The Rift Among Charter Schools

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It’s a surprisingly challenging moment for the charter school movement. In August, Education Next—an education policy journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford—released its 11th annual public opinion poll examining Americans’ views on K-12 education. They reported a stunning 12-percentage-point drop in support for charters from spring 2016 to spring 2017—from 51 percent to 39 percent. African-American support fell from 46 percent to 37 percent, and Hispanic support fell from 44 percent to 39 percent.

A Gallup survey released a week later found growing partisan divides on charters, with Democratic support standing at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support, by contrast, has remained steady over the five years at 62 percent. While Gallup’s senior editor, Lydia Saad, suggested that Democratic support may have declined because chartering has become more closely tied to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, the Education Next staff said they found little evidence of a “Trump effect” because in their survey, support from both parties fell.  

“If the decline in support were related to Trump’s support of the concept, I would have expected it to occur primarily among Democrats, and that’s not what we see,” Martin West, Education Next’s editor-in-chief told Education Week. “I would also expect there to be similar changes in opinion about other policies that the president has embraced, especially other school choice policies, which is not what we see.”

How much stock should charter advocates (and politicians) put in one or two national surveys? Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, published a provocative essay this month entitled, “The charter-schools movement needs to stop alienating Republicans.” Citing the new Education Next results, Petrilli argues that charter advocates should focus on regaining GOP support, and suggests doing so by tamping down social justice rhetoric (such as closing achievement gaps and alleviating systemic inequalities), by emphasizing parental choice and personal freedom (i.e., that charters liberate families from their government-assigned schools), and by touting that most charters are non-union. “If we charter advocates want to maintain conservative and Republican support for these life-changing schools, we need to remember who our friends are—and help them remember why they liked us in the first place,” he writes.

Others have looked at wavering public support and pointed to for-profit charters as a model that may be hurting the reputation of the broader movement. “I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters,” John King, the former secretary of education under Obama told Chalkbeat this past summer. Others have suggested that virtual charters—known for producing notably low academic outcomes—could be hurting public opinion. “It’s not fair to the charter school community to have these [test score] anomalies in the mix,” Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told The 74. “In a lot of states the performance of the virtual charter schools are considered outliers when you compare them to the average brick and mortar school.”

And now, in a surprising new development, so-called “independent charters”—freestanding schools not run by networked chains— have also begun to organize collectively. They’re saying their interests and reputations can suffer when they’re lumped in with the rest of the charter movement.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 60 percent of the nation’s charters are independent, down from 69 percent in 2011. Well-known nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs)—which make up 24 percent of the sector—include Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First. For-profit networks (called education management organizations, or EMOs) make up the rest, and include networks such as K12 Inc. and Academica.

Despite comprising more than half of all charters, independent charter schools rarely dominate the press narratives, and seldom attract the same level of enthusiasm from philanthropists and advocacy groups. Independent charter supporters say it’s because their schools aren’t focused on growth, scale, and replication—priorities among mainstream education reformers.

Last week, leaders of independent charter schools gathered together in New York City for the first-ever Independent Charter School Symposium. Amy Shore, of the Center for Educational Innovation, which co-sponsored the conference, emphasized that her group is not anti-CMO, but wants to focus on helping “the mom-and-pop store survive next to Walmart.” Part of the challenge, she explains, is advancing a different idea about what constitutes meaningful reform. “I’d say a lot of the big foundations are looking at how to achieve scale,” she says. “There’s an argument that if it cannot expand, then why would we invest money in it?” But Shore stresses that “there’s a whole other theory of social change” that says if a majority of charters are independent, and there are all kinds of different flowers growing, “why are we trying to make them all roses?”

Steve Zimmerman, founder of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization representing New York City’s independent charters and the conference’s other co-sponsor, says he started his group in response to what he saw as too much focus on standardized testing—a trend he believes stifles innovation, collaboration, and charters’ original promise.

Zimmerman says a turning point for independent charters came with the election of Donald Trump. “Some things became more clear for us, and one of them was that we saw too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration,” he says.

At the conference, held at a hotel in Queens late last week, attendees discussed forming their own national organization of independent charters, to advocate for their interests and challenge the prevailing narrative around education reform. When this group would launch, and what it would actually look like, is not entirely clear. As Zimmerman admits, they’d face an uphill battle for funding, as the major financial backers of the movement prefer supporting charter networks that can grow. “They want to see replication, they want to see leverage,” he says. “We understand that the likelihood is that we will never, ever get money from those guys because we do not represent scale. We represent the kinds of schools that people want to send their kids to.”

As an example, Zimmerman points to Sidwell Friends, the renowned private school in Washington, D.C., that boasts such alumni as Malia Obama and Chelsea Clinton. “We want our schools to be like where the Obamas sent their kids to,” he says. “There is no Sidwell Friends 2, Sidwell Friends 3. They don’t do that. You grow a great school culture, one at a time, and it takes years.”

This year Florida legislators passed a controversial omnibus bill—HB 7069—which revamps many aspects of chartering across the state. One of its most significant provisions involved making it easier for national CMOs to enter communities with low-performing traditional public schools.

At the Independent Charter School Symposium, Christopher Norwood, founder of the Florida Association of Independent Schools—which represents freestanding charters, not CMOs or EMOs—explained how the legislative debates around HB 7069 highlighted problems independent charters face in his state. While Norwood estimates that 80 percent of what his group supports aligns with the Florida Charter School Alliance—the state’s dominant charter advocacy organization—he believes “it’s that 20 percent” that will make or break independent charters. “The way [HB 7069] was written, it was written for outside companies to come in,” he says. “If we had more power in that decision-making, we would not have wanted that to happen.”

Norwood and Zimmerman anticipate pushback to their efforts to form their own organization, but say they have little choice but to push forward.

“The National Alliance truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools…but the truth is they can’t really represent interests of independent charters because their funders really believe in the network model,” Zimmerman says.

Nonetheless, in a statement provided to The American Prospect, Vanessa Descalzi, a spokesperson for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says that the organizers of the Independent Charter Schools Symposium have their full support. “The National Alliance represents all public charter schools—including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites—and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she says. The new group of independent schools “will be a welcomed voice” in the charter movement, she says, while adding that “advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA.”

Ultimately, leaders of independent charters are trying to figure out how to save, or redefine, the brand of the charter school movement, much as Michael Petrilli is when he talks about winning back GOP support, or John King is when he tries to distance the movement from for-profit networks.

In Norwood and Zimmerman’s eyes, extricating independent charters from what they describe as “corporate aspects” of the movement could help restore progressive support for charter schooling. The networked chains and their advocates “win battles but they’re losing the war—if the war is hearts and minds of people, and the war of ideas,” says Zimmerman. Though he acknowledges independent charters align with CMOs on many issues, and cites equitable funding as an example, he says for now that independent charters have to carve out their own space, and create their own national voice.

Norwood expects CMO leaders to push back on their efforts to organize independently. “If you take away independently operated charter schools from a certain organization [like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools], what are they left with?” he asks. “Now they’re exposed. Now they’re all management companies. Now they can’t hide behind [us].”

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