Special Report
School Choice & Charters

Charters Add Competitive Twist to District Governance

By Katie Ash — January 03, 2014 9 min read
Supplies remain in a former art room at the closed Burton Elementary School, in Erie, Pa., which is now being used by the district for storage. Administrators in Erie say fiscal pressure from the growth of charter schools is among the factors that have forced the closure and consolidation of some regular public schools in recent years.
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The transformation of charter schools from a radical public school choice option to an established—if still contentious—presence in hundreds of districts poses tough questions for local administrators about the governance of such schools and their fiscal impact.

At the same time, charters continue to roil the political waters in many communities over issues such as collective bargaining, the role of private contractors and outside entities in operating local schools, and whether their competition with regular public schools is healthy or harmful.

Charters first took root in Minnesota through legislation in 1991. The first two charter schools opened in that state in 1992, with five more opening in 1993, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Today, 42 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws. Charters educated 1.7 million students in 5,500 schools as of the 2010-11 school year, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Education.

The schools, which are part of the public school system, were created to provide more flexibility from the rules and regulations that typically govern district-run schools, allowing them to innovate and experiment with new teaching and learning models. The hope was for charters to share best practices and lessons learned with the general public school population, improving education for all children—something that most education experts agree has met with mixed results in the 20 years since charter schools first began.

But some district leaders say the schools are causing undue fiscal strain on district-run schools at a time when budget dollars are already scarce, leading to tension between both types of schools as they compete for a finite number of students and dollars.

That may be easing in some places, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has been studying charter schools since their inception.

“In the very early days, the district-charter conversation was about two entirely separate worlds,” she said. “About five years ago, things started shifting a little bit. There are many districts that have decided, ‘We’re not going to fight this. We’re going to use this.’ ”

Mixed Reception

Urban districts especially, where most charter schools tend to be found, are embracing the schools more readily, said Ms. Lake, “to address specific problems like achievement gaps and [to] experiment with technology-based solutions.”

But for smaller districts, the rapid growth of charter schools can be fiscally devastating, say some school leaders.

Out of the 12,000 students in the Erie district in Pennsylvania, for example, about 1,400 students currently attend charter schools, said Superintendent Jay D. Badams, resulting in a loss of nearly $15 million of per-pupil funding for the district.

Kira Miller, right, is a 1st grader at Memphis College Prep charter school. A booming charter sector has put fiscal and enrollment heat on the regular Memphis public schools.

There are currently four brick-and-mortar charter schools operating within the district’s boundaries, in addition to the cyber-charter schools available to students in the district.

“To me, we’re at a point where it’s a question of how much choice does the public really need?” said Mr. Badams.

As a result of budget cuts, the economic downturn, as well as the growth of charter schools in Erie, Mr. Badams says his district has been forced to close and consolidate schools and lay off 300 staff members over the past few years. Still, he said, “we have not been able to reduce staff or close buildings commensurate with the loss of revenue created by the new charters. It’s a real problem.”

Robert Bifulco, an associate professor and researcher at Syracuse University, found similar effects of charter growth on districts in Albany and Buffalo, N.Y.

While the amount of funding that flows to charter schools varies from state to state, in some places, policies require districts to provide more funding to charter schools than the district is able to save by not educating those students, he said, leaving those district-run schools in fiscal straits.

That’s especially true in places with struggling economies and a decreasing student population, according to a recent study released by Moody’s Investors Services.

Most charter schools operate within a school district or are technically classified as their own school district. In a rare exception, two school districts in Michigan—the Highland Park school system outside of Detroit and the Muskegon Heights school district on the west side of the state—were converted into all-charter districts in 2012 after being taken over by an emergency manager.

A similar effort in York, Penn. was voted down in May 2013.

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Some states also have laws that allow for the creation of charter districts. That does not necessarily mean that all the schools in the district are charters—although they could be—but rather the district as a whole is allowed greater flexibility and autonomy to experiment with its school models.

Competitors or Partners?

But some charter school advocates, such as Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, believe that competition from charters will help spur greater efficiency and innovation within district-run schools.

“Our hope from the beginning has been that … by injecting some competitive market forces into the mix [charters would] make districts be more responsive to the needs of students,” she said.

However, Joseph Roy, the superintendent of the 14,000-student Bethlehem district in Pennsylvania, disagrees with that concept.

“I defy anyone to show proof where that’s occurred,” he said. “They’re applying economic principles to something that’s not a market.”

