March 2, 2000
Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education
THE REVEREND FLOYD FLAKE: The timeliness of today's event is illustrated by yesterday's edition of the USA Today, which indicates that education in the United States is still not equal. It says that 40 years after the Supreme Court's decision on Brown v. Board of Education, public schools still fail to provide minorities the same quality of education that they provide to white students, according to a recently released report. As I introduce our speakers, it is important that we keep in mind that so many young people in our urban communities are not getting a proper education.
When I first opened Charter Schools in Action, I turned to the index and saw a section that spoke of how charter schools could positively impact community development. After reading the book I cannot help but conclude that the authors' three years of work has been not only a yeoman's task, but also one that has been well worth the time and effort. The entire experience was certainly rewarding to those who trusted them enough to put money towards making this project become a reality.
I've spoken with the authors at various occasions, and I have been with them in various parts of the country. I know them both to be extremely capable and gifted. Checker Finn is the John Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, as well as being the President of the Thomas Fordham Foundation. Bruno Manno is a Senior Fellow in Education of the Casey Foundation. The two have made some very important contributions to the national debate on school choice, and it is my pleasure and privilege to introduce Bruno Manno as our first speaker:
MR. BRUNO MANNO: There are three things that Checker and I would like to do this afternoon. I'll do the first two and Checker will do the third. We're going to address three points. I will briefly explain the research we performed and then will outline our findings. Checker will talk a little bit about what's new and different about this book and the contribution that we think we make to the national discussion on choice in education.
Our book emerges out of nearly four years of immersion in the world of charter schools: those independent public schools of choice that are freed from rules, but accountable for results. There are now approximately 1,700 charter schools in the U.S. that enroll upwards of 300,000 students in 34 states and the District of Columbia. In New York State there are three charter schools that are in operation, two here in New York City and one in Albany. Come this September, however, there could be as many as 20 and perhaps more.
Our book began as a two-year research project that we called Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education. We endeavored to examine the practical and the policy issues that surround the creation of charter schools. During the course of our charter school sojourn we visited over 100 schools, interviewed literally hundreds of people who both support and oppose the charter school movement, surveyed thousands of parents, students and teachers and read just about everything that we could get our hands on in regard to the charter school movement, from newspaper articles to state and federal reports.
The purpose of Charter Schools in Action is to introduce the reader to what the reinvention of public education via charter schools, an option that we think is somewhere between the government run system that we presently have and the total privatization of education.
The twelve chapters in the book are organized into two parts. The first part is called "Charter Schools in Action" and depicts what we know about charter schools. The second part of the book asks the question, "What do charter schools mean for public education?" That section of the book is entitled, "Renewing Public Education." We step back and view what is happening beyond the perimeter of the individual schools, and what the charter movement means for developing a renewed public education system in America. The last chapter of the book tries to paint a picture of public education in the year 2010, reinvented along charter school precepts.
I will quickly run through a couple of the that are important in setting up a discussion of charter schools:
First, laws are very important because they set the context for what happens in a charter school. Here in New York, the state gives a lot of autonomy to the schools that could be created under the auspices of the law. We also have a couple of different chartering authorities that allow people to group together and to go different ways when it comes to approving a charter application.
Laws make a difference. We discuss this at length, and New York actually has a rather strong law. The one downside to it is that you're capped at the number of charter schools you can have in New York. At this point it is set at a hundred. The cap must be raised so that the state does not remain bound to an arbitrary limit on charter schools.
Second, we have a lot of descriptive information on these schools. Most of the 1,700 schools have been created from scratch. Over 70 percent of them are new. There are, however, some district conversion schools, and there are also some private schools that have converted to charter status. (That's technically not possible here in New York State, but it is possible in other states.) The average age of these schools at this point is 2.7 years old. In other words, they're very young, even though the charter movement has been around now for almost ten years.
Most charter schools are small: 65 percent of them report fewer than 200 students, compared to 17 percent of district schools.
Who teaches in these schools? In terms of certification, most charter schools mirror regular public schools, though it is true that where permitted some of these schools are taking advantage of the opportunity to hire non-certified teachers.
Charter schools also differ when it comes to the way they determine grade levels. They're much more likely to be K-8, K-12 or 9-12 than regular district schools. They configure themselves differently.
