Feature

Negotiating a Steady Course With Charters

Pioneer contracts between districts and charter schools try to balance quest for autonomy with the need for accountability by ELIZABETH DONOHOE STEINBERGER

Aboard the Discovery, a ship no bigger than a school bus, 21 adventurers crossed the Atlantic nearly 400 years ago and chartered America’s first successful colony: Jamestown, Va.

They and their 123 crew–mates from two other vessels had come to lay the foundations of independence, autonomy and the opportunity to choose their own destiny--that is, if their pioneering spirits could survive the hardships of hunger, disease and harsh climatic conditions and if they could overcome the conflicts not only with the natives but also those that were sure to erupt amongst themselves.

Today, another charter movement is spreading across the land. Its first pioneers herald from Minnesota in 1991: a group of parents, city officials, private donors and teachers who opened St. Paul City Academy, the nation's first charter school. Since then, about 1,200 charter schools have been created, and another 300 or so are expected to begin this fall.

Charter school authorization laws in 36 states, along with federal funding and bipartisan support in the Congress, have enabled the expansion of charter schools to give families, educators and students greater choice.

Similar to the early colonists, charter school pioneers have overcome numerous challenges, including lack of adequate facilities and funding, great expectations from their sponsors and advocates and conflict from within their own ranks as well as from those who dominated the landscape before their arrival--the teachers' unions. In the 15 states where local school districts carry some measure of sponsoring authority, district leaders and charter school founders have found themselves boarding a common vessel, each with their own baggage but limited navigational aids to weather the often choppy waters of negotiating a strong contract.

What have district leaders learned about developing productive processes and relationships for negotiating successful contracts? How do they balance demands for autonomy from charter founders with the district's need to hold them accountable? What issues threaten to capsize their best efforts? What strategies keep them afloat?

The experiences of school districts in three different states and the navigational tools they have used offer clues on charting a sure and steady course for those involved with existing and future charter schools.

Colorado's Experience
Two years after Colorado passed charter school legislation in 1993, 24 charter schools were operating, almost half of the cap of 50 imposed by the state. In 1997, the legislature removed that limit and by last fall 61 charter schools had opened their doors.

The Douglas County schools, based in Castle Rock, Colo., didn't have a policy or process in place when it received its first charter school application the day after Colorado's charter school law passed. "We did, however, have our values and belief statements in place and a core value was diversity," says Laura Harmon, the school district's liaison for charter schools.

To show support for charter schools, the district funded the first charter school groups at 100 percent of per-pupil operating revenues, even though the state required districts turn over only 80 percent of the per-pupil aid to charter schools. The district also passed along a portion of capital and insurance reserves so that the first charter schools were operating at a funding level of 105 percent, according to Harmon.

Since then, state law revisions require districts to fund charter schools at 100 percent, but they can withhold up to 5 percent to cover administrative costs. Because of shortfalls in state funding, the district's funding level for charter schools dipped to 103 percent last year.

While charter school and district negotiators sailed fairly smoothly through the funding straits, they encountered rough seas in the area of governance. District leaders found that charter school groups need a lot of assistance in setting up governing boards and processes.

"Some boards get into micromanaging the school when their role is really supposed to be policy setting," Harmon says, adding that conflict over governance eventually becomes a leadership issue. Last year, for example, the directors of all six of the district's charter schools either resigned or were dismissed by their governing boards. Teacher turnover often follows because of the staff's loyalty to the director.

"We all know that stability, not instability, is what really moves a school along," says Pat Grippe, an assistant superintendent who negotiated the Douglas County district's first charter contract. To help charter schools resolve internal conflicts over policy setting and management, the school district organized regular training on governance for charter board members and directors.

"We focus on open meeting laws, agenda setting, decision-making processes--all the things that contribute to effective governance in a public setting," adds Grippe.

Another area where the district has had rough sailing was in the provision of insurance coverage and district services. Although charter schools may contract with outside vendors for food service, human resources, special education and other services, they must purchase insurance through the district.

This mandate raises questions about the district's liability for charter operations. What happens, posits Harmon, if someone gets sick from food poisoning or sues over the charter school's failure to provide due process in a teacher dismissal? What happens if a charter school fails to provide appropriate special education services? Is the district, and ultimately the district's insurance provider, liable? According to Harmon, insurance providers are now questioning these scenarios of liability and working with the district toward more oversight and accountability.

