School Choice & Charters

Once Called Unrealistic, ‘Charter Districts’ Attract Attention

By Caroline Hendrie — May 28, 2003 4 min read
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In a sign that the once far-fetched notion of “charter districts” is gaining traction, a forthcoming series of papers from the Education Commission of the States offers policymakers advice and encouragement in setting up their own versions of that emerging governance arrangement.

“The Nuts and Bolts of Charter Districts” can be ordered by calling (303) 299-3692.

The papers, slated to be made public early next month, define charter districts as systems of autonomous schools that are given regulatory freedom in exchange for meeting performance standards specified either in contracts or charters.

Citing examples from around the country, the series suggests that policymakers should at least consider instituting such systems of independent public schools, despite the many pitfalls they might encounter in doing so.

“District leaders have found the difficult shift worth the effort as they have created an environment for the district’s schools and students to excel, increased community engagement, and better met families’ needs,” Bryan C. Hassel, the president of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consulting group Public Impact, writes in a paper.

Yet while the series takes a supportive stance toward charter districts, its primary purpose is to provide a road map to state and local policymakers interested in the idea. It includes papers that make policy recommendations on four topics: state policy, local-level design issues, the role of the central office, and funding.

“This is happening out there, and we want to help people be thoughtful about it, given the imposing challenges we’re facing in terms of trying to educate every kid to meet the state standards,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the Denver-based ECS. Mr. Ziebarth headed the project, which was financed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s charter school program.

The series, titled “The Nuts and Bolts of Charter Districts,” builds on the work of a national commission convened by the ECS in 1999 that proposed two alternative models for decentralizing the governance of K-12 education: one that involved retooling existing school districts and another that called for more-radical change.

The second option—transforming local school boards into “chartering boards” that in turn would contract with independent entities to run schools—was seen by some critics at the time as largely unrealistic. (“ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance,” Nov. 10, 1999.)

But in the 3½ years since the panel issued its report, aspects of the second model have taken shape in states and districts from Pennsylvania to California, the series reports.

Two Categories

Some of the examples of existing charter districts described in the papers came about as entities other than traditional school boards granted charters for new schools. Among them are the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, and Central Michigan University. The mayor of Indianapolis also falls into that category, as does the Milwaukee City Council.

A second category entails existing school boards with numerous autonomous schools within district borders. Philadelphia, with 46 charter schools and 45 schools run by private managers under contract with the district, is a leading example of a big-city system that has pursued that route, Mr. Ziebarth said. Those contract schools came about as part of a state takeover of the 193,000- student district in late 2001.

Chicago and New York City also have autonomous schools and have carved out administrative space to oversee them. And in Los Angeles, the district’s charter school office supervises more than 50 charter schools.

Faced with a small but growing number of schools seeking to convert to charter status, Los Angeles schools Superintendent Roy Romer has called for forming some sort of charter district within the 750,000-student school system. It presumably would be more structured than the de facto arrangement that the ECS papers describe. (“Romer Raises Stakes in L.A. Charter Fight,” May 21, 2003.)

Meanwhile, several smaller districts, including the San Carlos and Twin Ridges school systems in California, have converted most of their schools to charters, the papers note. And another Pennsylvania school system taken over by the state, the 5,200- student Chester-Upland district, runs only one school and has contracted with New York City-based Edison Schools Inc. to run nine others. There also are three independent charter schools in the district.

Districts that have reached agreements with their states to be free of some regulations are not considered charter districts in the ECS papers. The reason, said Mr. Ziebarth, is that the thrust of those arrangements, including several in Florida, has been less to grant autonomy to individual schools, than to give freedom to the systems as a whole.

In a paper on the central office’s role, Nelson Smith writes that “it must be conceded that the meaning of ‘charter district’ is elusive.” Still, the time has come for the charter movement to debate the concept’s pros and cons, argues Mr. Smith, the vice president for policy and governance at New American Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va.

“As the charter movement has matured, and stronger evidence has emerged that the charter idea can help those most in need of better schooling,” he writes, “it has become necessary to think in systemic terms to see if this idea can work at scale.”

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