those places know they are part of something unique and empowering. That’s the best marketing edge you can have in a system that overall constrains creativity and innovation and often doesn’t provide the sort of work environments that effective people want to be in. On compensation specifically, some charters do things differently, either marginally or in a few cases radically so. One of the first pay for performance plans in the country was at a charter in California, for example. But overall there is less differentiation between charters and traditional public schools in terms of how they compensate teachers than is commonly assumed. The Center for American Progress recently put out a paper summarizing the differences, or lack thereof, between various schooling sectors, worth checking out. I think Bryan Hassel was the author but am not sure offhand. But the pay issue is secondary to the issues above in terms of attracting teachers. You’ve got to have the compensation piece right but it can’t overcome the bigger work environment issues.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

You can find the report “Teacher Compensation in Charter and Private Schools” here:

Question from Barbara More Williams, Consultant to several charter schools:

How can we attract and retain a more seasoned staff to charter schools? Most cannot compete with the salaries and opportunities in big city school districts so there is a dearth of experienced teachers who are willing to stay for the long haul.

Jason Botel:

I would say that this is our biggest challenge at KIPP Baltimore and, as you suggest, probably for most charters around the country. I would go so far to say that it is the biggest challenge facing public education - I don’t think the big city school districts are necessarily doing better than charters at staff recruitment and retention, even if they have more money and benefits to offer. The three things I think we need to do are: 1. Invest as much as possible into compensating great teachers. This is a big part of why it is so important, as Ms. Mead and Mr. Rotherham suggest in the report, that charter schools receive equitable funding. 2. Ensure that we are creating and maintaining environments where great teachers love to work. Great teachers need clear expectations, creative freedom in teaching, a role in shaping school-wide decisions, and opportunities for collaboration with other teachers and for effective professional development (which is something I think the KIPP network does very well). 3. Get the word out to other great teachers about our schools and about why great teachers choose to teach at our schools. If anyone out there who is reading this chat is considering teaching at a charter school, you have at least two people - Ms. More Williams and me - who would love to hear from you!

Question from Bernardo Lewis, teacher:

Why do you, Jason Botel, think it’s beneficial for KIPP teachers to work a 16-hour day?

Jason Botel:

Although “More Time on Task” is a KIPP pillar, our teachers are not expected to work 16-hour days! Our school day runs from 7:15 to 4:30 for fifth and sixth graders and from 7:45 to 5 for seventh and eighth graders. The extra time gives teachers the opportunity to lead our students to achieve at high levels – keep in mind that our students enter on average at the third-grade level in reading and math – and to teach students the knowledge, skills, and character they need to “climb the mountain to college.” The extra time is actually a pressure release that allows the teachers to address the wide range of issues and challenges the students experience each day without worrying that there will not be enough time to teach mathematics and reading and the other core subjects.

Question from George Mitchell, Education Consultant, Milwaukee:

Why are teachers’ unions so determined to contain charters? Is their concern mainly with schools that don’t employ union teachers?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi George, thanks for this question. I think it’s fair to say that overall the teachers’ unions remain pretty opposed to charter schools and that’s probably for a lot of reasons. Like the last answer some of them are self-interested but some are also just questions of the efficacy of various reform strategies as well as ideology. But, their posture seems to be shifting from opposing charters to trying to organize them. There is a lot going on around that issue. This presents both opportunities and risks for charter schools. Paul T. Hill, Lydia Rainey, and I discussed some of that in these two articles: It’s hard to miss that in New York City the teachers’ union there has opened two charter schools and Green Dot Public Schools, a unionized network of charter schools, has expanded rapidly in Los Angeles and now seems poised to open schools in New York City and other cities, too. But, within the teachers’ union community charters remain pretty controversial and in some states the posture is still very much that the only good charter is a closed one. The risks are obvious. Part of what makes good charters work is the freedom to build a school model that works without the constraints that are often created by teachers’ contracts and related state policies. But there are opportunities, too. Charters can operate under “thin” contracts that give teachers who want that sort of collective voice an outlet for it but don’t get in the way of running good schools. And, to the earlier question about charter finance, the teachers unions are not going to want to organize a bunch of under-funded schools set up to fail so they could be powerful allies on that front over time.

