Feature

Reform by Charter: Superintendents Discover How Charter Schools Fit (or Don’t) Their Districts’ Agendas

by Donna Harrington-Lueker


In Kingsburg, Calif., Superintendent Ron Allvin is anything but lukewarm about charter schools.

"When I heard state officials present the idea back in 1992, it was a real revelation to me," remembers Allvin, who was then in his first year as the district's superintendent.

"Here they were saying, 'If you think you can do a better job without us, then prove it.' And here I was thinking, 'A better job without these regulations? You're darn right I can.'"

In fact, Allvin and the Kingsburg school board were so confident that the district's four schools and 1,850 students in K-8 could prosper under the new legislation, which freed charter schools from the straightjacket of the California education code, that they applied for a charter for their entire district. "It was a question of local control," says Allvin.

By becoming a charter school district, he and his board reasoned, Kingsburg would be able to withstand the controversial pendulum swings of teaching and learning that periodically rock the Golden State.

Six years after Minnesota passed the nation's first charter law, the charter school movement is booming. Slightly more than half the states have made charter schools an essential part of their school reform agenda. And while many superintendents continue to staunchly oppose charters, fearing that the movement will siphon off much-needed funding from the public schools that remain under their jurisdiction, a small but growing number of top school administrators, like Allvin, are finding ways to make charter schools part of their school district's reform plans.

Exponential Growth

Numbers alone suggest that the charter school movement cannot be ignored. As of early summer, 26 states plus the District of Columbia had adopted charter school legislation that allows groups of parents, teachers, or community members to form their own schools and frees those schools from most state and local regulations. That number is up dramatically from 19 states the year before and only two states in 1991.

The number of charter schools has grown as well. In 1995-96, 200 charter schools were operating nationwide. In 1996-97, though, that number had risen to 480 schools. This fall about 700 charter schools should be in operation, says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a national expert on charter schools.

Charter advocates also predict that legislators in an estimated nine states, including Oregon, Washington, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, are likely to consider charter legislation in the coming year, and a similar number are expected to strengthen laws they already have passed, paving the way for even more schools to open.

The federal government also has offered its support. In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000. To make that rhetoric a reality, the 1997 federal budget also calls for $51 million in funding to cover start-up costs for charters. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has contracted for a $2.1 million study to evaluate the effectiveness of charters and identify the characteristics of successful charter schools, and the administration has requested $100 million in charter school funding for FY 1998.

Legislation Dictates

As the number of charters increases, superintendents who have worked with charter schools are beginning to offer their own perspectives on the role superintendents have come to play and on how charter schools can become a part of a school system's mission.

First, they readily acknowledge, the superintendent's role often depends on a specific state's legislation. In Massachusetts, for example, charter school organizers bypass local school districts and take their plans directly to state officials. In Colorado, on the other hand, charter school organizers must first seek the approval of the local school district but can appeal the district's decision to the state board of education.

Other states, including California, Michigan, and Arizona, allow organizers to seek charters from a number of sources in addition to local boards, including county boards of education in California, community colleges and local universities in Michigan, and a state charter school board in Arizona.

In states where local school boards grant charters, school superintendents are likely to be key players. "They're probably the first person in the school system that charter organizers contact," says Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a nonprofit group that supports the development of charter schools in the state. Depending on the size of the district, superintendents are also likely to have "hands-on, regular interaction" with the charter schools, Griffin says.

Intensive Support

Douglas County, Colo., a fast-growing district of 25,000 students just south of Denver, is a case in point. Last year, the district had three charter schools serving approximately 850 students. Two of the schools were so-called core knowledge schools, based on the principles of University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch; the third emphasized experiential learning and multiage classrooms. Two additional charter schools—a Montessori school and another core knowledge school—will open this fall and are expected to enroll another 300 students.

"We're just strong promoters of choice and see charter schools as a viable choice for parents," says Superintendent Rick O'Connell. In fact, he adds, one of the district's core-knowledge charter schools was the first charter school in Colorado developed by parents.

That commitment to choice and charters, though, means that school officials have a significant role to play in helping charter organizers understand "the mechanics of running a school," O'Connell acknowledges.

One of Douglas County's assistant superintendents, Pat Grippe, works closely with the district's charter schools, coaching new charter schools through the application process, advising them on start-up issues, and negotiating whether the charter will purchase services such as transportation, payroll, and school lunches from the district. Once a charter is operating, Grippe continues to provide advice on discipline codes, personnel issues, special education plans, governance, budgeting, and a myriad of other concerns.

Such support is most intensive when a charter is starting up and typically tapers off once the school becomes established, Grippe says.

The process is time-consuming. Grippe estimates that he spends half his time working with charter schools in the district. Still, the district is comfortable with the relationship and with the amount of support it provides. "We went into [our first] charter with the understanding and the philosophy that this was one of our schools—and that it was just as important as any other school in our district," says Grippe.

Up until now, the district provided such support free of charge. This fall, though, when the district has five charter schools operating, the school system plans to hire a half-time charter school ombudsman whose salary will be assessed to the charter schools.

Genteel Relations

One of the biggest challenges facing charter schools is securing the funds they require for start-up costs for rent, instructional materials, insurance, and other needs. (Charter school legislation typically provides a charter school with some portion of the district's per-pupil expenditure once the school is operating but offers little in the way of start-up funds.)

To help with such expenses, the Jefferson County Public Schools, located in the suburbs of Denver, provides charter schools with loans of up to $100,000 and has allowed the fledgling schools to use surplus materials from the district's warehouse, says Wayne Carle, who retired this summer as superintendent. The charter schools repay the loans over the course of their four-year contract.

"There's some risk involved," Carle says, "but there's also that recognition that if you approve a charter, you have an interest in having it succeed."

The district also has grouped its "schools of choice," which include the charter schools as well as districtwide alternative schools, into a single feeder system of schools and encourages charter school personnel to attend in-service workshops the district offers. (Approximately 10,000 of the district's 85,000 students attend alternative schools or charters.) "That's really been beneficial," says Carle. "They're able to trade on each other's ideas and compare not only logistics but programs."

In addition, when one school's principal left after a disagreement with charter organizers, Jefferson County supplied the charter school with an interim administrator. The district also provides ongoing assistance with finances, budgets, testing, and curriculum, though it does not charge the charter schools for that support.

"We see charters as a way to show that a number of choices can operate under the umbrella of public education," says Carle.

This fall, Jefferson County will have six charter schools, including a new magnet school for the deaf, which will teach both American Sign Language and English as a second language, and the county's first Montessori school. Four schools—a science and technology school, a K-8 school that focuses on individual learning styles, a core knowledge school, and a school devoted to experiential education—have been operating for two or more years.

In Verona, Wis., school board members saw charter schools as the next logical step in the district's own reform plan. "We'd already adopted site-based decision making in the district, and our schools already were accustomed to doing their own budgets and their own school [improvement] plans," says Superintendent Bob Gilpatrick. So making the transition to charter schools "was an easy one," he adds. (The district has two charter schools: a progressive school and a core knowledge school.)

In fact, when the Wisconsin legislature passed its charter school bill, Verona school board members interrupted their regular board meeting to send off the district's application via fax, Gilpatrick says.

Financial Impediments

Still, many superintendents say, working with a charter school can be a risky and contentious enterprise. Finances, for example, continue to be a thorny issue. State formulas for how much funding a charter school should receive vary, and divvying up federal funds, such as Title I or bilingual education funds, often leads to ongoing disagreements between districts and charter schools, advocates and administrators say.

And while many school districts have developed a menu of central-office services, such as transportation, payroll, and special education, that charter schools can purchase from the district, deciding which services a charter school should pay for—and how much those services are worth—can lead to conflict as well.

"It's gotten pretty ugly," says Ginny Jaramillo, principal of the Lake George-Guffey Charter School in Park County, Colo., where charter organizers and district officials have been at odds for the last year.

Sometimes, it’s difficult for public school leaders to avoid looking like an impediment to change. "I spent a lot of time explaining the math involved," says Dick Lates, superintendent in Londonderry, N.H., whose community turned down New Hampshire's first charter school application in May.

Charter organizers in Londonderry planned to enroll 94 students in grades 1 through 5 this fall. But, Lates had to explain to Londonderry citizens, who eventually voted on the charter school proposal, the departure of those students wouldn't reduce the school system's costs because only a small number of students would have been taken from each grade.

"[I had to] try to make sense of these numbers without becoming obstructionist," says Lates. That was a challenge given the political atmosphere in the community, where an activist taxpayers association strongly supported the charter school. "The tendency is for people to see you as either for them or against them," he says.

That's a tendency the Flagstaff, Ariz., Unified School District is resisting. Eight charter schools currently operate in Flagstaff, and the charters have enrolled approximately 150 of the school district's students, says Superintendent Kent Matheson. Those numbers, though, have resulted in a $515,000 budget shortfall for the district—a gap Matheson hopes to close through attrition rather than layoffs.

Despite that financial pressure, he says the Flagstaff school board has adopted a philosophy of inclusion toward the charter schools in its district, none of which the school board chartered. "Our governing board has said, these kids are still Flagstaff kids," Matheson says. In addition, the district has offered to contract with the charters for various services such as student counseling, payroll processing, and special education.

