Celebrating Uncommon Schools
The nation’s charter school movement was born in Minnesota 19 years ago when parents and community members noticed a number of urban students were faltering academically. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is the leading nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement. Its mission is to “lead public education to unprecedented levels of academic achievement for all students by fostering a strong charter sector.” President and CEO Peter C. Groff recently spoke with District Administration.
DA: What is the overall landscape of charter schools in America now?
Groff: The landscape is very rich. I think we’ve seen steady growth from that moment in Minnesota almost 20 years ago to now, where we’re seeing in many areas, communities and parents and teachers coming together and saying we want to have a different type of public school, based on language arts or math or science, the arts, or just have the ability to change curriculum as students come in with all different sets of needs. Now, people are looking at best practices and seeing what’s working. And they want a school specific to the needs of the community. There are 420,000 students on waiting lists for charters now. There still is a great need for more charters.
DA: Charters and districts have begun to collaborate, something that was unheard of in the past, but it’s more about administrative services, such as sharing bus routes or food services. Is this important?
Groff: I think it is important. I think it shows that some of the resentment from the district level particularly has gone away. With innovative and thoughtful district leadership as seen in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City and D.C., folks are saying these schools are here to stay, and we need to figure out how to work with them to best serve students. Local leadership and school boards and districts are beginning to work together, trying to figure it out and be collaborative. Colorado, I think, was the first state to do that. Leadership at the district level is more concerned about what’s in the best interest of the kids, as opposed to the best interest of the administrators. A lot of new and aggressive superintendents are working in that direction.
DA: It’s obvious that collaboration on best instructional practices is limited. Should this agenda be pushed ahead, with more schools having a charter school mentality?
Groff: I think when you look at uncommon schools, and what they are doing around teacher practices and teacher preparedness, that this is going to help the district as a whole. And leadership is seeing that. The NACPS can help with the broader ideas of how to put together a collaborative, city-based strategy, but there are best practices all around the nation, and there is a rich environment for quality and growth.
DA: How does the Innovation Schools initiative, which you helped establish in Colorado while you were a state senator and that is now underway in Massachusetts, fit into this?
Groff: At the end of the day, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools wants to ensure that parents have a high-quality public school option, whether it’s a charter, innovation, magnet or traditional. With that said, what I think is unique about the charter situation is the kind of grand bargain you get when schools have autonomy and greater accountability. Innovative schools are charter-like, and they are held accountable for their actions, but they may not have the same autonomy and accountability as charters. There is still a difference.
DA: What would you like to see in the next era for charter schools?
Groff: I would like to see innovation schools held to the same accountability as charters, and I think all public schools should be held to a high level of accountability. If our charter schools are not performing, we shut them down. I’d like to see that done across the country. I’d love to see that federal funding gap of roughly $2,100 per kid [charters, on average, receive about $2,100 less per student in public dollars than traditional schools do] be closed. I would like to see facilities given [or built] for charters so they don’t have to be located in vacant warehouses or in closed-down nursing homes or church basements.
But at the end of the day, schools will still be site-managed, and those dollars will flow to sites created in partnership with the community, businesses, parents and teacher leaders. If we were to grow at the level we’ve been growing, in 10 years, we’ll have 5,000 more charter schools, so we’ll need 5,000 more school leaders and 100,000 new teachers. You have to find teachers and staff who are willing to buy in to the school leader’s vision. You might want to teach, but you might not want kids calling you on weekends, or have year-round school. To be willing to buy in to the vision is difficult