Question from Frank J. Hagen. Adjunct Faculty wilmington University, Principal Retired (DE/MD):

The charter school movement has gained a significant momentum in the brief 15 years and one of the most influenctial factors has been the ability to efficiently remove ineffective teachers and admistrators, do you see this characteristic continuing in the future? Will there be a counter movement to organize and protect teachers and/or administrators such as what plagues public education?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Frank, thanks for this question. First, see my previous answer to the question George Mitchell asks, I think it addresses some of this. But, I would actually say that rather than the ability to fire people, what’s made good charters effective thus far is instead the ability to HIRE exactly the people they want (which also goes to the earlier question about compensation). The very best strategy for dealing with low-performers in any field is to just not recruit and hire them in the first place. Good charters are very selective about who they hire and how those people will fit into the overall school mission and that’s been a key to their success. Per my previous answer, there will be efforts to change some of the conditions under which these schools operate but I don’t see the high performing charters giving an inch on that sort of autonomy because most of their leaders see it as integral to why they’re able to do what they do so well.

Question from concerned citizen:

Some charter schools are run as business with management firm taking a fee. How does school as business serve the needs of students especially if business has conflict of interest? Seems crooked to me.

Sara Mead:

I find the way you phrased the question interesting: If you’re like me, you probably use lots of products and services everyday that are produced by for-profit companies--but I bet it never crosses your mind to think that, say, your toothbrush might not meet your needs because it’s produced by a business. That’s a bit flippant, I realize, but if we look at education, parents buy a lot of educational services for their children from businesses: Princeton Review and Kaplan tutoring, for example, and many enrichment programs for kids like dance or piano lessons are offered by people running small businesses. I don’t see any inherent conflict between business goals and providing children a good education. I’ve visited schools operated by for-profit charter managers that I’d be happy to send a child in my life to attend. But, for-profit charter school operators, like all charter schools, must be held accountable to parents and the public for their performance. That accountability forces them to focus not just on profits but also on student results. Conflicts of interest, which you rightly raise, are a whole other issue, though. Conflicts of interest, or any misuse of public funds by a charter school (these can happen in non-profit charters, too!) are unacceptable. In addition to being wrong, these kinds of issues can have a very negative effect on how charter schools are seen--we’ve seen that in some of the states in our sample, where there have been scandals involving charter schools. So people who support charter schools should be very aggressive about combatting conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Ultimately, it’s the charter school authorizer’s job to make sure there are no inappropriate conflicts of interest or misuse of public funds by schools it authorizes. An important part of that is making sure that charter school boards are truly independent from management companies.

Question from Karen Norfleet, teacher, Wunderlich Intermediate School, Klein ISD, Houston:

Could you suggest the top three things that schools can do to help minority and low-income students do to succeed? Do you have any suggestions to help increase the involvement of parents? I get the feeling, sometimes, that some parents are either intimidated by the school, or just unsure of how to help their children succeed.

Jason Botel:

1. Recruit, select, and support great teachers to teach students from historically under-served communities. 2. Surround the students with high expectations and images and experiences that educate them about the opportunities our society has to offer if they work hard and do their best. At KIPP, we have college names all over the school, and we call our fifth graders freshmen and our eighth graders seniors. In addition, we take our students to lots of colleges and to other parts of the country. 3. Constantly pursue the balance between supporting those students academically, emotionally, behaviorally, psychologically, and culturally while simultaneously nurturing them to be independent thinkers, learners, and citizens. In answer to your question about working with families, this is what I said in response to a similar question: At KIPP Baltimore, we begin engaging families even before enrollment. All our staff members go out and visit the homes of families living in the four lowest-income public school enrollment zones in Northwest Baltimore. We talk about our school and our goals for our students and ask families if they would be interested in enrolling their children. In this way, we make sure we reach families who may not have previously been engaged in their children’s education. In fact, the mother of our first valedictorian tells us that she never went to her daughter’s previous school – she did not feel welcome there – but at our school she felt treated “like family” and therefore she became involved. She currently serves as a community organizer at our school and thereby engages other families, with the help of a parent who serves on our Board of Directors, a parent who leads our KIPP Parent Association (KPA), and a teacher who serves as the liaison between families and our staff. Two quick examples of parent involvement in our school: a week and a half ago during Saturday school a group of parents spent several hours helping to organize our science materials. This past Friday night our parents held a “movie night” for students and parents: $2 to watch a movie in our largest classroom. The KPA made snacks available and raised some money selling them. The idea for movie night was generated and executed by parents with staff support.

