Category Archives: Education Governance

The Traditional Public and Charter School Sectors Aren’t as Separate as You Might Think

The recent strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which ended after negotiations around teacher pay and class sizes, is but the latest in a long list of tensions between traditional public and charter schools. UTLA expressed opposition to the city’s growing charter sector, so the school board has agreed to put forward a non-binding resolution calling on the state of California to cap the growth of charter schools in the district while the state studies policy changes. This strike, in part, highlights the fact that charter schools compete for students and resources, which can cause pain for traditional public schools.

While it often seems that charter schools and traditional public schools are adversaries, in many places the two sectors are not as separate as one might think. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of charter school authorizers (the legal entities that grant charters and oversee charter schools) are actually school districts themselves, according to data requested from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This means that school districts around the country are often the ones making decisions about when charter schools open and close and what expectations they have to meet.

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

However, NACSA’s data also show that school districts only authorize roughly 51 percent of all charter schools, as they tend to oversee fewer schools than other types of authorizers. As we show in our new publication, “The State of the Charter Sector,” the average school district authorizes only about four schools. Meanwhile, independent chartering boards (statewide bodies set up for the purpose of granting charters and overseeing charter schools) authorize an average of 51 schools, and state education agencies, typically housed in state departments of education, authorize an average of more than 87 schools.

This unequal distribution of authorizers and authorized schools is due in part to the fact that independent chartering boards and state education agencies are both statewide entities, overseeing a much larger number of students and schools than a single district. It is also affected by the structure of state charter school laws. While 44 states allow charter schools, only 23 states allow charter applicants to apply directly to non-district authorizers. In the other 21 states, applicants must apply to school districts for authorization of their charter. However, in many states, the denial of a charter school application by a school district may then be appealed to a non-district authorizer.

In some places, like in Los Angeles, competition for enrollment and resources is pitting school districts against a growing number of charter schools. But in many more places, charter schools are being overseen by local districts and comprise a much smaller share of overall district enrollment. This means that traditional public and charter schools often need to function as one cohesive sector. In these cases, school districts should ensure they are using strong authorizing practices, such as the list of “essential practices” proposed by NACSA.

Our new slide deck, “The State of the Charter Sector,” provides more of the latest available information on charter schools across the country and analyses of the challenges that charter schools face.

Ten Lessons from Eight Cities

Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.

Legacy Charter school building in Chicago with students and crossing guard outside

Legacy Charter School in Chicago. Photo credit: Alexander Drecun.

While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:

1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.

2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading

There Are No Schools In New Carolina

In the imaginary state of New Carolina, there are no public schools. The citizens and the state legislature have decided that general public education is not a worthwhile use of limited resources, so they’d rather not be bothered with it. Anyone who wants to go to school has to go to a private school or get a tutor. The state will have to pass up any federal education dollars, but that’s okay: there aren’t any schools to fund with it so it’s a wash anyway.

Under the United States Constitution, New Carolina isn’t doing anything wrong.

The Constitution is the articulation of our country’s fundamental rights and the basis upon which we hammer out the contours of those rights by litigating individual cases in federal courts. In these cases, the role of the courts is to interpret the language of the Constitution: What exactly is included in the right to vote? When do you have a right to a jury trial? What’s covered by a right to privacy? States are free to add protections in their own constitutions, they just cannot sink below the minimum guaranteed in the federal constitution.

A 1972 school finance case, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, established that there is no federally protected fundamental right to education in the United States. Rodriguez has been challenged over and over again, but it’s a durable Supreme Court precedent.

Two cases, one in Michigan and one in Rhode Island, have taken up unique but related arguments in favor of recognizing a fundamental federal right to education.  The first, in Michigan, argues that while there may not be a right to education, there ought to be a right to basic literacy. In Rhode Island, the lawsuit argues that the federal courts should recognize a right to the minimum skills needed for basic civic participation. In both cases, the plaintiffs — students challenging the inadequacies of their states’ education programs — are aiming to get federal recognition of a baseline for what schools must provide. A win in a case like this would mean that New Carolina would have to find a way to provide all of its young people with some minimum standard of education, a standard that many existing school systems struggle to meet.

Both cases are moving through the federal courts, and it remains to be seen whether one (or both) will make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. In any case, both cases have the potential to radically alter the relationship between state and local school systems and the federal constitution.

It’s important to note that some real New Carolinas do, in fact, exist. There are a number of places in this country where some of our most vulnerable students are legally denied access to the education programs that they would otherwise be able to participate in: juvenile justice facilities and immigration detention. In some of these places, education programs are diluted versions of local schools. In many of them, “education” consists of a packet of worksheets or some online tutorials. And in others, there is simply no school at all.

If the plaintiffs in either Michigan or Rhode Island prevail, that may change.

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

Continue reading

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading