Feature

The Catalyst Role of Charter Schools

How the school district responds to charter schools usually hinges on the leadership by ERIC ROFES


On a research visit to a rural school district in 1997, I found myself unable to make sense of what I was hearing from teachers, principals and other local educational leaders. I was investigating the impact of charter schools on school districts and heard repeated tales of the huge financial blow the district had suffered when a small charter opened in its midst and attracted almost 100 students away from the district’s schools.

While the loss of per-pupil funding for those 100 students might have a significant impact on many small districts, the state I was studying maintained a give-back policy that reimbursed poorer, hard-hit districts for such financial losses. Yet all of the educators with whom I spoke recounted tales of devastation wrought on the district's schools by the arrival of the charter.

The principal of the middle school described programs and academic resources that had been eliminated due to the charter. A teacher in that school described how the charter had brought the district to a perilous financial position. Even the principal of the local charter school cited a specific amount of financing the charter had drained from the district coffers and shared her conflicting feelings about the losses her school may have caused the district.

When I met with the superintendent at the end of my visit, he casually mentioned that no financing had been lost by his district and that the state had fully reimbursed him for the allocation directed to the charter school. I asked him to help me understand why, if financing had not been lost, staff members believed it had.

Without batting an eye, he told me: "The legislature's found a way to leave the extreme rhetoric hanging out there and create a reality that's almost 180 degrees the other way. In fact, we haven't lost a nickel. ... I get paid to understand the nuances of not only public policy but institutional culture. Whenever I've met with the school's faculty, I've certainly been straightforward in any comments about the charter school, but I have also been willing to emphasize those aspects that help create a culture of pride that was lacking here five years ago."

The superintendent said he had no compunction about exploiting "the competitive intention of the legislature in creating charter schools," so long as it was done without exaggeration or distortion.

While many school districts have lost students and financing to charter schools and have not been reimbursed by the state, this district serves as an example of the creative ways some superintendents are using the charter school movement as a catalyst for reform in district schools. This superintendent believes he must use whatever means necessary to spur improvement in the schools under his purview, and he has no second thoughts about exploiting the charter school initiative to these ends.

The Overall Impact
Advocates of charter schools often argue that charters will ignite school improvement within adjacent districts because of competitive effects triggered by the loss of students and the accompanying loss of state aid. While opponents insist charters will undermine, rather than encourage, district school improvement, they share the advocates' basic premise that charters are likely to weaken the financial base of school districts.

However, in my 1997 study of 25 randomly selected districts with charters in eight states and the District of Columbia revealed this often was not the case. In fact, more than half of the districts in my study had experienced little financial impact from charters. A district might lose 50 or 100 students to a new charter school (most charters are small schools), yet these losses sometimes were offset by new housing developments that brought in an influx of new families. In one instance, a district that lost more than 100 students to a charter school had 250 newcomers flood into its schools.

The Denver Public Schools lost some financing to two local charters but was more than compensated by a rising student population in the area. In Queen Creek, Ariz., a rural district east of Phoenix that rapidly was gaining suburban status, the public schools lost students and financing as students left for a local charter, but this loss was balanced by an influx of an equal number of students whose families recently had settled in the area.

Even the few districts that lost large numbers of students to charters did not necessarily experience devastating financial repercussions. In Mesa, Ariz., the largest district in the state with 70,000 students, approximately 2,000 students departed district schools for charter schools, resulting in a loss of between $5 and $6 million out of a noncapital budget of $240 million. Yet the district's assistant superintendent for business and governmental relations told me, "Our district is one where we staff our schools based upon a formula which is determined by the number of students. So, in essence, we're also staffing for 2,000 fewer students, so it's not like we lost $5 to $6 million in revenue and we haven't lost any expense along with it."

The financial impact of charters was often greatest in small and rural districts, which may have difficulty maintaining their basic infrastructure if a significant portion of students enter local charters at a time when the district's enrollment is stable or declining. Phil Fox, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, explained the financing impact this way: The differential impact of a charter school on a budget of a small district is far greater than it is in some of the larger districts. In these instances, the net effect is that charter school kids and parents take away more than their fair share and leave the rest of the kids with less resources to spend.

"The basic infrastructure must be maintained to serve the balance of the students," Fox said. "Just because 30 leave doesn't necessarily mean that you've lost a teacher, doesn't necessarily mean that the cost of the building is any less or the cost of the utilities is any less."

