You are here

Charter schools morph into charter districts: Column

USA Today
October 15, 2014

By Richard Whitmire

A little-noticed development is about to change the education landscape as we know it: Nearly a dozen charter school networks have grown to the size of midsized school districts. Now what?

This is a clear departure point. Political and philanthropic leaders who encouraged the growth of charters have to take a fresh look at their creations: Are these publicly funded, independently run schools what we had in mind?

Traditional school superintendents and teacher union leaders have to ask: Should they stop stonewalling charter school growth and collaborate instead?

Both answers should be yes.

Even the most high-performing charter networks are far from perfect. Charter schools still don't serve their fair share of special education students and there's no denying they pull money from districts, which struggle to downsize to meet diminished demand.

Even so, charters are more likely than traditional districts to succeed in educating low-income minority students, just what the politicians and philanthropic leaders who backed them had hoped.

Although most traditional school leaders continue to push back against charters, a few enterprising superintendents are pioneering a different approach: collaboration.

Green light

Last week, New York City-based Success Academy charter schools got green lighted to open 14 more schools over the next two years, bringing the network to 50 schools serving 16,300 students.

Success Academy is hardly the largest of the high-performing charter network operators. By 2020, KIPP plans to serve 120,000 students in multiple states. Texas-based IDEA charter schools are on track to serve 40,000 students by then. The same year, Houston-based YES Prep anticipates serving over 20,000 students in several states.

Collaborative models

As charters become an accepted and major force in education, farsighted politicians and school leaders see the potential in working with the charters. In Denver, for example, the school system invited several locally developed charters into their buildings, an innovation that led to academic gains for students.

In the Spring Branch district in Houston, a superintendent uses an infusion of KIPP and YES Prep schools as a lever to re-invent the entire way that district operates, benefiting kids in charter schools and in traditional public schools.

Tennessee created an "achievement school district" that welcomes the nation's best charter groups into that state to turn around troubled schools. In New Orleans, nearly all students now attend charter schools, a development that has been bumpy but produces clear academic gains for the students there and gets smoother every year.

Neerav Kingsland, who formerly ran New Schools for New Orleans, argues that the city's model requiring a common application process and common expulsion practices, while national charter groups keep their special classroom culture, should be copied nationally. "You keep the governance local, which is important, but the school operations go national," Kingsland says.

The moment when charter schools turn from isolated experiments to something resembling their own school districts doesn't have to be scary. Charter schools are doing what they were designed to do. And Denver-style collaboration should become the model for the future.

Answering yes-yes means a win-win for kids.