Charter Reform Time

Today’s Emily Bazelon piece in Slate about district-charter cooperation in New Haven sounds pretty cool as these things go — a teacher exchange between the district and a charter network that seems to be a  win-win for both parties.  I’m told that something similar is going on in Denver, with three CMOs helping train district teachers to become district principals.  (Nothing similar that I know of in Chicago, though I’d be happy to be wrong.)

But the also article reminds me that that there’s a second, behind-the-scenes battle going on over charter schools in addition to the public one going on out in the open between districts and charters.   It may be more important than the one going on out in public.  I’m not sure the good guys are winning, or seem to have much of a chance.  Basically, charter school reformers have lost control of their movement. Nowhere may this be clearer than in Chicago.

This second battle is basically taking place between charter school operators (CMOs, state associations, charter ideologues) and charter school reformers (a more diffuse group including authorizers, think tank folks, and a small subset of high-performing operators).

Even if you’re not charterphobic, it’s pretty clear that the charter operators want to build and run as many charters as possible as freely as possible, with as few constraints and little oversight as can reasonably be expected.  Their focus is on creating immediate choices for parents.  They won an amazing gift from the Obama administration when its Race To The Top made eliminating charter caps a top priority without any equally clear consideration for quality, performance, diversity, or anything else.  The operators have been struggling to deal with their quality problems, which is understandably hard to do given it basically boils down to self-policing during a land rush.

The charter school reformers, by comparison, are interested in charter schools for their effects on the rest of the public school system, short- and long-term.  They’re the folks who are working with districts in New Haven and Denver, who signed onto the Gates-funded charter-district compact and have actually done things like adopting a single application form and deadline for district and charter schools.  They’re the ones who want both short-term alternatives for parents but they also want to revamp the districts rather than creating an alternative charter universe.

This second group is by far in the minority, far as I can tell, and has much less influence than their counterparts.   The folks focused on charter operations and expansions dominate the national association representing charter schools, which is a membership organization, and seem to dominate at the statehouse level.  And for one brief, inexplicable moment that we have been paying for the past three years, they seem to have hypnotized the Obama administration.

Of course, there’s lots of overlap, rhetorical and real.  Nina Rees, the new president of NAPCS, talks about quality every time she talks about expansion.  Greg Richmond, the head of NACSA (for whom I’ve done occasional consulting), talks about the importance of providing choices for parents in the short term even as he’s urging greater attention to quality.  The new INCS guy, Andrew Broy, is supposed to be on this end of the spectrum but there’s only so much reform his members will tolerate. We haven’t seen much yet.

The tipping point may be the new, CMO 2.0 folks coming into the charter space — the Rocketships, with their low-cost teacher models and quick expansion plans.  Are Rocketship et al out to be the next KIPPs or the next White Hats?  Will the new entrants into blended and online charters tip the scales towards charter expansion basically in isolation form district school systems, or towards charter-district collaboration?

Now you can see why I’m so pessimistic.

Adapted from TWIE.


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  • from a CPS teacher reader, via email, about the new haven article and what happened there vs. is happening here:

    1. He educated himself, determined to find out why the Amistad charter school worked, he joined its board and learned the how and why of it's success.

    2. He called in the local union president to build a relationship for collaboration.
    “We concentrated a lot on school change and how you go about it,” Taylor said. “You don’t go in and start blowing things up. You have to be skilled at building relationships and credibility. You have to know how to build student motivation.”
    This is a quote by someone the mayor intitially butted heads with and later joined forces with.

    3. He involved teachers in the process from the bottom up regarding change and evaluation, something I have never seen in the 12 years I have worked for CPS.

    Perhaps the new CPS contract might help achieve some of the above with teacher input written into contract on evaluation. However, CPS has always been top down and even more so with mayor running things with a hand picked board. Chicago is world unto it's own on so many levels.

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