Districts also experienced the impact of charter schools in ways not explicitly financial. Depending on the thematic focus of the charter (for example, schools for pregnant and parenting teens, Afrocentric charters or those with back-to-basic curricula), districts often would lose a specific type of student to charters. Those I interviewed feared public school choice through charters would result in the Balkanization of public education, an equal number of people I interviewed feared charters would attract the best students, while still others feared charters would become a place for a school district to banish special education students.

One surprising finding was that charters often attract those parents viewed as disgruntled by the district. In Arizona, a former school board member told me about one district's response to the formation of a charter. She said the district's bureaucracy was delighted to see these malcontents shuffling off to Buffalo and leaving them to concentrate on the vast majority of parents and students who are satisfied customers. I've heard that sentiment echoed by a number of school board members.

No one should be surprised that many of the disgruntled families became disillusioned with the charter and returned to the district. One Massachusetts superintendent explained that, by the charter's third year, most of its founders who previously had been quite critical of the district's middle school had returned their children to the district's schools.

Public Responses
In Le Sueur, Minn., a rural district of 1,500 students south of the Twin Cities, the process of debating and eventually approving a charter school served as an impetus to reform efforts in the district. Superintendent Harold Larson said, "I think the charter school has been helpful to us in a number of intriguing ways--subtle, more subtle than anything. It has been helpful in that the very existence of the charter has challenged our larger system to take a look at more innovative approaches to learning and teaching. And in the second year of the charter school, we implemented a four-period day at the high school. That really changed how we utilize time. I think the fact that the board voted to sponsor the charter helped create more of a sense of urgency that, yes, we must change."

My study uncovered a handful of districts that had responded to the arrival of charters by intensifying reform efforts in a meaningful way. All-day kindergarten now is offered in Lansing, Mich., and Mesa, Ariz., in part due to local charters attracting families seeking such programs. Competition from charter schools encouraged the Williamsburg, Mass., School District to start an afterschool program. The Boston Public Schools took its pilot school proposal off the back burner and put it on a fast track only after charter legislation had been approved in Massachusetts. The district has since opened more than a dozen specialty schools with a wide range of concentrations--the arts, allied health science, dropout prevention, science and math and multiculturalism.

My study showed that school districts typically had not responded with the swift, dramatic improvements some charter advocates believe are inevitable. The majority of districts had gone about business as usual, responding to charters slowly and modestly, if at all. Six of the 25 districts in the study had reacted energetically to the advent of charter schools by significantly altering their educational programs.

A more common reaction found school districts stepping up their public relations efforts rather than actually making improvements to their educational programs. In part, this may have been because those interviewed in most of the districts felt the local news media had given excessive attention to the fledgling charter schools. Scott Hamilton, associate state commissioner for charter schools in Massachusetts articulated the frustration of many superintendents and central-office administrators: "I understand the frustration. You're working hard as a teacher, principal or superintendent, feeling like you're finally getting some things done and doing interesting things and, for the life of you, you can't get a good story out of the newspaper because they're always writing about the charter school ... doing some of the same things you're doing, but just getting all the publicity for it. I think that's the way people in Boston sometimes feel, like, ‘If I see one more story about City on a Hill [charter school], I'll scream.'"

In Arizona, the Mesa Public Schools began a highly visible advertising campaign in local newspapers and the Queen Creek Unified School District began to market its schools through on-screen advertisements at the local movie theater. In Michigan, the Grand Rapids schools waged an advertising campaign on local television, and the district has begun to train administrators in public relations and marketing. The Holland, Mich., schools expanded its public relations function, hired a full-time communications director and sent letters to families at the local charter that explained how they could re-enroll in the public school district. The superintendent in Hartland, Mich., sent a letter to families departing for charter schools, asking for constructive suggestions that would be turned into "a plan of action to improve the Hartland Consolidated Schools."

Certain district responses that had been widely anticipated in the wake of charters did not appear to be happening at the time of my study. Few superintendents, principals and teachers in district schools were thinking of charters as educational laboratories or attempting to transfer pedagogical innovations from charters to the district schools. Districts still were building large school facilities and rarely emulating the small scale of charters; the large urban districts in the study rarely responded in significant ways to charter laws and charter schools.

Ripple Effects
Despite the fact that charter/district dynamics are at a very early stage, several charter school opponents have seized on the limited district responses as a sign that the charter school movement is a failure. However, they forget one critical fact: Charters have no control over district response.

In some of the districts studied, excellent charters opened in moderate-performing districts and drew a significant number of students and financing from the district. Yet, at least at the time of my visits, there were no signs that the operation of charter schools was serving as a catalyst to the school district's improvement efforts. At the same time, several districts that had not lost significant numbers of children or financing to charters had taken the arrival of charters as an impetus to expedite their reforms.

Key to a district's response is leadership at the district and school level. When I analyzed the six districts that had responded to charters by aggressively stepping up reform, the common factor was reform-minded leadership by a superintendent, school board member or central-office administrator.

Several school districts in the suburbs of Denver were sites of significant reform initiatives linked to charters. Joe Albi, principal of Thornton Middle School in Adams County, said, "I'm a person who believes that a little competition for the public school system wouldn't be a bad thing, as long as it's fair and not destructive in nature. So I think the more choices and options we have for people the better, as long as we keep the playing field even. The charter school has given teachers the idea that there is another system. We need to make sure that our product, if you will, our service, is as sterling and as polished as possible because people could turn to another way of doing this."

One urban district in the study illustrated that the opening of charter schools can serve as a catalyst for significant response on the part of a large urban district. In the Phoenix High School District in Arizona, district leadership had initiated aggressive reform efforts in response to charters. Gregory Riccio, assistant to the superintendent for strategic planning, told me: "I've been here seven years and we pretty much look today as we did seven years ago, as we did several years before that. But I can guarantee that next fall, schools will look different. There will be different-sized schools, there will be different configurations. We will have a year-round school. We do have a block-scheduled school this year and that may not be a result of competition, but it's a result of delivering a better product. And I think that whole product--the results-driven effort to redesign schools--was heightened and then moved more quickly because of the competition from charter schools."

In Georgia, where the charter school initiative has been part of the state's School Improvement Program, educational leaders in Bartow County used the charter process "as a means that would allow them to improve education for children and get parents more involved." The superintendent of the district who facilitated the move toward chartering said: "My job and the system-level staff's jobs will turn more and more into being a support base. We will function in a way that will support more of what the schools are doing, instead of generating stuff at the system level. It will be developed at the school level. We at the system level will serve to support the school. I see it changing more from a dictatorial role to a facilitator role. We help facilitate what they want to make happen."

At the time of my study, seven of the district's 10 elementary schools had become charters and the other three were in process, as were the district's middle schools and high school.

Policy Recommendations
A range of recommendations emerged from my study and several of them are especially relevant to school administrators.

First, the leadership of professional associations of superintendents and school board members should step up efforts to educate their members about charters, respond to their concerns and allow them to discuss charters with peers who are using charter laws effectively as part of an overall reform strategy. Because my study suggests that superintendents and school board members, along with key district and school-site administrators, play pivotal roles in determining the district's response to charters, these interest groups must receive considerable education and opportunity to debate charter laws.

Second, district superintendents, central-office administrators, principals and school board members should redesign their planning processes for an era of increased public school choice. New systems, schedules and processes might improve budgeting and planning for capital improvements, enrollment levels and personnel shifts and allow districts to anticipate changes brought about by school choice options.

Third, policymakers crafting charter school laws must clarify the legislation's aims regarding the overall effect on school districts. If spurring overall district reform is the intent behind charter laws, policymakers should consider the impact of these laws on school districts and the districts' responses. Policies aimed at achieving a critical mass of charters in a particular area may heighten the likelihood of a substantive response by the school district. Charter schools that garner substantial media attention also tend to spur district activity.

Policies that allow more than one entity to sponsor a charter may result in increased response from districts. By having a strong appeals process--or allowing for some public body besides the local district to sponsor charters--a dynamic appeared to emerge in many of the districts studied which encourages districts to respond more aggressively than in places where there is a single entity doing the chartering.

While market-driven theorists may be incorrect when they insist this is an inevitable consequence of school choice, this study suggests that, in a significant number of cases, competition played a part in moving district leaders toward greater improvement in the district schools.

Policymakers should ensure that evaluations of the state's charter policy include a detailed assessment of the impact, response and overall effects on districts. While statewide evaluations should assess student achievement and evaluate overall school performance in the state's charter schools, resources should be devoted periodically to an independent review of how school districts may be affected in the aftermath of this reform initiative.

Eric Rofes is assistant professor of education, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA 95521-8299. E-mail: eerofes@aol.com. His charter school study can be ordered from PACE at 3653 Tolman Hall, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1670.