The single most prevalent reason for founding a charter school is that people are interested in realizing an alternative vision for schooling. The second most popular reason is that there is a special population that needs to be serviced. Many charter schools are being founded with the vision of providing people with educational opportunities that they don't have within the conventional district structure.
Throughout our research, Checker and I discovered that most of the allegations against charter schools turn out to be false or exaggerated. Many of you have heard of the so-called creaming effect of charter schools, or the allegation that these schools don't adequately serve disabled and minority youth. Both of these assertions are unfounded. These schools serve, in terms of the traditional measure of poverty, kids who qualify for the federal lunch program. These charter schools serve the same number of kids in poverty across the board as U.S. public schools in general.
When you look at minorities you see that public schools in the 27 states that have charter schools are 41 percent minority, whereas the charter schools are 52 percent minority students. These common allegations just don't hold any water.
Let me just summarize my part of this presentation by saying that this book defends what we think is the principle function of public education, but it argues that public education needs a top to bottom makeover of the ground rules and institutional practices in which it engages.
Our purpose in writing the book is not really to advocate charter schools per se. We're not here to promote any particular kind of school design or pedagogy, though we probably do have our own inclinations when it comes to that. Charter Schools in Action argues for the importance of giving the charter school movement its mechanism a fair chance at succeeding.
We believe that the charter school mechanism must be given a fair examination, and its three central tenets—choice, autonomy and accountability—should be used to found a new model for public education: a new model that provides all kids an opportunity to achieve a first class education.
Checker will now address the contribution this book makes to the charter school and education debate:
MR. CHESTER E. FINN, JR.: It surprised me when New York State passed a charter law. I actually lost an informal bet with Mr. Tom Carroll of the Empire Foundation, because I had wagered that this would be the 50th state out of 50 to find itself with a charter law.
I believe that thanks are due to Governor George Pataki for playing hardball on this issue. This measure gives the people of New York a chance to try this important educational innovation.
We've already discussed the current dimensions of the charter school movement. It's also important to point out that it's growing fast. The 1,700 schools that are in operation this year are up from 1,300 last year. 400 schools were added in the one year.
In Dayton, Ohio—where the foundation I'm involved with does a fair amount of activity—we're up to seven charter schools in only two years since passage of charter school legislation. Additionally, as many as six more could open in the third year, and there have been 40 inquiries by people that think they might like to start schools themselves. Ohio also has a cap on the number of charters that can be created, so it remains to be seen what the upper bound of this trend will be.
It's also important to note that a critical mass is beginning to form in several places. This comes as a considerable surprise to us, because we sort of assumed that charters would be demo models and 'escape valves' for idiosyncratic people and special needs groups. Essentially, we thought that charter schools would remain on the periphery of the system.
Lo and behold, in the District of Columbia today one in every ten children is enrolled in a charter school. In Kansas City, Missouri in the second year of the program, 13-1/2 percent of all the kids in Kansas City are enrolled in charter schools. In the state of Arizona, which has the most open charter school movement in the country, one in five of all of the schools in the state is a charter school. Arizona is about five years into the program, and serious people are beginning to talk about what an all-charter system would look like, as opposed to a boutique charter phenomenon.
The education commissions in these states have begun to set out a couple scenarios for future governance of urban schools, and one of their scenarios is an all charter system.
Hugh Price, the President of the National Urban League, gave a speech suggesting that every single urban public school should be 'charterized.' The Osborne and Gabler people, the inventors of reinventing government, have been writing about what an all-charter system would look like. It is important that we begin to think about this notion.
I never thought that we would near this point in my lifetime. I ask you to read Chapter 12 of our book. When we authored it, we were engaging in a kind of wishful fantasy. I think, however, that the possibility that some district, some city, some place in America is going to say, "We are going to go all the way with charter schools and see how it works." It is going to happen somewhere, and soon. Then we will see how it works, and the results will be fascinating.
Just as nobody thought there'd ever be vouchers, they are now in place in two major cities and the state of Florida. The pace of innovation and reform is quite remarkable.
Before I tell you more about our book, let me address what we don't know and cannot answer conclusively. It's—of course—the $64,000 question about charter schools: "Do charter school kids learn more?"
