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Nelson Smith: Charter Schools’ Chief Advocate

The president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools discusses the state of the charter school movement today and the challenges that lie ahead.

Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

This is both a heady and a daunting time for the charter school movement. While the Obama administration has given the movement its biggest boost ever, having declared that states with caps on the number of charters allowed with not be looked upon favorably when Race to the Top applications are considered, Arne Duncan is counting on the movement’s help in turning around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over the next several years. We spoke with Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about the state of the charter school movement today and the challenges that lie ahead.

Q: Arne Duncan said in a speech at the National Charter Schools Conference in June, “Charter schools are public schools serving our children with our money. Instead of standing apart, charters should be partnering with districts, sharing lessons, and sharing credit.” What should charters be doing, or doing better, to create this kind of partnership with local school districts?

The first thing to understand is that about half the charter authorizers in the country are in fact school districts—local school boards, or county school boards, and so forth. And that’s a fact that’s often overlooked in this process. So there’s already a close relationship between many charter schools and the districts that authorize them. For the rest of the schools that are authorized by state-level bodies or universities, or other kinds of alternative authorizers, those schools are typically their own local education agencies, and they may operate with more autonomy than the ones chartered directly by districts. The challenge for charter schools and for districts is find some common ground.

Charter movement people have gotten a little skeptical about the big urge to cooperate more with districts and to share what we do with districts because the resistance, frankly, has usually come from the other side. I think the best quote I’ve ever heard about this is attributed to Yvonne Chan, the founder of the first conversion charter school in California, the Vaughn 21st-Century School, and she said, “I’m always asked, ‘When are we going to see ripples from your innovation?’” and she said, “‘You can’t see ripples if the lake is frozen.” I think that makes a very good point—that many districts, even those that have created charter schools, refuse to draw on any lessons learned there. And honestly, it has to work the other way too.

I think the Project for School Innovation in Boston, for example, which was actually created by a charter school, is a good example of the two-way street that we ought to see. It brings educators together from the charter schools and from the traditional public school system to try and share best practices. I’m also on the board of a school here in D.C., the E.L Haynes Public Charter School, that has a program that reaches out to teachers in the traditional system as well. So these are perhaps small examples, and we ought to be looking for ways to make this conscious sharing of innovation and sharing of best practices a more routine thing.

What would you say are the characteristics of these and other school districts or local school organizations that have best negotiated that successful partnership?

First of all, leadership is absolutely crucial. A superintendent, school board, and other top officials who see charters as a threat to their turf are going to react by calcifying what they’re already doing, rather than by trying to respond in a creative way. You see the right kind of response in a number of places. In New York City, for example, Joel Klein—who, full disclosure, is on my board—has aggressively courted the best charter operators in the country to come to New York and open schools, and he said that he wants New York to be a Silicon Valley for charter schools. But he’s then used the power of their examples to motivate reform more broadly throughout the system.

Similarly, here in D.C., Michelle Rhee, who spoke to our national conference in June, said that the fact that you have excellent charter schools in some of the toughest parts of the city is something that she can use as an example to her own troops to say that we can’t make excuses because of the part of town that kids live in or the baggage they might bring from home.

On a more functional level, a few years back when charter schools first began going into Chula Vista, Calif., the superintendent at the time, Libby Gill, and her staff decided to try to change what they were doing as a positive response. The story they tell is that the landscaping division suddenly realized that they had lost customers to the charter schools and that they could shop elsewhere. So they had to become more competitive and do a better job and win that business back.

I think you see something of the same thing in Milwaukee, where the presence of charter schools created an environment where much of the budget of the central office there is now built by purchasing decisions from the schools rather than from the top down.

Finally, Arne Duncan in Chicago, when he was there—I think his Renaissance 2010 program is deeply rooted in the charter school accountability system. He had in Chicago a group of high-performing charter schools that are held accountable according to a time-limited contract, and he basically looked at some of the larger, more dysfunctional schools in the system, and he began closing them down and replacing them not just with charter schools but with small and more community-centered and thematic smaller schools, some run by charter operators, some run by the city, some run on contract.

So all of these are different ways in which district leadership has responded in positive and creative ways to the presence of a charter movement in their towns.

Do you see more pressure now being placed on traditional school districts to be more open, to be more receptive to that give and take, now that the Obama administration, and Arne Duncan specifically, has come out so strongly in favor of charters?