Question from Jaala Smith, TA, PreEminent Charter school:

How did you work on problematic areas? How did you make your school successful?

Jason Botel:

Thanks for your questions, Jaala. Are there particular areas on which you would like me to comment? Most importantly, I found great teachers and teachers who had the potential to be great and gave them the tools and support they needed to achieve at high levels. At KIPP, we know that when great leaders and teachers build relationships with students and families, students - even students who enter the school far behind, even students whose families were not previously engaged in or hopeful about education - can excel.

Question from Angela Phillips charter school applicant, Educational Alternative Communities Happen!:

As a charter school applicant, how can a founder express to the Board of Education (LEA) that our vision does not need to be interpreted as a failure or deficit of the public school system? Our proposed charter school has been put in a confrontational position with the school system. It seems that if we are approved then they will have admitted defeat. This was never our goal.

Sara Mead:

Thanks for your question, Angela. I’m not sure what state and city you’re writing from, but it is true that the political history of charter schools in some states, and even the way some state charter laws are written, has created a dynamic where charter schools are seen as a punitive measure in response to school failure. And many school districts are very hostile to charter schools, seeing them as competition and sometimes even an affront. That’s unfortunate. Even in really high-performing school districts, there are going to be some kids that need an alternative option to the traditional public school, because even the best school in the world is not going to be a great fit for some kids. But that idea of customization, that there are lots of facets to school quality, including fit with the individual child’s needs, that can’t be defined along a single spectrum, is something we’re still grappling with in the United States. I’m hopeful that some day in the future we’ll get to the point where districts and the public see charter schools as part of a range of school choice options every community--not just high-poverty communities!--should have to help all students succeed. But, unfortunately, we’re still not there.

Question from Sommer Wynn, Policy Intern, Delaware:

What should be required to renew a charter?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Sommer, great question, thanks! The most important element is a demonstrated track record of success. That means academic success and meeting the goals of the charter and also operational success, meaning a safe, well run, financially stable school. The process should not be a rubber stamp but a real examination of these issues and considered judgment. This is why, to the previous question I answered, good authorizing is so important. If enough parents are not choosing the school it will close for lack of funds. But that’s not a sufficient bar. The school should also be delivering on what it promised to do.

Question from Ron Goldstein, parent of child in Charter School:

Charter schools seem to be running like independent fiefdoms. Whereas conventional schools are supervised by district superintendants, the charters are self supervising. we’ve attended 2 charters in the last 4 years where the directors have also ruled the Board and made decisions that negatively affected the livelihood of staff and school. Shouldn’t we have someone watching these schools as they take in federal and state educational dollars?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Ron, thanks for this question. There are 4,000 charter schools out there, some great, some not, some middling, you get the idea. I’m sorry that you’ve had a frustrating experience, finding a school -- public, charter, or private -- that is a good fit can often be a challenge. As Sara and I point out in our paper referenced at the top of this chat “A Sum Greater than the Parts,” it’s important that policymakers and charter advocates not over-romanticize autonomy. Charters should be independent, that’s the point, but they also need strong oversight just like other public schools. We point out that the states that have had the most success with charters have paid the most attention to charter authorizing while those that have experienced more problems have tended to be looser about oversight. That’s an important lesson that should be incorporated into state policies on charter schooling. As a related point, some charter school boards are proving to be microcosms for the same sort of dysfunction and agenda-driven decision-making that plagues too many school boards overall. And good oversight at the school level is important. That’s also something authorizers and the charter community needs to pay attention to. In the meantime, I hope you find a school that is a good fit for what your family needs.

Question from Susan Nogan, Policy Analyst, NEA:

How much money does KIPP Ujima Village Academy receive from philanthropic sources to supplement the per pupil funding it gets from state and local government?

Jason Botel:

This figure has varied in part according to how much funding we have been given from our local school system, which has ranged in our six years of existence from approximately $3,700 per pupil to this year’s $8,415 per pupil. The local funding community has recognized the disparities and helped a great deal. As funding for public charter schools becomes more equitable in Baltimore, about which we have reason for optimism based on recent developments in the courts and the school system, and as we reach economies of scale with a cluster of KIPP schools in Baltimore, we are planning strategically to make sure KIPP schools are sustainable.

