School Choice & Charters

Charter Operators Spell Out Barriers to ‘Scaling Up’

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 23, 2011 9 min read
Third-grade students Jasir Moore, center, and Shamarri Henry, right, confer on their first day of class at Achievement First Brownsville Elementary School in New York.
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The pace at which the highest-performing charter-management organizations are “scaling up” is being determined largely by how rapidly they can develop and hire strong leaders and acquire physical space, and by the level of support they receive for growth from city or state policies, say leaders from some charter organizations viewed by advocates as having high student achievement.

To explore what might be obstacles to growth for successful charter operators, Education Week interviewed leaders of five of the seven charter-management organizations, or CMOs, in the NewSchools Venture Fund’s portfolio that the fund sees as producing the best student-achievement results.

The seven charter operators are: Aspire Public Schools, Achievement First, Green Dot Public Schools, Harlem Success Academy Charter School, the Knowledge Is Power Program, Uncommon Schools, and Rocketship Education. That same set of operators has also been identified by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, in Seattle, as the nation’s top performers, and the center is expected to release a report in the fall about the characteristics that have made them successful.

As might be expected, some of the charter operators identified by charter supporters to have the strongest records in student achievement are focusing their expansion in cities or states that have policies viewed as friendly to charter schools, such as New York City and Newark, N.J., and are steering away from locations viewed as unfriendly. Legislation passed in the last year that relaxed limitations or lifted caps on opening charter schools in Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee also will benefit charter operators that want to expand, said Chad A. Miller, the senior director of federal advocacy for the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Charter schools are publicly financed but largely independent of the regular school system. Some are single-site schools; others are part of growing regional or national networks operated by CMOs. Although federal data show the number of students enrolled in charter schools has more than tripled, growing from 340,000 in 1999-2000 to 1.4 million in 2008-09, not everyone believes policies encouraging their growth have been fair.

Legal Action

Last month, a group of public school parents, backed by advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit in a New York trial court arguing that charter schools should be required to pay for the use of public school buildings.

Charter Territory

Charter-management organizations that were operating at least two schools in 2007 were concentrated in 18 states and the District of Columbia. CMO leaders say they are scaling up in several states where they view policies to be charter-friendly.


SOURCE: Center on Reinventing Public Education

“Their expansion is undermining the quality and resources of our regular public schools,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based nonprofit that is backing the lawsuit.

Likewise, on Aug. 2, North Carolina’s court of appeals stood by a lower court’s decision that charter schools aren’t entitled to the capital funds that traditional public schools receive. The court said the matter should be settled by legislative action rather than judicial decision.

But a New York state judge had a different perspective in ruling in July on a separate lawsuit that the United Federation of Teachers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups, had filed in June. That suit contested the closing of some 22 public schools and the planned “co-location” of 16 new charter schools into buildings that are now the home for traditional public schools. The judge sided against the plaintiffs by dismissing a preliminary injunction to block the New York City district’s plan.

Hospitable Environments

Despite such opposition, policies that make it easy for charter schools to acquire free or low-cost facilities or that ensure such schools get the same funding as regular public schools are a big draw for charter operators. The presence of Teach For America, an alternative teacher-preparation program, is also attractive.

Boston and Milwaukee have recently moved from the “unfriendly” list to the “friendly” list in terms of being hospitable to charter operators, while California, because of its persistent budget crisis, is seen by charter operators as offering an increasingly challenging environment for expansion. “The bottom line for charter-management organizations is, wherever they operate, they want to get the same per-pupil funding as traditional school districts,” said Deborah McGriff, a nonprofit partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund, in San Francisco, which finances the replication of charter schools by CMOs it deems high-performing.

The upcoming report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education includes findings that charter-management organizations are opening schools in only a small number of states. Robin Lake, the associate director of the center, said that “a big part of that is whether states have hospitable policies.”

Currently, the average nationwide per-pupil funding rate for charter schools is about 80 percent of the rate for regular public schools, according to Ms. McGriff, who was the general superintendent of the Detroit public schools from 1991 to 1993. She cited the identification of high-quality teachers and principals as the biggest factor setting the pace for growth of high-performing charter operators, with the ability of charter operators to pay for school buildings as a close runner-up.

Even though Rocketship Education, based in Palo Alto, Calif., runs only three schools, the strong student outcomes for those schools, which serve only K-5 students, and the program’s promise to yield financially sustainable schools have attracted recruiters from halfway across the country.