The honest truth is that on a national basis, we do not know yet. The schools are too young: they're too new. The answers don't exist yet.
Having said that, let me read you a paragraph from The Rocky Mountain News—one of the two major Denver papers—which arrived on my desk three days ago from Colorado:
"Colorado charter schools deliver on their grandest promise by outpacing traditional schools in state standards tests. A major study by the State Department of Education found that charters on average scored ten to 16 percentage points higher than state averages. Two thirds to three quarters of charters also outperformed average scores of their home school districts and schools with similar demographics."
There are about 60 charters in Colorado now: some of them have been there for as many as five years. The state standards and tests are obviously the basis for this judgment about what's going on in Colorado.
We will have state level data coming out of other states regarding actual student achievement in the months and years to come, but the information is not yet available on a national level.
Charter Schools in Action breaks new ground in the education debate in three areas. First is the impact of charters on the traditional school system. (This is contained in Chapter 9.) We researched whether or not charters affect the regular and traditional schools, as well as serving their own kids effectively.
We lay out a four-tiered response by school systems to the idea of charter schools. The most rudimentary and widespread reaction by school systems is, "Kill this thing: Do not let it happen." The second response is, "It looks like it's going to happen, but can we keep it in a box." These respondents want to keep these schools few and weak. It is important to them that charts are regulated to the maximum degree so they have no room to maneuver.
The third response beginning to arise is, "We're stuck with charters. Can we, the public school system, compete with them?" Can we serve our clients better by doing things that will cause people to want to come back to our schools instead of going to charter schools? We're seeing this response in Dayton now that those seven charter schools are up and running.
The fourth response—not widespread, but not completely invisible, either— is, "Can the system use the charter opportunity to do things itself that it couldn't do under the traditional norms and regulations."
The superintendent of schools in Denver proposed that nine of Denver's schools be turned into charter schools. Under the charter law he has flexibility to innovate in ways that he couldn't under the traditional system.
This level of consciousness—the people who see opportunity instead of succumbing to the knee-jerk—is beginning to be visible in a few places. The third response is also beginning to be visible, especially in areas where there's a critical mass developing. The D.C. school system is hopelessly disorganized and inept, but with ten percent of the kids going to charter schools, public school administrators and the like cannot but be concerned. You are beginning to hear rumblings out of the D.C. school system of, "We have to compete with these choice options that are being made available to kids in our district."
I do think that we suggest some ways in which charters are beginning to affect the original system.
The second area in which we are covering previously unaddressed questions is the relationship between charter schools and their communities, and charter schools as community development events and institutions. Chapter 10 deals with charter schools as a kind of Toquevillean or Burkean creation of civil society in response to a need for the community to meet and to serve.
There are an astonishing number of different needs that the charter mechanism is now being brought in to meet. The authors of the charter school laws could not have imagined that these schools would be used in such innovative ways.
You might have predicted that charters would be used to meet the needs of disabled and poor kids. You might have predicted that a charter school would be used to anchor the activities of a local Hispanic community development group in south Phoenix. Would you have been able to predict that an Amish community in Kansas would creat a charter school in order to impart traditional values to their kids? Would you have imagined that in St. Louis refugees from Kosovo are going to get a charter school that linguistically and culturally caters to their needs? You simply couldn't have predicted that in rural Colorado hyper-consolidation of school districts would completely unravel. Towns and villages can get their own school back by using the charter law, instead of 'those people—literally—on the other side of the mountain' running their schools for them. They are using the charter mechanism to retrieve sovereignty. Nobody in the legislature who voted for a charter law imagined the amazing spectrum of possibilities that has emerged.
The last area where we think we may have broken some new ground is in the delicate, complicated and interminable topic of accountability. Many people say, "But are the schools accountable?" The schools are independent: How can they be accountable? Most people have in their minds only one concept of accountability, which is compliance accountability to regulatory bureaucracies. The fact that charters are not fully subject to compliance accountability of the regulatory sort gives these people the impression that they can't possibly be accountable.
These people are mistaken. Charter schools are accountable, first of all, to their customers. Second, they are accountable to the issuing body of the charter, whatever it may have been. Charter schools can be closed down either by customers who are not satisfied and pull their children out, or by the charter issuing body pulling the plug.