Question from Carmen Allen, Education Advocate, Georgia Public Schools:

Does it matter how Charter Schools are set up? For instance in Georgia Charter School members are set up as follows: 3 members appointed by the Chair of the BOE 3 members appointed by the Lt. Governor and 3 members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Rep. ALL members shall serve at the pleasure of the respective appointing officials and not the public. Is this not more restrictive? since the appointees don’t answer to the public parents of children in these schools?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Carmen, important question, thanks. What matters is that there is accountability to some Democratic wellspring. There are different ways to accomplish this. For instance in Indianapolis the mayor there, Bart Peterson, charters schools and is accountable to the voters for how well he does. In other places it’s appointees of different bodies. What matters most is that at some point the voters have an opportunity to hold public officials accountable for their performance. That can be elected boards, appointed boards, etc…so long as voters have that opportunity on a regular basis.

Question from Cliff Chuang, Analyst, MA Dept. of Ed. Charter School Office:

How would you approach the renewal of a charter school that is performing academically poorly in terms of absolute measures, but is potentially performing slightly better than the sending districts to which its students would return if the charter school were closed?

Sara Mead:

I think this is one of the most difficult questions that charter school authorizers have to deal with. In our research we saw cases, like the Reisenbach school in New York, where parents were happy with the school, and very upset to see it close--but it wasn’t performing academically, and so the authorizer had to step in and shut it down. These are really gutwrenching experiences for people. Ultimately, the charter school bargain was that charter schools would be held accountable for their performance, so a charter school that’s clearly not living up to its contract, in terms of performance expectations, ultimately has to be shut down. That’s important for the whole movement, because poor performing charters are a bad reflection on all the other charter schools that are not poor performing. There’s also a real case, in states where there are caps on charter school growth, as in Massachusetts, that any poor-performing school that remains open takes away a charter opening from a better performing school that can’t open under the cap. That said, it’s important to use appropriate measures in making these decisions. Absolute scores on state tests may not be a good reflection of how a school is doing academically if it’s accepting kids who come in already well below grade level. Authorizers may need to use other measures as well. Also, there are things authorizers can do when they close a school to help mitigate the impact on children from that school. When the D.C. Board of Education (now no longer an authorizer) closed the Village Learning Center charter school here, they worked with another charter school to help it expand in Village Learning Center’s old building, so that children who had gone to the closed school could continue in another charter in the same building. When the California Charter Academy closed a few years ago, the California Charter School Association worked with charter schools there to help place kids in good charter schools.

Question from Jamel Adkins-Sharif, Education Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School, Springfield, MA:

How do you handle the tendency of many novice teachers to over rely on teachers’ guides and packaged programs with the need for individualized instruction that is engaging and fosters ownership of learning?

Jason Botel:

When we recruit and select teachers to work at KIPP schools, we make it clear that “Power to Lead” and “Focus on Results” are KIPP pillars. Teachers have the power to teach in the way they best know how, and they are held accountable for leading all students to achieve at high levels. If a teacher can lead students to achieve at high levels using a program, we will support the teacher in using the program. If a teacher prefers inventing lessons each day, we will support the teacher in inventing lessons each day. In either case, we require that teachers differentiate to meet the needs of all students. “All of us WILL learn” is a common slogan at KIPP schools. If the program a teacher is using is not meeting the needs of some students, we talk with the teacher about what s/he can do - and how we can help - to make sure that the students for whom the program is not working can achieve at high levels as well.

Question from Deborah Ward, Education Advisor, Insight Schools:

What is the interest on cyber online charter schools?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Deborah, great question! I just blogged about this a bit the other day at Eduwonk. I’m actually a contrarian on these schools: I think that parents want to get a lot of things from their schools besides just the curriculum. For instance, in the community where I live, as in a lot of rural communities, Friday nights are a big deal for the community and bring people together across racial and class lines. Consequently, I think that the appeal of all virtual programs will ultimately be pretty limited. But, for some parents and kids they provide a great option and should be part of a portfolio of options to really provide mass customization in the public sector. I wrote a piece about that for the New York Times in 2006, you can find it here: I’d also refer you to this paper by my colleague Bill Tucker. He shows that some virtual elements have a lot of promise, but that’s different than all virtual schools.

