Hoping to lend renewed momentum to a movement whose growth has slowed in recent years, charter school leaders are stepping up efforts to enhance their eclectic sector’s political and organizational clout.
After a series of missteps, a national organization that aims to serve as a unified voice for the nation’s roughly 3,000 charter schools is getting off the ground. The result of a total makeover of a moribund coalition of pro-charter organizations, the group seeks to counter a stinging backlash around the country against the independently run public schools.
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Many in both the charter trenches and the policy elite say the new group is sorely needed, provided it can find common ground in a corner of the public education world where prickly independence is the norm.
“Charters are becoming grown up, so you need a grown-up organization,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington.
But analysts also agree that the nation’s disparate collection of charter schools faces challenges that will not be solved solely by a new association looking out for them in Washington. That message came through clearly here last month at the U.S. Department of Education’s fifth annual national charter school conference. Punctuating the meeting were pleas for charter school educators and parents to see themselves as part of a broader cause and to plunge more vigorously into the political fray.
From a ballot measure that would repeal Washington state’s charter school statute to a lawsuit aimed at invalidating Ohio’s law, charter supporters are facing fights that they can’t win without support from beyond their own states, leaders stressed at the conference.
And with teachers’ unions and other school groups portraying charter schools as a drain on education budgets, they said, it is imperative to mobilize parents and reach out to elected officials at all levels of government.
“You are part of a movement that is facing such hostile opposition that you cannot let your good works with the kids be all you do,” Kevin Chavous, a strong charter school advocate who chairs the education committee of the District of Columbia Council, told conference-goers. “We need to add a practical, political sophistication to our efforts.”
Enhancing that sophistication is one goal of the plan to reinvent the Charter School Leadership Council, which was announced at the conference.
Formed in 2002, the council was originally a coalition of eight national groups that all supported charter schooling, but differed both in their partisan political orientations and in their positions on such issues as private school vouchers. One of the groups, the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that backs charters and vouchers, dropped out last year after a disagreement over how the group would arrive at policy positions.
The council became largely inactive as another effort to craft a national charter school organization also fell apart. The National Charter School Alliance, conceived as a membership organization primarily representing the nation’s state-level charter school associations, never got off the ground after two major funders withdrew their support. (“Leaders May Disband New Charter School Organization,” Nov. 5, 2003.)
“There have been some false starts,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a member both of the original coalition’s board and of the council’s reconstituted, 24-member board of directors. Still, Mr. Finn said he is now “bullish” on the revamped council.
Unlike the defunct alliance, which was dominated by state-level associations, only a third of the reorganized council’s board members directly represent state organizations. Council leaders say the revamped group will feel freer to take positions that might conflict with the interests of some individual schools, on such issues as accountability standards and school closures, for instance.
Countering the political forces arrayed against charter schooling—in part by directing resources to such hot spots as Washington state and Ohio—will be among the Charter School Leadership Council’s priorities, said Howard L. Fuller, the chairman of the council’s new board and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools.
“We have to have a coordinated national strategy to fight the coordinated national strategy that wants to put an end to the charter school movement,” he said.
Advertising and other efforts to buttress public understanding are to be a piece of that drive.
“If you ask most citizens in America today what a charter school is, they won’t know,” said Caprice Young, the president of the California Charter Schools Association. “Nationally, we do need this voice because people attack what they don’t know and understand.”
Among the many opponents of charter schools who take issue with that view is Charles Hasse, the president of Washington state’s largest teachers’ union. Noting that voters in his state rejected ballot measures to authorize charter schools in 1996 and 2000, he suggested that the public understands charter schools just fine, but don’t like what it sees.
“Charter school proponents have promised that charter schools will outperform regular public schools,” said Mr. Hasse, the president of the Washington Education Association, which is trying to pass a statewide ballot measure this November that would repeal the charter law that cleared the legislature last March. “They have had over a decade to do that, and they have not lived up to their promise.”
Meanwhile, most major players in the charter movement seem to be strongly supporting the Charter School Leadership council, except for the 10-year-old Center for Education Reform.
Jeanne Allen, the center’s president, said it remains to be seen if the council will be effective, given the “challenges for people to figure out how to work in a very decentralized movement, where the strength is at the local level.” Yet she said she wasn’t worried that the council would encroach on the center’s turf, because “there’s a role for lots of different groups and people.”
Michael Goldstein, the founder of Boston’s Media and Technology Charter High School, known as MATCH, said that since President Clinton left office in 2001, “there hasn’t been a strong national voice that has really pushed charters as something really critical to low-income kids’ educational opportunity, and this council might be a piece of that message.”
The council’s stated purpose is “to dramatically expand the charter movement and extend its principles throughout American education.” Among other priorities, its list of “common principles” stresses the importance of providing “all children equal access to high-quality education,” and ensuring that “all parents, regardless of residence, race, wealth, or heritage, be able to choose among diverse, high-quality, publicly financed educational options.”
The push to expand comes at a time when the once-explosive pace of growth in the number of charter schools and the students served by them has cooled considerably.
Causes of the slowdown vary by state, but among the factors are statutory caps on the number of charter schools and their enrollment; problems finding and financing facilities; political opposition from teachers’ unions, school districts, and others; and a shortage of entrepreneurial educators ready to tackle the huge challenges of starting new schools.
Some charter supporters also say a statistical slowdown in charter growth makes sense, given that the sector is far larger than it was just a few years ago. Between the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years, for example, the number of youngsters in charter schools nationwide shot up by some 45,000 students, to more than 105,000, which at the time represented a 75 percent increase, according to data supplied by the Center for Education Reform.
This past school year, the number climbed by more than 57,000, to nearly 742,000 students, but that represented only an 8 percent rise.
Still, as recently as five years ago, charter enrollment surged by more than 177,000 students in a single year, for a gain of 69 percent. Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter law in 1991.
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige expressed confidence at the conference that more robust gains were around the corner for the charter school sector, which, he noted, “turns 13 this year.”
“Like all adolescents, it’s suffered a few growing pains,” Mr. Paige said at the meeting, which was held June 16-18 and was attended by more than 2,400 educators, authorizers, and other charter supporters. “But I believe we’re ready for another huge growth spurt.”
Yet charter leaders warned that such growth would require a redoubled commitment at the grassroots. When charter schooling is under attack anywhere, they said, supporters across the country must come to its defense.
“The best way to fight a lion chasing you is to run to that lion,” Mr. Chavous said. “We need to run to that lion, like the bully on the playground, and back it down.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as New Group to Push For Charter Schools