What we develop in the book is a new way of thinking about accountability that is not centered on compliance. We call it accountability through transparency. The essential notion is that various marketplaces produce accountability if they have good information about what is going on inside the school.
Imagine schools that pump out information about what they're doing, how well their policies are working, who's attending, what's being taught and what their money is being spent on. Imagine a school that pumps out information to all of its constituencies: the media, the parents, the regulators and the taxpayers. Imagine putting the information on a Web site so that everything you could want to know about every school is within a mouse click. If this were the case, you wouldn't need as much regulatory accountability through the compliance mechanism: people would be informed. Customers would pick the best schools. The media would expose the shortcomings of failing schools. A variety of things would occur through the transparency model.
Openness is an idea that regular public schools would benefit from as well. In particular, however, it would work for charter schools. The essential principle is to imagine an education world that's analogous to the business world. In the private sector, corporate information is subject to generally accepted accounting principles. That makes companies comparable to each other because they all follow the same accounting rules.
Imagine educational 'accounting principles': standard measures of student achievement, teaching methods and curriculum. In Chapter 6 we discuss measures that could be adopted so that schools were comparable to one another.
In concluding, I would like to make two final points. The Manhattan Institute is well known, and many of you are well known, for your interest in school choice. We believe charters are an important form of school choice. This is not the same as privatization, however. We are imagining a new form of public education, complete with public funding, public responsibility for getting kids educated and public accountability for results. Because of this, charters are unpalatable to 'full moon' voucher supporters. This presents us with a risk: that which the legislature giveth, the legislature can taketh away. There is a risk that this form of school choice won't last as it may be regulated to death. Of course, this could happen under vouchers as well.
Lastly, this being an election year, it's worth noting that all the candidates claim to be for charter schools. This is very interesting. There is nominal bipartisan support for charter schools. In some places, however, there does seem to be real bipartisan support for charter schools, but there's also a false support for charter schools, which manifests itself in this attitude: "We're for charter schools as long as they're subject to the following limits, rules and regulations, constraints and conditions." In our book we discuss how the Clinton administration may be a little two-faced on this topic: on one hand they want 3,000 charter schools, and on the other hand they want the Office for Civil Rights to make sure there are no differences between charter schools and regular district schools.
If we adopt Clinton's measures we could easily have 'fake' charter schools: They have the name on the door, but they don't have the reality of independence and freedom that are the essence of the charter mechanism.
QUESTION: Would you please address the areas of authorizations and certifications for teachers? In particular, in the area of authorizations of charter organizations, what does the information that you gathered suggest about African American academic achievement in public schools versus charter schools, and could you address the results of Afrocentric charter schooling?
In terms of certification of teachers is there any evidence or data to suggest that uncertified teachers do as good or better of a job than certified teachers in terms of raising academic achievement levels? For example, people who are not certified teachers but may be lawyers: how do they stack up against conventionally certified teachers.
MR. FINN: At this point we are not able to prove that an Afrocentric school is a better or worse school in terms of test scores than an Hispanic-centered school, a Core Knowledge school, or a progressive constructivist school. The information does not yet exist.
Someday we'll have the information: The more different kinds of schools there are, the more complete our information will become.
The situation is similar with teachers, and you question goes way beyond charter schools into the topic of general teacher certification in American education. Is teacher certification a good thing?
Private schools typically don't hire certified teachers, and many people think their academic results are superior. There are a thousand possible explanations for why their academic results may be superior, and teachers are only one factor. I don't think we know the answer to that question, either: No state has been willing to experiment with non-certified teachers in its public schools. This is one of these experiments that you're not "allowed" to conduct, and we may never know what the answer is because the forces of resistance are very strong.
MR. MANNO: It's also important to keep in mind the type of charter school you are looking at: namely, whether the school is a new school or a converted school or a private school. Each of these has a very different pattern when it comes to teachers.
The new schools—obviously—have a much higher percentage of non-certified teachers, whereas the conversion schools bring everyone with them into the new institutional arrangement. When thinking this issue through from the perspective of charters, you must try not to be too monolithic.
MR. FINN: Conversion schools have one advantage only: They also bring buildings with them. The single biggest start-up problem for a charter school is finding a place to put it. The conversion schools typically carry their building with them like a snail carries its shell around.