Need for Intervention
The Littleton, Colo., Public Schools, just north of Douglas County, has been challenged by leadership, governance, facilities and accountability issues. "As internal division over leadership occurs among governing boards and parent groups, one group or the other comes to the district and asks us to intervene," explains Jack Ballard, the Littleton school board chair. "We've experienced a lot of tears over leadership."

Ballard says the district has tried to place more emphasis on governance early on by encouraging the charter schools' governing boards to be responsive to all groups. Holding elections after the first two years and staggering board terms are policy strategies Ballard believes could open up the school governance process.

Facilities are an equally difficult issue to negotiate. The district gave its first charter group money up front to lease commercial space since no space was available in district buildings. Because leasing rates are competitively high in the area, the arrangement had a significant financial impact on the district. Ballard also noted the district was concerned about draining enrollment from other noncharter schools.

While the district has paid close attention to funding, enrollment patterns and the overall viability of charter school proposals, Ballard questions whether legislators have maintained a level playing field in holding charter and non–charter schools accountable. Charter schools must participate in the state curriculum-based testing, but he believes non–charter schools may be held to a higher district standard. "We're partly at fault for not specifying more clearly the expectations," he says.

Gains in Oregon
Dan Johnson, former director of instructional services for Salem–Keizer Schools in Salem, Ore., offers a similar story about accountability of the district's first charter enterprise.

The Howard Street Charter School chose its own evaluation instruments, although the school also had to participate in the state assessments. "The district did not establish baseline performance data, and the only expectation was that there would be continuous improvement," Johnson says.

The district's notion of continuous improvement is at least a 5 percent gain in the school's state assessment scores. According to Johnson, the district will closely monitor the school's progress while continuing to support the charter school for the duration of its three-year contract.

The state context for charter schools in Oregon is unique. The state legislature failed to pass a charter school law in 1995 and 1997, but Oregon did receive federal startup and implementation grant funding up until 1998. State department officials successfully argued that Oregon's alternative education statutes allowed for the creation and funding of charter schools.

Interest in a charter school proposal surfaced in early 1995 in Salem. At the time, explains Johnson, the school board was embroiled in a contentious conflict over rezoning attendance areas to accommodate the opening of a new middle school. A group of community members, many whose children had grown and left for college and careers, wanted to keep open an older building that had served as the attendance area's middle-level school for years. Their vision was for a community-based school that would draw upon proximity to local museums and the state capital.

Johnson was the district's negotiator and liaison to the charter school group. From September 1996 through April 1997, he met regularly with charter founders, district leaders and state officials to develop the Howard Street Charter School's contract. With no district policies or state laws, Johnson says the charter founders and district "made up the process as they went along." He adds, "We knew certain things would be included, based on federal laws and grant requirements. The school had to be non–secular, non–tuition based and nondiscriminatory in admission processes." But difficult issues remained around personnel and employment.

Would teachers and the principal have to hold state licenses? Johnson and district leaders didn't have to look far to see what problems could develop over licensure. The teachers' association in a nearby district, Bend–LaPine, had brought suit against school board members over the issue.

"The final contract turned out to be fairly revolutionary in that both parties agreed that full-time, core academic teachers must be licensed, but part-time non–core teachers could be retained on a contractual basis. We also agreed the principal had to be licensed, and she or he would sign off as the teacher of record for contractual, non–licensed instructors," explains Johnson.

Howard Street core teachers carry the same benefits and compensation as other district teachers. The district also negotiated flexibility with the union so that future waivers would not have to go through them. With personnel issues settled, Johnson and the founders moved on to the next hurdle–money and services.

The district and charter founders envisioned Howard Street's enrollment at 100 students, which would be the equivalent of four teaching positions and instructional support. Initially, the charter group wanted 100 percent funding for enrollment and staffing and the opportunity to negotiate services they wanted or didn't want the district to provide. This arrangement posed quite a challenge for the district.

"How do you deduct Howard Street's portion from each of the departments whose services they did not want?" asks Johnson. "What happens if they don't want communications services, but then there is a crisis at the school? Our public information staff aren't going to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the crisis. At this point we just don't have the budget flexibility to deduct equivalents from different account lines."