Equity Issues

Balancing the needs of charter schools with the needs of other schools in the district is a constant concern as well.

"Charter schools are labor-intensive" for the central office as well as the charter school, says Joe Rao, charter school ombudsman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 14 charters. "You have to strike a balance … and make sure that no student in the district is negatively affected, not the student in the charter school and not the student in one of the others."

"Things just spill over from the charter schools and require considerable staff time," agrees Carle, the former superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo. "But that's a factor that probably will never be fully understood."

The parents of children at other schools in the district also are likely to keep a keen eye on equity, many superintendents observe. In Stanislaus County, Calif., for example, Richard Ferriera, superintendent of the Hickman School District, says he had to stop granting teachers' requests to transfer to the district's charter school, which served 75 home-schoolers this past year. The reason: "The community was concerned that all our excellent teachers would move to the charter," says Ferriera, who also serves as president of the California Network of Educational Charters.

When charter school organizers in Cambridge, Mass., founded the Benjamin Banneker Charter School, which focuses on the needs of disadvantaged minority students, Mary Lou McGrath, the former superintendent, says she worked hard to quell any controversy.

"I didn't want Cambridge to go through what some other communities in Massachusetts did, with neighbors fighting neighbors," says McGrath, whose district lost 160 students and $1.1 million in state aid when the charter school opened last year. "I felt that these were all our kids and that under law this was a public school."

Another reason to look for a peaceful resolution: Some time in the future, some superintendents say, charter schools might decide to rejoin their school districts.

Reporting Results

Increasingly, too, school districts are wrestling with the question of how they will determine whether a school has fulfilled its charter.

Five of the 14 charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, will be eligible for renewal in 1998. And according to Rao, the district may hire an outside contractor to evaluate the charter schools' performance. "Outside evaluators will have no preconceived notions, so their findings are likely to satisfy both sides," he says.

Jefferson County, Colo., used just such an approach this year when three of its charters came up for renewal. All three charters were renewed, though one low-performing charter school will have its charter reviewed again in a year.

Both sides like the use of external evaluators. "Going to an outside consultant gets around the politics of charter schools," says one charter school advocate.

Finally, superintendents report, they often face the disapproval and anger of colleagues. "Frankly, other superintendents view me as a traitor," says one superintendent who has promoted charter schools in his district and who asked not to be identified.

Regulatory Buildup

Charter organizers and advocates have their own worries. Most acknowledge that district superintendents have a central role to play. "The attitude of the school district leader just makes all the difference in the world," says Tracey Bailey, director of Florida's Office of Charter Schools and a former National Teacher of the Year.

Florida, which passed charter school legislation only a year ago, has approved 35 charter schools. "If the staff feels the superintendent is reluctant, cautious, or even hostile to the charter school, then most of the answers [charter school organizers] will receive will be 'No, we don't do that' or 'No, we can't do that,'" says Bailey.

Howard Fuller, former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee and a charter school proponent, offers a broader perspective: "I'd argue that if we're going to collectively rethink the institution of education, it would be better to have superintendents and school boards on board." However, superintendents and school boards—and to a greater extent, teachers unions—have a history of blocking charter schools, charter school advocates say, especially in states that have just begun their work with charter schools.

And even when a district sponsors a charter school, many advocates worry about respecting the fine line between help and interference, responsibility and uniformity.

"I call it 'regulatory reloading,'" says Bailey. "Districts basically say, 'Yes, we'll approve the charter, but ...'" What follows is the all-too-human desire to promote what's familiar. Before school districts approve a charter school, they naturally have to be comfortable with the school's viability, he says. "But face it, we're only comfortable with what we know—and we only know what we've been doing for the last 50 years."

Instead of offering new and innovative programs, charters instead can end up looking "just like all the bureaucratically protected schools," says Bailey.

Fuller, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, offers a harsher assessment: Powerful interest groups-and he includes superintendents in that camp—have fought charters tooth-and-nail in many communities. Now, largely out of necessity, many school leaders and union representatives declare they're in favor of charters. Their words and actions are at odds, though. Instead of fostering innovation and allowing significant flexibility, "they use all the old bureaucratic ways of sucking up reform ... and try to make charters as much like the existing schools as they possibly can," says Fuller. "They try to re-regulate you in the name of accountability."

Working out that balance between accountability and autonomy might be the biggest challenge superintendents face, many say.

"This is just the largest stretch I've ever made as an administrator," confesses Gilpatrick, the superintendent in Verona, Wis., when asked about creating an environment where schools with different philosophies can develop and grow. "But if you go in with an open mind and look at your district goals, you're likely to see pieces and corners that charters might help you reach."

Donna Harrington-Lueker is an education free-lance writer in Newport, R.I.