QUESTION: I have several quick points to make:
I think that charter schools are interesting, but I'm concerned that funds in education that should be going to improving the way regular public schools are run—that is, trying to get teaching loads changed, trying to repair schools, and trying to decrease class sizes—are being diverted to charter schools so that a very small segment of the population is satisfied. There are millions of other kids out there who should be able to benefit from having a principal who can hire and fire his own teachers—and the many other benefits that are derived from the charter system—who instead must struggle under the spectrum of rules and regulations that are currently applied to public schools.
Additionally, if we're going to ask principals to perform in public schools, they should be given latitude in managing them.
Thirdly, I've heard that many charter schools have had to raise considerable money to do the kinds of things that made them into quality institutions. That money is not available to public schools: This is over and above what's available.
My last point is that I was disappointed to hear that there's an Amish school and a Kosovar school, etc. I think we're marching right back to segregation.
MR. FINN: Well, the balkanization point is a really interesting one. I define segregation as something that is forced upon you against your will, and I define people coming together in a common pursuit of a common interest as civil society in action. I know people disagree on this point.
On the money point, to the best of anybody's knowledge, charter schools get on average about 80 percent of the funding of traditional public schools in operating dollars.
Charter schools, for variety of reasons—and many of these reasons are tucked away in federal and state formulae—are underfunded compared to regular public schools. In most states they are not given any capital funding at all. That's why they have to scrounge for a place to operate.
It's no surprise that charter schools have their hands out in search of additional funding. They are being starved fiscally by the funding formulas of the states that have given birth to them. It is certainly reasonable that they are seeking additional funding.
The first point—which is, of course, a huge issue—is where should you be putting your energy in terms of education reform. An awful lot of energy is going into efforts to transform the regular system. Governors, mayors, legislators, foundation dollars, and federal programs across the country are all pouring themselves into this effort.
The charter movement is a supplement to this effort, though in some places it may seem to be in conflict. However, I have yet to find a place where there isn't a lot of energy going into trying to transform the system.
The issue now is whether the system is going to be transformable: This comes to your theory of change. Behind any education reformer is at least a subliminal theory of change. What will cause change to occur?
Some people think change will be caused in the regular public school system by money, good will, political agitation and so on. Other people think change will occur through external forces: through competition, through alternatives, through marketplace forces, etc. You have to declare your theory of change in this field before your strategy makes any sense.
I have not quite given up the theory of change that says that a crusading superintendent and a dynamite school board that is fortunate enough to have a favorable political framework around it might change something. That circumstance is so scarce in America, however, that I am very close to abandoning that theory of change, and I am close to saying that change, if it comes, is going to come from outside the system, not from within it.
MR. MANNO: When we think about the relationship between the system and charters, we don't often think about one of the positive effects that charters are having. Namely, the charter movement is bringing back into the fold many students who had left the system when their parents became disgusted with the state of public education in America.
We know, for example, that four percent of the charter students in Massachusetts have come back into public education from private systems. We know that in New Jersey 18 percent of charter students come from private schools.
If we begin to think about the charter movement as a sort of effort to invite people back into the system who—for a variety of reasons—have left the system, we can begin to broaden the base of support that people have for charter schools. This doesn't have to be a one-way street.
MR. FINN: Implicit in what we are saying is that if you care about the future of private schools in America, you might want to be looking over your shoulder at the charter phenomenon. It could turn out that their impact on private schools is greater than their impact on public schools.
QUESTION: Do you think that charter schools will act as a catalyst to improve the public schools?
MR. FINN: If you cannot get to stage three—that is, as long as the local community is stuck in the 'kill it' or 'keep it in a box mode'—it won't be a catalyst because the effort is to stamp out charter schools.
If you get to stage three—which is 'compete back with them'—then you will ask, "What's got to happen before we can compete back with these charter schools?" Maybe we need some regulatory relief. Maybe we need some different kinds of leadership. Maybe we need some of those things the charters have. Before people reach this level of thinking, they need to be a little more open minded about charter schools.
MR. MANNO: There are examples of this happening. If you go to Houston or Chicago, they are using the charter strategy as a way of doing something in the district that has carryover effects to the rest of the schools.