In the end the charter group and district agreed to an 80 percent per-pupil funding package with the district keeping 20 percent for specific services. "Then," says Johnson, "we negotiated a separate budget package that included line-item services to account for the 20 percent the district withheld." Johnson maintains Howard Street services probably cost the district about 5-10 percent more than their original projection.

A Second Wave
After successfully navigating the first wave of issues, Howard Street opened its doors in September 1997. Since then, the district and charter school founders have experienced a second wave of issues involving leadership and governance. Johnson notes, "In a charter school, the governing board often plays much more of an activist role and some members become more involved in the daily operation of the school."

Conflict over staff evaluation and overlap between the school's site council and governing board led to the first principal resigning. There remains a need to clarify the role of the board and the charter school principal in supervision and evaluation of staff.

Because charter schools enjoy more autonomy, conflict among the board, district and non–charter schools is always simmering below the surface. "While it's important to be sensitive to how non–charter schools are feeling, it's also important to work with charter groups from the beginning," Johnson advises. "The district needs to make sure the group is not just representing their own children but all children, and the charter group needs to know district support is there. The leader's attitude becomes a defining issue."

Self-Rule in Wisconsin
Wisconsin's motto for charter schools is "autonomy for accountability," and John Sauerberg, state charter school consultant, suggests the latter often surfaces as a major contract issue. "In many instances, the first charter contract isn't clear about how the charter school is going to be evaluated and what the expectations are in student and school performance," he says.

Wisconsin's initial charter school legislation in 1993 authorized 10 school districts to establish up to two charter schools each, capping the state total at 20. Revisions in 1995 eliminated the cap and authorized all school boards plus several public entities in Milwaukee to become sponsors. Today, there are 40 charter schools across the state, 26 of which are intended for students at risk of failure.

"When you serve at-risk students, you need to look at different indicators and ways to measure achievement," says Sauerberg.

McKinley Charter School in Eau Claire, Wis., has developed a comprehensive accountability agreement that includes attendance rates, discipline referrals, state competency exams, portfolio assessments, follow–up studies and student, staff, teacher and parent evaluations.

Holly Hart, who serves as principal of McKinley and director of Eau Claire's alternative school, credits the former superintendent for the progress in defining indicators and expectations. "Charter school teachers and district administrators sat down with the school board and hammered out exactly what we were trying to do and how we would measure our success," explains Hart.

For example, each McKinley student must have an individual education plan collaboratively developed by teachers, parents and the student. Sixty percent of students must show improvement in attendance and increased competency in core subjects. The school also must show a decrease in student discipline incidents for individual students and from year to year.

Follow–up studies provide information on whether students are succeeding beyond McKinley. Are they employed, financially self-supportive, seeking post-secondary training? Have they remained free from legal entanglements? According to one state official, McKinley serves students who are at the farthest end of the at-risk continuum--students "who cannot safely function in a regular school setting."

Measurable Outcomes
Established in 1996 with federal funding from a collaborative grant awarded to three partnering agencies, the school has produced distinctive results. Students have maintained 85 to 95 percent attendance rates. The percentage of students who are completing the high school equivalency diploma has increased from 10 percent to between 60 and 80 percent each year.

McKinley also has avoided personnel and governance issues. "All teachers are certified in their content areas and are part of the local bargaining unit," says Hart. The nine-member governance board includes a parent, high school and middle school administrators, a teacher of at-risk students, a district representative and three community leaders. Two facilitators handle the daily operations since Hart's administrative responsibility is only part of her district-level position.

Hart believes the relationship between the governing board and administration is positive and productive because they have been clear about defining their respective roles. Revisions in the school's renewal charter to clarify accountability and roles "were the result of a lot of learning," says Hart, "especially lessons gained by attending the National Charter School Conference where we learned the nitty-gritty of how to become more cost-effective and accountable for specific performance standards."

A 20-year veteran with the district, Hart also has learned a few lessons about leadership. "A leader can come in with a vision that may not be the same as the board's vision. In fact, everyone comes in with a vision. But reality is never going to match the vision. You're never going to match exactly what people had in mind. At McKinley, we've probably come closest to connecting the superintendent's and the school board's vision," she says.

Elizabeth Steinberger is an assistant professor in the School of Education at College of William and Mary, P.O. Box 8795, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795. E-mail: edstei@facstaff.wm.edu