Feature

Five Prevailing Charter Types

Converted charters are one camp, but others arise for reasons of a profit motive, ethnic identity and parental discontent by JOE SCHNEIDER


Charter schools generally can be grouped into two camps: newly created schools or converted public schools. Most of the attention is paid to the former. These are schools created expressly to operate as independently as possible from regular public schools.

The converted charters, however, get little press. They are regular public schools that have elected to operate as charter schools. They tend to remain affiliated with their host school districts and even employ unionized teachers, something no newly created charter does.

Yet at a recent national conference for charter school operators, run by the U.S. Department of Education, participants had an opportunity to identify specific subgroups of these new phenomena in public education. The converted charters are one such subgroup. But the newly created charters usually fall into four categories: do-gooder charters, ethnic charters, profit motive charters and disgruntled parents' charters.

Do-gooder charters.
These newly created charter schools are formed by educators passionate about serving at-risk children (whom they call "at-promise"). For example, at the Charter Schools National Conference in Denver last March, five teachers talked about the inner-city charter school they created in Connecticut to address at-promise African-American children. Another woman, who described herself as a preacher's wife and mother to two African-American children, talked about her peace academy that primarily serves Hmong students.

A physically disabled charter school founder, whose daughter is a special education student, described the school he formed and now runs for similar children.

Do-gooder charter operators typically emphasize their safe schools, their feel-good, nurturing environments, their student uniforms and their basic education curriculum.

Ethnic charters.
A sizeable number of newly created charters serve either poor African-American or poor Hispanic students. These charters, many started by members of a church in a poor urban neighborhood, often offer a fundamental education bolstered in a big way by a multicultural curriculum. (The curriculum of University of Washington Professor James Banks was cited frequently by African-American participants at the charter schools conference.) That is to say, these schools put a big emphasis on the children's culture and/or language.

Ethnic charter schools pride themselves on providing parents with the assurance that all students in the school are gifted and talented. These schools also stress conflict resolution. To a large extent, these schools teach children to get along, watch their tempers and respect authority. Consequently, this has meant academic achievement has been pushed out as a primary purpose. Principals of these charters often comment on how hard they must work to recruit enough students to pay the bills.

Without question, as the research suggests, these schools probably attract students for a host of reasons that have little to do with academic achievement. And they'll probably retain the bulk of their students, even if statewide assessments show these schools to be lagging academically behind regular public schools. The operators of these ethnic charters seem to know this. Few of them expect ever to be held accountable for boosting student achievement. They say they are accountable to parents, who can "vote with their feet." As long as parents continue to send their children to these charter schools, no chartering authority is going to dare close them down.

This fact reflects the findings of national research studies. That is, charter schools, regardless of their academic prowess, are going to stay in business if they have no fiscal trouble, remain safe and small, stay in the neighborhood and appear more sympathetic to what parents want for their children than the regular public schools are.

Converted charters.
These are the regular public schools that converted. Little is known about this group of schools because no one seems to be studying them. But two noteworthy Los Angeles principals who are themselves leaders of converted charters make a case for learning more about this category. They are: Yvonne Chan, principal of Vaughn New Century Learning Center, and Joe Lucente, principal of the Fenton Avenue Charter School.

These two people are truly outstanding school leaders. Both probably would be highly successful superintendents, particularly in urban districts.

Chan and Lucente were principals of their schools before the schools converted to charters. Both were seen as rising stars in their school system before charters existed. They were principals whom the Los Angeles Unified School District moved around to "fix" troubled schools. They would come in, clean house, energize the parents, smooth out the racial differences and improve academic achievement. But both said they had finally had it with Los Angeles Unified and believed they could do more for kids by running their schools as charters.

Now everyone who writes or talks about successful charter schools cites Chan and Lucente as prime examples of what charter school reform can accomplish. The fact is these two already were great administrators with high-performing regular schools before charter school legislation ever passed. What generally is overlooked is the simple fact that regular school principals who lead their faculty and parents into a charter-school situation are probably a cut above typical school principals.