This is a stage four response. There are even a couple of places—small, admittedly—that have become charter districts. There are people beginning to make the connection between what's going on in the charter world and the implications that that has for what is going on in district schools.
QUESTION: I have just one quick comment and then a question.
The strength of the New York charter law is largely due to the writings, research and inspiration drawn from the authors of this book. Additionally, our ability as a state to implement the law now is also largely because of the writings the research of the two authors.
In fact, they have continued to help us in actually deciding what makes for a good school and what does not. I would like to thank the authors on behalf of the children of New York.
The question that I have is why we have more charter schools outside New York City than inside New York City. How do we get district leaders in the education establishment from stage one and two to stages three and four? Will they accept this and engage in competition with charters?
MR. FINN: There's no recipe for getting districts to welcome the departure of their students and dollars. Their natural inclination is to hold onto their students and hold onto their dollars. They will not ever greet this with enthusiasm.
If they do ever get to a stage three response and begin to compete back, then they'll begin to see some merit in this effort.
I'm afraid this is a sort of Realpolitik. I think that you get the establishment's attention by swatting it on the head with a two by four. It is the existence of charters and the competition posed by charters that is going to cause districts to become aware of the need to compete and the need to see this as something they can possibly use to their own ends. It is not going to be spontaneous, except in the tiny collection of places that happen to have pioneering and innovative superintendents who see how they can use this charter phenomenon.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, the school system has just chartered three schools because they've discovered they can do things they need to do in order to serve their students under Ohio law. They also happen to have a foresighted, reform-minded board and a dynamic, energetic, smart, reform-minded superintendent. How many American cities can be described in those terms?
MR. MANNO: In a city like Philadelphia, many of the charters are being started by community development corporations who are organizing the community in order to do something quite different. They've done all they can do on the economic front. If they want to bring people back into the city they need good schools.
They see these schools as the venue for transforming neighborhoods: the pressure is really coming from residents. The civil society mediating institution argument comes to bear on this issue.
QUESTION: Are the teachers' unions trying to address the issues of the charter school movement, the full school choice movement, and home schooling standards? Where are the unions going and how do you see their progress in the near and long term future?
MR. FINN: That's a topic for a whole day in its own right: there are many facets to it.
Basically, if you go beyond the speeches of their national presidents and look at the political actions that unions are engaged in at the state and local levels, they are trying to kill this thing, minimize it or re-regulate it in every way they can.
There are one or two localized exceptions around the country. The caps in the number of charter schools on a state by state basis are because of unions. In every single state that has a charter law, the legislators who supported its passage had to cut some sort of deal with the unions in order to proceed.
In a more constructive vein, the unions have in a few cases started their own charter schools. This is a very interesting development. The NEA sponsors four or five charter schools in various states. They're trying to use these as labs, and also to prove that they can do it, too. The AFT has also helped in one or two places—in Texas, for example —to get charter applications written.
If you look at our 'fantasy' chapter—Chapter 12—you'll see that we suggest that ten years from now the charters will have transformed unions so that they are having to organize school by school. In 'our version' of the future, the citywide bargaining contract is a thing of the past.
QUESTION: There are people here that are interested in charter schools in New York and what's happening in them. I was wondering if you could give people some ideas of what they might be able to do to help the cause here in New York.
MR. FINN: We've got a chapter on how to help your charter schools.
The charter schools need financial help and they need political help. When you boil it right down to what they need to thrive, you see that they need resources of various kinds—dollars, technical assistance: things that donors, businesses, foundations, and individuals can give them. They need help running political interference for them at both the local level and the state level, so that when they get the charter, they aren't harassed to death.
It is amazing what a local government can do to kill a school before it actually opens its doors by using things like zoning laws that weren't really contemplated under the charter law. Figure out how to give them good services and dollars on the one hand, and how to give them political shielding on the other hand.
MR. MANNO: If you're a donor, you can certainly give direct assistance to schools. There are a variety of planning expenses that they must in some form support. You can give assistance to the intermediaries that are created to work with the schools, like the New York State Charter School Resource Center.
There are numerous opportunities for donors on the facility side. This is the biggest issue that these schools face.
Thank you for all of your questions and for participating in today's event.