With California’s education community under pressure to fix hundreds of low-performing public schools, charter school leaders don’t know whether they should run to the rescue—or run away and hide.
Ambivalence over what role charters should play in revamping or replacing failing schools was a theme here last week at the second annual conference of the California Charter Schools Association.
“People are very apprehensive about solving somebody else’s problem,” Colin A. Miller, the association’s director of policy and research, said during the Jan. 24-26 conference. “On the other hand, if charters aren’t willing to step up to this challenge, then where’s the movement headed?”
California’s list of schools that have failed to make their student-achievement targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act has grown to more than 1,600. Of those, 268 schools are in their fourth year on the list, meaning that their districts are required to restructure them this year.
The law specifies charter schools as one option for restructuring, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger aims to encourage its use, his secretary of education, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, told conference-goers last week.
Not all charter operators are interested, however.
Larry Rosenstock, the principal and chief executive officer of San Diego’s High Tech High School, said his ongoing push to replicate that model will not include taking over low-performing schools. “I applaud people who do conversions,” he said, but added that starting schools from scratch was a better fit for his model, for reasons ranging from facilities to instructional approach.
Echoing that view was Don Shalvey, the chief executive officer of Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit chain that runs 11 charter schools in low-income urban communities in central California. “We don’t do conversions—we do start-ups,” he said.
But Mark Kushner, who is replicating the model developed at Leadership Charter High School in San Francisco, said he was “very interested” in the opportunities presented by schools slated for restructuring.
Mr. Kushner, the chairman of the state board of education’s advisory commission on charter schools and the CEO of San Francisco-based Leadership Public Schools, is opening a school in Oakland next fall that is among four small high schools replacing a single large one. And he said he would like to use that approach elsewhere should the opportunity arise.
Giving a charter twist to the idea of breaking up large, failing high schools into small schools was first tried in California in 2003, when the Sacramento district restructured Sacramento High School in a process that provoked a bitter legal and political fight with the city’s teachers’ union.
Now in San Diego, plans are afoot to restructure eight schools, and the school board there is reviewing charter proposals for half those schools.
In recent weeks, though, backers of the charter plans have been skirmishing with the San Diego board over such issues as whether the schools’ current teaching staffs must consent to the switch to charter status. And some see the future of the plans as threatened by turnover on the board, which has led to uncertainty about whether the 140,000-student district even wants to allow the restructuring schools to go charter anymore.
Invoking California’s unhappy history with unsavory charter school operators and high-profile closures, several speakers here underlined the need to strengthen weak charter schools, and when necessary, shut them down.
The state now has 512 charter schools, serving roughly 186,000 students. Since the first opened in 1993, 61 schools have closed, the state charter association reports.
Additional closures are expected, at least some of them due to a new state requirement that schools reach a specified level under the state’s school ranking system, known as the Academic Performance Index, to have their charters renewed.
Marta Reyes, the director of the California Department of Education’s charter school division, told conference-goers that the only way to have a strong charter movement is to insist that schools keep the promise of higher student achievement in exchange for their greater autonomy.
“A few of the closures that are coming are painful, but they’re going to say that the promise is real,” Ms. Reyes said.
Nationally, the charter movement has yielded “some excellent schools and some terrible schools,” said Howard L. Fuller, the chairman of the Washington-based Charter School Leadership Council. In addition to school leaders of exceptional accomplishment, he said, the movement has had its share of “scoundrels and crooks.”
“Any revolutionary movement must continually reassess itself,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Kushner said that in California, “too many charters are not performing well.” Those schools deserve support, he said, but not endless patience.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week