Charter schools: learning from the past, planning
for the future
Lea Hubbard Ã† Rucheeta Kulkarni
Published online: 26 March 2009
! Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract Charter schools have garnered strong support over the past decade,
however, opponents question this choice option on many grounds, including their
effectiveness, accountability, equity, and sustainability. This paper addresses these
concerns by synthesizing what we know from the literature on charter schools,
exposing areas where evidence is lacking, conflicting or ambiguous, and assessing
the overall maturation of charter school reform. To help answer the question of
sustainability, we draw in part on findings from our in-progress, long-term case
study of a conversion charter school. This ethnographic data reveals the existence of
serious challenges for researchers and policymakers, but also provides useful
guidance for the future direction of the charter school movement.
Keywords Charter schools ! Choice ! Educational change
In the closing decades of the 20th century, responsibility for improving US public
education shifted away from professionals and toward the larger community
(Murphy and Shiffman 2002). A focus on â€˜â€˜parentsâ€™ rightsâ€™â€™ emerged, along with a
greater emphasis on marketization and privatization (Contreras 1995; Wells 2002).
Many educators, parents, and business and political leaders began to support the
idea of school choice as a solution to the seemingly intractable problems of the
public school system. Charter schools quickly captured attention as an especially
L. Hubbard (&)
School of Leadership and Education Sciences, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park,
San Diego, CA 92110, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
promising way to provide much-needed innovation, competition, and academic
In the years following the opening of the first charter school (in Minnesota, in
1992), the movement spread rapidly.1 By 2008, according to the Center for
Education Reform (2008a), a non-partisan organization that supports school choice,
there were 4,100 charter schools, serving approximately 1.2 million children across
40 states and the District of Columbia. As these statistics suggest, this form of
school choice has strong support. And, given President Barack Obamaâ€™s appointment of charter-school supporter Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, backing
for these schools is not likely to diminish. Still, over the past 10 years, increasingly
vigorous opposition has emerged from some quarters. Opponents question charter
schools on many grounds, including their effectiveness, accountability, equity, and
sustainability. This paper addresses these concerns by synthesizing what we know
from the literature on charter schools, exposing areas where evidence is lacking,
conflicting or ambiguous, and assessing the overall maturation of charter school
reform. To help answer the question of sustainability, we draw in part on findings
from our in-progress, long-term case study of a conversion charter school. This
ethnographic data reveals the existence of serious challenges for researchers and
policymakers, but also provides useful guidance for the future direction of the
charter school movement.
By design, charter schools are meant to combine greater academic autonomy than is
normally associated with traditional public schools with more accountability for
producing positive educational outcomes (Wells 2002; see also Wohlstetter et al.
1995). Charters deliberately distance themselves from union rules and regulations
and thus have more discretion in hiring and firing teachers. As the name implies, the
schools operate under a charter or contract with an authorizing agent. That agent
varies widely: it may be a school district, a state board of education, a university, a
non-profit or a for-profit organization. It is the responsibility of the authorizing
agent to oversee and hold the charter accountable. Contracts typically need to be
renewed every 3â€“5 years.
Charter schools differ from one another across a surprisingly large number of
dimensions (Lake and Hill 2006). There are, for example, differences in
organizational structureâ€”there are â€˜â€˜start-up charters,â€™â€™ â€˜â€˜conversion chartersâ€™â€™
(conventional public schools that petitioned for and received charter status), and,
especially over the past 5 to 10 years, charters affiliated with either for-profit or nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) (Lake 2007). Moreover, different
types of charters serve different types of student populations, are more or less
financially solvent, and face both similar and different challenges that ultimately
1 While our article is restricted to the U.S. context, it is important to note that charter-like schools exist in
other countries, such as New Zealand (Ladner 2001) Chile (LarranËœaga 2004), and England (Wohlstetter
and Anderson 1994). Moreover, countries such as Japan are showing increasing interest (Tokyo 2004).
174 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
affect the work they are able to do. Such variations make it difficult to generalize
about the effectiveness of charter schools as an educational reform initiative.
Despite generally high levels of satisfaction among parents who have chosen to
enroll their children in charter schools (Teske and Schneider 2001), an ongoing
debate among educators, researchers, and policymakers persists, underscoring the
existence of important political and educational concerns.
