Executive Perspective

The Attraction of Charters: Waived Rules

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

The charter school movement is getting a boost from the Obama administration, which has made it abundantly clear the charter school strategy is an acceptable solution for transforming failing schools.

Guidelines for the federal school improvement grants stipulate four potential approaches to school transformation. One of them is the restart model in which the school district closes the failing school and reopens it under the management of a charter school operator or a charter management organization.

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech


The charter school movement, which began in the early 1990s as state legislatures began to pass enabling charter school laws, can be seen as a cross between a private school and a public school. Charters generally have not been embraced as a concept by school systems, primarily because the charter school funding comes out of the public school district’s budget.

Today more than 3,500 charter schools operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia. In my discussions with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, he acknowledges his support for “charter schools that work,” much as he supports public schools that work. However, Duncan is quick to add, just as he favors shutting down failing schools, he would shut down failing charter schools, as he did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools.

Failing Schools
In 1995 I was the interim district superintendent for Nassau County in suburban Long Island, N.Y. New York state is unique in that the district superintendent is a state education department employee who represents the state commissioner of education at the county level.

In that capacity, I was asked by then-Commissioner Thomas Sobol to conduct a study of one of my component school districts, the Roosevelt Public Schools. Roosevelt, then as now, was a predominantly minority community where the majority of students were African-American with a small percentage of Hispanic students. The district had a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and achievement scores ranked near the bottom of school district scores in the state.

My investigation revealed a system where not much learning was occurring, in facilities that were inadequate and often unsafe. In my report, I wrote that “if a community could be charged with child neglect, possibly with abuse, Roosevelt would be a strong candidate.”

That statement was lifted from the report by the news media, and it created a public outcry that resulted in the New York State Legislature passing a bill that authorized the Education Department to take over the Roosevelt district. I was charged with turning around the failing school system with the existing resources.

Chris Whittle had earned notoriety in the late 1980s as the hard-charging founder of Channel One News, a 12-minute program transmitted via satellite to middle schools and high schools nationwide. In 1992, he founded the Edison Schools. At the time I took over Roosevelt, Whittle was attempting to establish a foothold for Edison in New York.

Whittle and I discussed the situation in Roosevelt. Whittle was willing to start with one of my elementary schools. He would staff the school, extend the school day, renovate the facility and offer each child a computer to take home, all within the amount we were spending per pupil in the district. That sounded like a pretty good deal to me. There was no way I could do that within the constraints of the existing seniority and tenure laws and the school district’s budget.

Waiving Rules
This is perhaps the very situation the current administration in Washington has in mind when it offers up charter schools as a school transformation strategy — the charter can get around existing rules and regulations in a way the existing public school cannot. Unfortunately for Roosevelt and Edison, New York state was not yet ready to embrace charter schools in 1995.

Although the number of charter schools has grown over the past 15 years, many public educators still question their effectiveness and continue to resent their draw from public school coffers. AASA supports charter schools that operate under the governance of local public school boards and believes the same regulations and accountability should apply to all schools receiving public funding. A level playing field ought to exist for both charters and noncharters. Providing charters with dispensation from existing laws, rules and regulations make them an attractive vehicle for change, but the practice begs the question as to why not grant that dispensation to all schools.

Jay Mathews, education columnist for The Washington Post, has written a book about one of the better-known group of charters known as KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP runs 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, serving 21,000 students. I recently interviewed Mathews for our AASA Radio program and asked him why he is so enamored with KIPP. He indicated he is impressed by the training program the KIPP principals go through and by their ability to have control over their school’s budget and hiring. He also admires KIPP’s extended school day, week and year. (You can listen to my interview with Mathews, who will be a presenter at AASA’s Summer Leadership Institute in July in Washington, D.C., by accessing www.aasa.org/radio.aspx.)

I cannot think of a principal or superintendent who would object to being freed from having to abide by all of the laws, rules and regulations that inhibit him or her from fixing failing schools. Perhaps the reality is we need to have laws, rules and regulations. The problem may be that the ones we have don’t work.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org