Aylon Samouha, the chief schools officer for Rocketship Education, said a team of politicians and educators from Milwaukee, including the city’s mayor, a charter authorizer, and a representative from Teach For America, visited Rocketship’s schools in San Jose, Calif., to try to recruit the CMO to Milwaukee.

Mr. Samouha said Rocketship Education is also considering opening schools in Chicago, New Orleans, and Newark. It has applied for charters in California’s Santa Clara County, East Palo Alto, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Teach For America

The Rocketship CMO won’t open schools in any location unless TFA has a presence there, Mr. Samouha said. Seventy-five percent of the charter operator’s teachers are members or alumni of the organization, which trains recent graduates of top colleges for stints as teachers in high-need schools.

“We’ve got to go where we can get the most quality in one swoop, and that happens to be Teach For America,” Mr. Samouha said, defining quality, in part, as “people excited about education reform.”

Developing strong teachers and leaders and acquiring physical space are challenges to Rocketship’s growth, Mr. Samouha said. Equally challenging is getting charter authorizers to agree to a charter to open eight schools over five years in one location, which is Rocketship’s growth model, Mr. Samouha said.

The Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools, which has already scaled up considerably since launching its first charter school in 2000, is also being recruited outside California.

“Governors have called me begging me to get Green Dot in their states,” said Marco Petruzzi, the president and chief executive officer of Green Dot. This school year, the CMO is set to operate 21 schools with 10,000 students in Los Angeles and it has plans to serve 5,000 or 6,000 more by 2015.

While Green Dot initially opened mostly independent charter schools, it now has a strong focus on “turnarounds” of low-achieving schools, setting it apart from the other charter leaders interviewed for this story.

Mr. Petruzzi said that developing and hiring principals and coping with what educators view as California’s low per-pupil student funding—set to be less than $6,000 per pupil for charter schools this coming school year—are the top barriers Green Dot faces in scaling up. He also said persuading the Los Angeles Unified School District to turn over schools and buildings to Green Dot is increasingly a challenge.

But Monica Carazo, a spokeswoman for the 672,000-student LAUSD, said the district complied with all four requests for buildings made by Green Dot schools for the 2011-12 school year.

Aspire, in Oakland, has also focused so far only on California. It opened its first charter school in Stockton in the 1999-2000 school year and has grown by several schools each year. The CMO operates 30 schools and has nearly doubled its enrollment, to 12,000, over the past three school years.

James Willcox, the chief executive officer of Aspire, said the difficult budget climate in California is causing him and other Aspire leaders to think about opening schools outside the state.

Seeking Better Climates

Meanwhile, the charter operator Achievement First, which opened its first charter schools in Connecticut in 1999, has decided that its second home, New York City, has more welcoming policies for charters than Connecticut, said Dacia Toll, one of the founders and the co-chief executive officer for the network. The city is attractive because its school system provides charter operators with buildings for free or at a low cost, she said.

The per-pupil rate for charter schools in New York City is $13,500, the same as for regular public schools. By contrast, Connecticut gives charter schools 75 percent of the per-pupil rate that it gives regular schools, Ms. Toll said. Achievement First now has 10 charters (some that include several schools), which are expected to enroll 6,200 students in the 2011-12 school year.

But Eva Moskowitz, the head of Harlem Success Academy Charter School, indicated that opening charter schools in New York City is no picnic when she spoke at a session about scaling-up at the annual conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Atlanta in June. Her organization was sued in the June lawsuit filed by the United Federation of Teachers over facilities issues.

Ms. Toll said that Harlem Success Academies is likely experiencing more difficulty than Achievement First to get physical space in New York because it’s focusing on Harlem, where space is at more of a premium than in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where Achievement First operates. Ms. Moskowitz’s network now numbers nine.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, has grown from two schools in 1995 to 109 in 20 states and the District of Columbia. KIPP leaders expect to expand the network from its current enrollment of 27,000 students to 55,000 by 2015, said Richard Barth, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, in San Francisco.

He said the organization is focusing on growing the number of schools and students served in charter-friendly locations where it is already present, such as Atlanta, the District of Columbia, New Orleans, and Newark.

“This is very hard work,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Charter Operators Spell Out Barriers to ‘Scaling Up’


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