It would be interesting to learn just what freedoms these two principals gained by going charter and whether Los Angeles Unified could have provided these same conditions had they remained regular schools. Are these two principals typical of these breakaway public schools? Are the best and brightest pulling their schools from their host districts because of burdensome rules and regulations that could be relaxed if the board and the superintendent learned to relax?

Someone ought to look at how districts with converted charters treat their courageous principals. From all indications, once principals pull their schools out of the system, the system turns against them. Four of these charter principals said at the Denver conference that their districts now treat them with contempt or benign neglect. But then these principals probably were considered mavericks even while they were inside the system. As Chan said in her presentation to the charter schools conference, she has spent her entire career practicing her belief that it's better to ask for forgiveness than to request permission.

Profit-motive charters.
The Edison Project is the most visible example of a charter operator that is driven by a profit objective. It operates a rapidly growing number of charters. One of its representatives said Edison isn't a profit-making company, but wants to be. Clearly, Edison and other profit-makers are dumping resources into charters with little expectation of earning a quick profit.

What Edison and other profit-makers are gambling on is the likelihood that their self-proclaimed successes with charters will enhance their ability to obtain contracts to operate regular public schools. It's no accident that most of these profit-making companies are trying to work with charters serving at-risk populations. These companies know that many state legislators and local school boards could be tempted to issue contracts to corporate firms to run low-performing schools or entire school systems serving at-risk students.

Two things scare these companies, though. One, somebody might actually hold them accountable for boosting academic achievement. Clearly, when they write a contract with a charter board, academic achievement isn't something profit-motive companies want to guarantee. What is promised are fiscal prudence, good marketing, glitzy curriculum and low-cost staffing.

The second thing they worry about is somebody telling charter boards to hire an attorney before signing a contract with a profit-making company. One of the best-attended sessions at the Denver conference featured two young researchers who released a paper entitled "Contracting for Charter School Success: A Resource Guide for Clear Contracting with School Management Organizations." The room was jammed with nervous school management sales representatives eager to get their hands on the document before it spread too far into the charter school community.

Incidentally, many of these sales representatives are former school superintendents. Nobody is sure how many of these companies are out there chumming for charter school business. Everybody says it is a big industry. For example, no fewer than 17 different management companies have contracts with more than half of the charter schools now operating in Michigan.

Disgruntled parents' charters.
For a variety of reasons, some public school parents don't like the regular schools their children attend. In many cases, their children don't fit in. In other cases, the children are significantly behind their classmates on academics. Therefore, the children frequently lack self-esteem, act up and generally cause their concerned parents considerable anguish.

Many of these parents believe their children's schools ought to address their needs. But for whatever reason, the regular schools and the larger system frequently are not responsive to these parents. Consequently, many of them have found each other and together have formed charter schools.

Without question, charter school children have highly dedicated, concerned and active parents. They want the best for their children. They also want their children to attend public schools and they want these schools to be responsive to their children's needs. Listening to their tales, an observer would be struck by what appeared to be the insensitivity of many regular school administrators. Of course, at the Denver meeting, only the parents' side of the debate was aired. Obviously, some parents expect way too much of the public school system.

On another note, several charter teachers and principals said that their schools seem to be attracting middle-grade and high school-age students who are struggling to come to grips with their homosexuality. In many cases, students at their former schools harassed these children. Consequently, their parents enrolled them in charter schools in hopes of providing them with a more tolerant and safer environment.

What the gathering of charter school participants made clear is that parents are demanding more choices for their children's education. Clearly charter schools broaden the options available to parents. Judging from the range of charter schools available, it's obvious that parents have different reasons for choosing their child's school. It is unfortunate that more choice doesn't ensure more quality.

Joe Schneider is deputy executive director of AASA. E-mail: jschneider@aasa.org