Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Charter School's success depends on vision, mission, school principals, and sponsors

In anticipation of discussion next week by the by the board of the School District of Lancaster concerning the proposed Charter Science High School, the following is based on interviews of sources and research conducted by NewsLanc.

Charter schools are part of a so-called “choice movement”: the idea being that urban school districts should offer choices.

In the past, the only choice was between the public and the private sector, which consisted of parochial and private schools. Charter schools were somewhat in between: They are public but not under the direction of the public school district. They have certain performance expectations in order to retain their charter and were meant to be subject to review by the local district and the state’s department of instructions.

Data on their performance is very much mixed, so generalization cannot be made as to whether students going to them will perform better or worse. Performance has not so much do with whether they are charter schools but instead with the quality of the school principals and charter school boards. When they have good leadership, they have a better chance of being successful. The quality of principals is also a major factor in the performance of public schools.

Another issue is how well conceived is the vision and mission of the individual charter school. (Vision: What the purpose of the school is and what they expect as an outcome.)

For example, parents who may not be happy with the district for one reason or another then gather together to create a charter school and take all of the political and legal steps necessary to achieve that end. However, it turns out that the reason for setting up the charter is more negative rather than based on a clear vision of what the charter school is to become. Unfortunately, that often occurs.

A possible example was the Ron Brown charter school established by sponsors described as “well meaning people but inept” in Harrisburg that closed within three years.

Charter schools can be a financial burden for the public school district. For example, the pro-rate share of funds transferred to the charter school per student form the school district may be $10,000 per student. However, if the student is later reclassified by the charter school as requiring special education, then the charter school may charge the school district perhaps $22,000. The school has no redress.

Staying with finance issues, let’s say that the school district has a budget of a hundred million dollars but they are servicing $75 million of historical debt. (Debt service might have resulted from past poor management of property construction or improvements.) When the $11,000 per capita is paid to the charter school, the school district is not permitted to retain from the $11,000 a pro-rate share to service existing debt service. So, in effect, the school district remains with the entire burden of the debt service and the charter school gets a free ride. This places an added burden on those paying school taxes. (Of course, the charter school may have its own debt service.) Also, the school district carries the entire load of the basic infrastructure costs.

Sometimes school districts can play games themselves. They may attempt to export lower performance students and students who require expensive special educational support.

There are accusations that charter schools “cherry pick” talented youngsters. In theory, charter schools cannot say, “we won’t take you.” But parents do tend to self-select and charter schools thus can drain the students of greatest potential from public schools.

There are three motives for people in urban areas sending children to charter schools: 1) They think they will get a better education. 2) They think their kids will be safer. 3) They anticipate smaller class sizes.

In fact, there is no generalization that can be made concerning whether charter school students achieve better results in such areas as graduation rates, test scores, and college enrollment. Success depends on the quality of the leadership.

By definition, charter schools are not for profit. However, those who seek the charter may be community lay people who wish to have more control to have more control over the school and are disenchanted with their schools. Or they may be profiteers, who use the charter school as a means to divert funds for their political or financial advantages.

And there are circumstances when the public school district has retained so much authority over the charter school that the charter school was hamstrung from succeeding. For a possible example, visit “Viewpoint: Chester-Upland's Troubled Schools” by David W. Kirkpatrick at http://www.buckeyeinstitute.org/article/537

Currently, there is litigation in the Upland-Chester School District in Delaware County and elsewhere in the state concerning enrollment caps and accountability issues. Essentially, the charter schools claim that school district and the State Department of Education do not have a right to review their performances. They claim only charter schools boards have jurisdiction. The State Department of Education maintains that charter schools must meet performance goals.

There is also litigation over charter school claims that they should not be subject to enrollment caps that had been part of their arrangements with school districts. The charter schools maintain that they must have autonomy to achieve their core missions.

Districts are learning that a lot of things they are taking for granted are now being challenged by “profiteers” on the grounds that they are not bound by past agreements. In some cases, challenges can come from altruistic lay boards.

In evaluating proposals for a charter school, it is important to know whether the sponsors are community-based (Is it a charter school that has been generated by local concerns?), whether a well-qualified sponsor from outside the region, or whether it is by profiteers from the outside who see this as an opportunity to come in and exploit the situation. (There are many ways for non-profits to divert funds in a manner that is not socially beneficial. It is important to check the histories of the sponsors and its staff for business competence and integrity, especially as managers of educational institutions.)

And even when locally sponsored, it essential to know the level of experience and competence of the sponsors. How clear is their vision? Home grown sponsors can often be financially naive and unsophisticated.

Another problem with local, homegrown charter schools is that they often run into fiscal problems because they are underfunded and don’t know how to play the system the way the profiteers do. Outside charter schools run by businesspeople know how to milk every cent out of government and other sources of funding at the expense of other schools. They may not have a social justice bone in their body. When school districts ask them for information or try to hold them responsible, they go into court for an injunction. Two or three years and millions in litigation cost can ensue.