Question from Brian Malloy, Math Teacher & Roster Chair, Bodine High School:

Do you think it is fair that charter schools, even though they are public schools, can set their own rules, get more money, can easily get rid of unruly students, and can hire unqualified teachers? If every school becomes a charter school, where will charter schools send their discipline problems?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Brian, thanks for this question. I support the idea of giving all schools more flexibility over issues like hiring and internal policies in exchange for heightened accountability, real public oversight, and transparency about their operations. As Sara and I point out in our paper, different states have been more or less effective in establishing policies to foster this. That’s not saying anything goes, but it is saying that we’ve tried to micromanage schools through policy and it doesn’t work very well. On my blog today I have a post related to this issue, about earned autonomy: Some of these questions are judgment calls. We can argue all day about what constitutes a qualified teacher. Right now in most states it’s completers of approved programs, but there is no evidence that these teachers are more effective than those coming through other routes. So should we insist that charters only hire from this pool or give them some flexibility? Likewise all schools want the flexibility to address persistently disruptive students. The problem is that in most communities there are few options for these kids besides the street. That’s not a charter problem, it’s an education problem. So, rather than think of this in the charter v. non-charter context, I’d argue a more productive conversation is how to we, in every community, ensure that a healthy ecosystem of schools exists so the varying needs of varying students are taken care of within the public system.

Question from Yvette Breckenridge, Coordinator,The Robert H. Faulkner Academy Marion, IN:

Besides choosing a good curriculum, getting excellent personnel and having resources to run a school what is one of the most essential area that organizers and board members need to address prior to opening a quality charter school?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Yvette. Thanks for this question. I work on public policy, I’m not a school operator so I think Jason would be better qualified to answer your question. In my experience spending time in high performing schools, public, charter, or private, a good plan and good execution are the key and a lot goes into making that a reality. Good execution is deliberate and exhausting work and where policy comes in is trying to create the conditions to help with that.

Question from Barry McGhan, Center for Public School Renewal:

What kind of teaching staff distribution is found in charter schools (i.e., % rookies, 3-5 yrs experience, more than 5yrs, more than 10 yrs; traditional certification vs. alternate cert. vs. no cert.; straight out of college vs 2nd career folk vs. retired teachers; (for K-8 only) male vs. female, white vs. minority, etc., etc.).

Sara Mead:

According to the National Center on Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey, charter school teachers are a little bit younger than traditional public school teachers (37.9 compared to 42.5), more likely to be black or Hispanic (25.3 percent compared to 14 percent), less likely to have an advanced degree (about 33.6% of charter teachers have advanced degrees, compared to 49% for traditional public schools), and more have less experience (43% of charter teachers have less than 3 years teaching, compared to about 17% of traditional public school teachers), and more likely to have attended a selective university (35.5% compared to 29.3%). Charter school teachers also make less on average: about $37,000 compared to $44,500. (You can see more here: There are all kinds of reasons for this difference in distribution: Charter schools get less per pupil than traditional public schools, and in some cases (not all!) that translates into lower salaries, and less educated, experienced teachers. Retirement systems in some states exclude charter schools--meaning that experienced teachers in these states can’t go teach in charters without losing their pensions. OTOH, charter schools, as start-ups, may be more likely to attract young, dynamic individuals who are excited about working in a different kind of school. And the fact that many charter schools are committed to working with poor and minority students and closing achievement gaps may explain their higher rates of black and Hispanic teachers. This would be a great subject for more research!

Question from Jim Kilkenny, teacher Edison High School:

Do the policies that make great charter schools differ drastically from some of the policies that created some very good alternative schools for school districts in the ‘70s and ‘80s?

Andrew J. Rotherham:

Hi Jim, great question. One of the interesting things about the charter movement is that it has all sorts of people, who often agree on relatively little, living under this one big tent. One group that is there are the refugees from the alternative school movement you mention. In our paper Sara and I discuss how having all these different factions can create some real challenges within different states. But, it also creates some great energy and strange bedfellows, too. What’s different this time around is the enabling legislation. Good charter school legislation changes the power-balance within a state and a community so that people who seek alternative arrangements have a statutory mechanism to make that vision a reality. So it’s empowering like the alternative school movement but more systemic and hopefully more sustainable. But, and this is a good way to end the chat, it’s still very much a work in progress and while there is a lot to be really excited about, there are also some serious challenges that shouldn’t be minimized. Sara and I tried to drive both points home in the paper that’s cited at the top of this chat.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Unfortunately our time is up. This chat is now over. Thank you all for participating in this very informative discussion. And thank you very much to our guests, Andrew J. Rotherham, Sara Mead, and Jason Botel, for offering their time and expertise. A transcript of this chat will be available on soon.

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