Category Archives: School Choice

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

Integration, Choice, and Power: An Interview with Mohammed Choudhury

School integration is making headlines again. On one extreme is Jefferson County, Alabama, where white parents sought to secede from the racially diverse district and create a new, segregated one. On the other, New York City sought to redesign the admissions criteria for selective schools to be more inclusive.

Some of the most exciting school integration work is taking place in San Antonio, Texas. While integration and choice are often pitted against one another, as we wrote recently, the San Antonio model is based on a blend of intentional integration and school choice. The 74 Million recently profiled the effort, and we sat down with Mohammed Choudhury, the effort’s chief architect, to better understand his approach.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kaitlin Pennington: The conventional wisdom is that the integration efforts of the 1980s and early ‘90s were failed experiments. How do you respond to this common perception?

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Choudhury

Mohammed Choudhury: Right off the bat, it’s not true that integration did not work. Integration did work and was working. Were there problems with implementation? Sure. However, in the aggregate, it was working at scale and we gave it up to maintain the power structures of this country.

I would encourage folks to read and study that era more closely. You can pick up “Why Busing Failed” by Matthew Delmont. He did a fantastic job of outlining the narrative that was crafted about integration not working or it turning into busing problems, when the reality is that kids have been bused for a long time. When it became about kids with different skin colors coming to schools with better resources and access to opportunities, all of a sudden busing became a problem. It was a manufactured crisis of sorts to placate racism.

The period of meaningful integration was the only time in our country when we’ve significantly narrowed the achievement gap based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. But then the courts backed away from integration enforcement and the gap widened again. So integration not working is a funny statement in my opinion. It seems to me that folks are just trying to be comfortable with rationalizing and maintaining the legacy of “separate but equal” in our country.

Max Marchitello: The problem of generating sufficient political will and courage seems central to addressing segregation. How have you succeeded in building that political will in San Antonio, not just within the school board, but in the community?

Choudhury: Political will-wise, I always say you have to talk about it. You have to confront it. I start talking about the data and why socioeconomic diversity and integration is a powerful academic strategy that has benefits for all kids. I always start with the fact that segregation is bad. It is unhealthy, economically and in the literal sense. It does not work and it has not worked. I lean forward with that; I don’t try to sneak it in or anything.

From there, you assess your conditions and the initiatives that you’re running in order to make decisions. Are you running school choice efforts? Do you have the power to reimagine and draw attendance boundaries? Are you entrusted to review and uphold them? And then ultimately you design and control for integration. For example, one way we are pursuing integration in San Antonio is by creating “diverse by design” school models. These allocate 50 percent of the seats for Title I students and the other 50 percent for non-Title I kids while also ensuring that our most historically disadvantaged communities receive priority access by looking beyond the Title I measure to assess need and the persistent effects of poverty. Through this approach, you can achieve meaningful levels of racial integration as well.

Pennington: In the past, court rulings forced districts to integrate, and now most of those have lapsed. So how does this work evolve? How does it scale? What’s the next phase? Continue reading

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