I think most of the administration’s effort is directed at the state level rather than at the district level. In other words, the point of leverage for them is the state funding through the ARRA, the stimulus bill, and they’ve made it clear that openness to charters and lifting the artificial constraints on their growth should be a key part of any reform package that is proposed for those funds. So there is some more emphatic leadership coming out of the White House and the DOE on this point.

I think the real pressure on districts is coming not from Washington but from parents, because in so many cities, especially, although we have charters in suburbs and rural areas as well, but especially in cities, you’re seeing so many parents make the choice to put their kids in a charter school. And that can be ignored only up to a point.

I think the real pressure on districts is coming not from Washington but from parents.

There has to come a point when a district says, “What could we be doing differently? What do we have to do to compete successfully with the charter schools that are going up in our midst?” We annually do a survey of the market share. As of late 2008 there were 13 cities where charter school kids accounted for more than 20 percent of the public school population. That’s up from six cities the year before. So increasingly, charters are a significant portion of the delivery system for public education in major cities, and it is hard for district leadership to not notice that.

You said on NPR’s Tell Me More that charters receive 22 percent less funding than traditional schools. Can you explain what that means?

First of all, we’re going to have new data in the new year to update those figures, which are now three or four years old. And that is, first of all, a national average of the states that were studied in a report for the Fordham Institute, I think in 2005. The variance is much greater in some communities, and I have reason to believe that the new data may show an even larger gap.

The largest single component of that is facilities financing. Charter schools, in almost all cases, are incorporated as nonprofits, and are not part of the government, if you will. So they don’t typically have access to state capital budgets for facilities needs. That means that they have to depend either on dedicated facilities financing from the state, or private lenders, or as is most typical, simply going into their operating budgets and taking money that should go into the classroom or other uses and dedicating it to bricks and mortar. There are only 13 or 14 states and the District of Columbia that provide any dedicated stream of revenue for facilities, and in most cases they are woefully inadequate compared to the actual costs schools have. So that creates a big dent in the budget for many, many charter schools.

Now in cases where they’re chartered by the district, you may see a different relationship if the district regards them as its responsibility. It may voluntarily work out some arrangement for sharing or providing facilities. In New York again, for example, something like 75 percent of the charter schools there, even those not authorized by Chancellor Klein, are housed in shared facilities provided by the district, and they don’t pay rent for those. That is not always a perfect arrangement, but it at least recognizes that these are public schools and that if there is an excess of public school facilities, they ought to have first dibs on it.

Do you have any idea how many charter schools have actually constructed new buildings versus moving into a vacant building or doing something like you just mentioned in New York?

It’s a great question, and I don’t have that answer. It’s very location specific. You find in growing districts—for example, in the Southwest—that sometimes they will help charters build a building because it takes some of their overcapacity, and it relieves the pressure on the district. In the Northeast and the Midwest, where you have a lot of overcapacity because of declining district enrollments, the question for charters there is “Can you legally get access to that building—can you work out some sort of a deal?” And it’s difficult if there’s no funding stream that enables you to pay rent. And, of course, the districts want to be able to capitalize on their structures. In California, under Proposition 39, there is a requirement that a district that authorizes a charter school provide comparable facilities. But it’s been very difficult to implement, and the failure of a couple of districts to implement it has resulted in lawsuits by the state charter organization. So I don’t have a single answer for that. A lot of schools have built their own buildings precisely because they couldn’t get free or low-cost access to existing public buildings.

I know that a number of traditional schools or school districts at least perceive the arrival of a charter in their midst as a drain on their financial resources, even if that charter is receiving X amount less funding. Do they have any legitimate beef in that regard? Are there some situations where, given the specific arrangement, a charter school really is draining funding from the traditional schools in that district?

There may be, but I think you really have to look beneath the surface. For example, if you have a small district that only has a couple of schools, and they lose significant population, and if the state law required that they send the dollars directly to the charter school, there may be a problem. But the fact is, number one, there is a lot of funding that charter schools don’t get to begin with. Most states have ruled certain funding streams off the table for charter schools, whether it’s transportation or textbook reimbursement or other things that commonly make up the state contribution to local districts.

Secondly, there are some cases in which the state directly funds charter schools or pays some of the cost that might be paid directly from district losses. The real question for me, though, is why when a student leaves a district, and charter schools are spending less than the district would, is that considered a net loss to the district. In other words, we’ve seen a number of analyses now that point out that there should be a net gain for the district when you have fewer students to educate and a portion of the funding for the departing student remains in the district. The argument that districts typically make in response is that the charter folks don’t understand their operations and that they can’t reduce costs in a way that we would expect, because they have infrastructure costs, multiyear contracts, and other costs that are hard to reduce. I think in the short term that argument may make some sense, but I can’t imagine any other industry or sector where you would give credibility to the argument that you can simply never reduce costs even though you’ve lost a significant portion of the customer base.

The bottom line is that districts themselves have to find more flexible and responsive ways of doing business themselves. I think that may be one of the long-term benefits of the charter movement—causing these industrial-style school districts to examine the ways they do business.

How do you see the recent report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, as impacting your work?

First, let me say in brief that we’ve raised some issues about the methodology in that study, which we think may accentuate the negative a little too much.

Where might our readers find those questions raised?

On our Web site []. The release that we issued on the day the study came out covers most of the issues we raised. That said, the study’s findings—the questions are ones of magnitude rather than of direction. In other words, everything we know about charter research says that there is a group of exceptionally high-performing schools at the top, there is a large group that is in the middle and generally moving up, and there is a band of schools at the bottom that should be closed yesterday. And that is the charter model—that you replicate and allow to flourish the ones that are doing great things for kids. You have to provide supports and create a level playing field and give every opportunity to the ones in the middle so that they can move toward the top, but you have to have really strict accountability for the ones at the bottom. I think we can probably all agree that schools that have been open for several years and are not showing student growth and are not meeting their goals should be closed, and someone else should have an opportunity to work with those kids.

I think the biggest question mark that this and much other charter research raises is what we do with the schools that are in the middle. Critics tend to say, “Well, they’re not doing any better than district schools.” But if you look at the schools that are in the middle, you’ll find that a great number of them are relatively new. The average age of charter schools is the country is only 5.9 years. So many of these schools are relatively new, still getting their footing. They’re typically working with far fewer financial resources than district schools, and my thought is that this massive number of schools, whether it’s 40 percent or 60 percent, that are in the middle are a very dynamic mixture and that their trajectory is upward toward improvement.

Secretary Duncan recently urged charter leaders to join an effort to turn around 5,000 of the lowest-performing schools. Not that Duncan’s necessarily expecting all of those 5,000 schools to become charters, but that still is a very large number, and I’m wondering if by including the charter school movement in this turnaround effort on such a massive scale, he’s asking the movement to be something that it really isn’t, or at least hasn’t been to this point.

He said in that speech that he was asking us to move a little bit out of our comfort zone. I think it’s a challenge we’re very willing to grapple with. Folks who operate our best charter schools go into the business because they care deeply about kids who are being served badly by their existing school settings.

The typical pattern is that they’ve opened in cities where those dysfunctional schools are located, and they’ve given those kids another opportunity down the street. The question is whether you can take a successful charter model and open it in an existing school with the conditions that will foster success. Simply taking the educational program of a successful charter and plopping it down in a school where the rules stay the same, and nothing changes in terms of the dynamics of the school is not going to work. We have to make sure that the charter folks who take on this challenge can start their programs at the new site with integrity, that they will have control over staffing, that they will have control over how money is spent and how long the day is and what the calendar looks like and all these other factors that have led to the success of their own models.

So I think the bottom line is a lot depends on what local administrators and district administrators do and whether they’re willing to provide the space and the conditions for this terrific charter schools to succeed in these school buildings that have not seen success before.

Are there enough administrators and teachers willing to step up and get on board with an expanded charter school movement? You spoke about the high level of interest among parents. Is there that same high level of interest among potential administrators and teachers?

Human capital is a big challenge for us if you just consider the number of schools we need to open at current rates. If the movement expands significantly, and we actually did a report on the leadership challenge in this respect last year, we might need as many as 14,000 or 16,000 school leaders in the coming decade. But what gives me hope is that I know there are legions of actual and potential teachers and leaders who are terrifically interested in professional opportunities that working in a charter school can provide.

We did a statement last year on teacher leadership in charter schools that opens with a vignette of John King, who was the managing partner at Uncommon Schools, one of our most successful nonprofit charter networks, talking about the fact that for every opening in their schools, they get something like eighty teacher applications. And these are typically teachers who are coming from a highly structured, collective bargaining environment, coming to work in a school setting where they will have a one-page, at-will agreement. But he said they do that because they want to work in a school that is succeeding with disadvantaged kids, and they want to be working next to people who care about the kids and who care about their success as much as they do. So I think there are a lot of good people who will want to work in an environment that is more professionally satisfying and really has the opportunity for success ahead.

—Don Parker-Burgard