"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chartering Possibilities - First in a Series

This is the first blog posting in a three part series. Parts two and three will run Wednesday and Thursday.

I'm going to put one debate on hold during this series in order to bring up an entirely different debate. Here's what I'm going to put on the side:

Charter schools: good or bad?

Never mind that this either/or debate doesn't leave room for much gray area. Only the dimmest charter school advocates believe charters are the ultimate solution (they currently serve fewer than 5% of students - and scaling up quickly is easier said than done). Even those described as "anti-charter" often support some charters either because of their pedagogical approaches, mission, or the fact that they serve a population not served well by traditional public schools. We're going to put all of this to the side. I reassure you there's a reason for this.

Let's say you decide, "Yes, I like charter schools. I like them a lot." For a little wrinkle, let's say you happened to have a bank account with, oh, $30-some billion dollars and your rich friend (with another $30 billion or so) promised to give you the majority of his fortune. Other like-minded philanthropists are engaged in the sector already, so you join with them to create new organizations (some that exist purely to give your money away). You're interested in reforming public K-12 education (who isn't?) and you've stepped aside from your previous work to run your foundation.

You pick out the "top talent" you can find, assemble your team of experts, and begin tossing money around. Millions here, millions there - who's really counting? You have billions - with a B - and most of your ventures are supported by governmental funds (ie tax dollars supporting K-12 public education).

It doesn't take a genius to see that I'm referring largely to Bill Gates and his foundation. Aside from the figures ($30 billion, etc), I could be talking about a number of different foundations: Broad, Walton, Gates, Fisher, Dell, etc. Most of them are West Coast philanthropies and new money men, although there are some East Coast folks and even some old money philanthropies involved.

Anyways, your team of experts needs to help you dole out your cash - it's far too big of a job for one man to do, and you don't know all that much about public K-12 education anyways. Your advisors come back with two solutions: small schools and charter schools. Millions is poured into the small schools movement (which I won't discuss here - see Mike Klonsky's work for a more thorough discussion, particularly Small Schools). Millions poured into the charter school idea.

But not all charter ideas are the same, and there are some very different visions of how we'd go about setting up charter schools. Here's a quick list with some very brief descriptions:
  1. Education Management Organizations: often for-profit supporters of charter chains (Edison).
  2. Charter Management Organizations: the non-profit version of EMOs.
  3. Stand-alone charters: set up by teachers, community groups, or school districts.
What you choose here makes a big difference: will it be a top-down approach, or a grassroots, bottom-up strategy? Will you look at for-profit models, or only non-profits? All of this will impact how charters connect to the community, how they're staffed (and the kinds of people you seek out), and the kind of policy changes you hope to see. Will you be hostile towards school districts and unions, or find (some) common ground?

Going with option #1 wasn't ever really an option. The Edison debacle smeared the for-profit name (which was already opposed by most, but not all, of those in education circles), and further attempts have been only moderately successful. The business model seems too risky politically, and there's not a lot of evidence it works.

Option #3 was very much a possibility. Long before "charter" was a fairly well-known term (and there's still confusion about it today: public, private, public/private? How public? How private?), some educators and union people saw this early idea as an opportunity to experiment with new ways of connecting with students, a way to break away from the bureaucratic school system, and a way to possibly serve students that were falling through the cracks. There were other ways to do this (magnet schools, alternative schools, etc), but charters held a lot of promise (in theory).

But option #3 would require a different kind of investment. Teachers and communities would still need supports of some kind, but something different than C/EMOs offered. Teachers and communities could run schools - but they're not always the best at back-end stuff like payroll, insurance, accounting, etc. They have more important things to worry about (like kids and teaching), and they should really be able to put their energy towards those kinds of things. This kind of strategy would require connecting with grassroots community organizations and teachers. It would require a lot of listening to local issues. It would require a lot of trust of people on the ground - including aforementioned community organizations and teachers - and certainly wouldn't be quite as sexy as the C/EMO idea. This didn't appeal to those looking to take their ideas "to scale," as they say, and hence was seen more as tinkering around the edges than really creating wholesale change.

Philanthropy went almost entirely with #2. CMOs took in about $500 million in philanthropic donations between 1999 and 2009. The tossed their money behind Achievement First, KIPP, Aspire, Uncommon Schools, Green Dot, ACRPS, YES Prep, Noble Network, HTH, etc. [Note: some of these might be considered franchises, but they also have local groups that would be classified as CMOs. The KIPP Foundation, for instance, is often considered a franchise, but KIPP Houston would be a CMO. A bit tricky, and it's not really all that important here] These are the "darlings" of the charter school movement, the kind of school that pops into our head when we think of charters. Sure - the stand-alone version exists, but they're not as seductive to media outlets, and they certainly receive far less support from major philanthropies. Both advocates and opponents use the CMO example as a way to make their argument for/against charters. The CMO model was pursued vigorously in a few states (CA, TX, DC, LA, IL) and cities (LA, NYC, New Orleans, DC).

So what does philanthropy have to show for their $500 million investment in CMOs? I'll explore that tomorrow by reviewing recent research on CMOs. On Thursday, I'll show how one very prominent CMO advocate clearly does not understand the research he comments on (and he's considered a "thought leader"!), and ask some bigger questions about where this all leaves the charter school movement.

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