In fact, research results are mixed, and researchers say the competitive impact of charter schools is difficult to measure because it is spread out across many schools and districts, making it almost impossible to pinpoint cause and effect.

While Ms. Rees recognizes the competitive pressure that charters put on districts, she also calls for greater collaboration and partnership between school districts and charter schools.

“We need to do a better job of bringing these district officials to the table so they see chartering as part of the menu of solutions for students and not see charters as a competitive force,” she said.

Efforts like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s District-Charter Collaboration Compacts, which aim to foster collaboration and the sharing of resources, data, and ideas between district-run and charter schools in 16 cities across the United States, is an example of such work, said Ms. Rees.

But charter critics, such as Mr. Roy, balk at the influx of funds from philanthropies such as the Walton Family Foundation, which supports charter schools and school choice efforts around the country, calling such moves an effort to privatize public education. (Both the Gates and Walton foundations provide support to Education Week.)

Teachers’ Union Tension

How accepting districts are of charters often depends on who is leading the district, said Ms. Rees. It can also depend on the strength of teachers’ unions in the area, she added.

Third grader Matthew Lindemuth searches through his textbook at McKinley Elementary, a traditional brick-and-mortar school in Erie, Pa. Erie’s regular public schools face competition from charters, which educate more than 10 percent of the district’s 12,000 students.

The majority of charter school teachers and employees do not belong to a union.

“The absence of a powerful local union does help to some extent because if the unions are really opposed to charter schools, and they’re influencing who sits on the school board, … you’re not going to be as likely to forge those types of [collaborative] relationships,” said Ms. Rees.

But Jim Testerman, the National Education Association’s director of the Center for Organizing, said that the NEA isn’t fundamentally opposed to charter schools.

“The reality is that charter school employees are members of NEA. We have over 1,800 members who work in charter schools, and we’re very invested in their success and the success of their students,” he said.

Charters can find an easier path in a district that is mayorally controlled by someone who supports them.

For example, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg put policies in place to allow charter schools to grow from 22 when he first took office in 2002 to 159 as he prepared to leave his post in 2013.

Most notably, Mr. Bloomberg championed the idea of co-location—allowing charter schools to share facilities with district-run schools—a controversial policy that charter advocates say is essential to the survival of the schools in the city’s prohibitively expensive real estate market. But critics say the practice has been mismanaged, causing strained relationships between co-located schools and taking away needed space from district-run programs.

Governance Structures

The governance challenge also can be complicated by the makeup of the entities that authorize and oversee charters, which varies widely from place to place—sometimes even within the same city.

Universities, school districts, state education agencies, state charter boards, or nonprofits typically authorize charter schools, said Greg Richmond, the president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Some entities may be better equipped to step into that role, he said.

Part of the problem is leadership churn, especially in districts and universities, which can disrupt the progress of certain authorizing institutions.

“There are a number of places where, for a period of time, the district is really fantastic and understands how to monitor [the progress of charters], and then the superintendent leaves or they get a new board, and they undo it all,” said Mr. Richmond.

In addition, it is hard for smaller districts, which may be overseeing 20 district-run schools and only one charter, for example, to have the capacity to best serve the one school that is set up differently from all the others, he said. Universities face a similar dilemma.

Consequently, the authorizers’ association and other charter organizations have been recommending the creation of statewide charter school boards whose sole function it is to oversee charter schools. Ten years ago, only one state and the District of Columbia had such an entity, but today 15 are in place.

But local districts may not be on board with the idea. In Pennsylvania, for example, they are the authorizers for charter schools. Indeed, Mr. Badams, the superintendent from the Erie district, said that being an authorizer places an unneeded burden on his school system.

However, he said, to have authorization “granted by some independent board in a city five hours away from us with little or no local context doesn’t make any sense either.”

The authorizers’ association also hopes to shift the focus from closing down failing charters to only opening up ones that are most likely to be successful.

“It is very hard to close any school, even a charter school that’s failing,” said Mr. Richmond.

Although charter schools close more frequently than regular public schools (about 15 percent of all charters are eventually shut down), there are still far too many low-performing charters, he said. “One of the things we’ve learned over the years, and we now understand pretty well, is how do we evaluate a proposal for a school? It’s easy to ask the right questions, evaluate them, and make the right decisions,” Mr. Richmond said. “From a technical standpoint, closing a school is much harder.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2014 edition of Education Week as Charters add Competitive Twist To District-Governance Puzzle


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