Among the most salient questions are the following:
â€¢ Are charter schools living up to their promise to improve studentsâ€™ academic
â€¢ Are charter schools being held sufficiently accountable?
â€¢ Are charter schools improving the education of all children, or are they
contributing to a re-segregation of public education?
â€¢ Are charter schools truly innovative (thus expanding choice for diverse student
needs), or are they similar in many respects to conventional public schools?
â€¢ Do charter schools have the requisite leadership, teaching staff, and governance
to support their educational mission?
â€¢ And finally, are charter schools sustainable as a permanent alternative to
conventional public schools?
The remainder of the paper considers each of these questions in turn. Wherever
possible, we use the most current research available in order to provide an accurate
understanding of the degree to which charter schools are (or are not) living up to
their promise to be both innovative and accountable.
Are charter schools living up to their promise to improve studentsâ€™ academic
The short answer to the question of whether or not charter schools are raising
academic achievement is that we still donâ€™t know. Over the last decade, studies of
charter school achievement nationwide have shown mixed results. A non-partisan
study published in 2001 reported significant inter- and intra-state differences
(RAND 2001). In Arizona, for example, charters seemed to outperform their public
school counterparts in reading, and possibly in math; in Michigan, 7th grade
students in the stateâ€™s newly opened charters showed no difference in test scores
from their peers in conventional public schools, and at the 4th grade level,
traditional school students outperformed those in charter schools. Texas charter
schools that focused specifically on students at risk for poor academic performance
showed an achievement advantage over conventional public schools, but the stateâ€™s
other charter schools performed slightly worse than conventional public schools.
Other studies have reported more positive results. Zimmer et al. (2003)
conducted a study of California charter schools and found that when charter schools
provided all of their instruction inside the classroom (as opposed to delivering some
of it outside the classroom), students fared better than their public-school
counterparts. Some very recent research on two start-up charter schools in
California found minority and low-income students outperforming their public
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 175
school peers academically and with respect to college entrance (Alvarez and Mehan
2006; McLure et al. 2005).
Charter school critics, on the other hand, emphasize evidence that indicates
charter schools are not doing well compared to their non-charter counterparts. For
instance, an analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data
provided by the American Federation of Teachers (Nelson et al. 2004) shows that
charter school students had test scores a half-grade lower than the scores of students
in public schools. And, while black students in charter schools were found to
perform about the same as black students in public schools, students in central cities
and those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches scored worse. A 2005 report by
the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a governmental agency,
confirmed the AFT findings. Compared to their non-charter counterparts, lowincome students in charter schools scored lower in reading and mathematics, were
taught by teachers with less years of experience, and by teachers who lacked
certification. Other studies echo these disappointing results, finding no significant
differences in test scores of elementary school students in charter schools versus
those in traditional public schools (Loveless 2003; Rogosa 2003).
The mixed findings on charter-school studentsâ€™ academic achievement have been
variously interpreted. Some charter proponents question the research designs and/or
methods used to assess performance, and argue that NAEP scores are misleading
because the effects of poverty and other background factors of the students who
attend charters negatively influence test scores. Braun et al. (2006), for instance, call
for a more sophisticated quantitative analysis using hierarchical linear modeling to
enable analysis of multiple school and student characteristics. Yet, when Braun and
his colleagues applied their statistical model, they derived similarly disappointing
results regarding academic achievement. Charter school studentsâ€™ scores in reading
and mathematics were lower on average than those of students in public non-charter
schools. Hoxby (2004), a charter school proponent, reported positive findings in her
comparison between public school and charter school studentsâ€™ reading and math
scores, after accounting for poverty and other background factors. A reanalysis by
the Economic Policy Institute (Roy and Mishel 2005), however, concluded that
Hoxby had not adequately controlled for racial composition or low-income status.
The authorsâ€™ concluded from Hoxbyâ€™s data that â€˜â€˜when both racial composition and
low-income status are controlled for, the positive effect of attending a charter school
disappears for both math and readingâ€™â€™ (p. 2). Hoxbyâ€™s research has been severely
criticized by others, as well (see Carnoy et al. 2005).
Timing may also play a role in the mixed nature of the findings on academic
achievement. Some researchers have noted that for the most part, the achievement
data that has been analyzed was collected when charter schools were in the early
stages of their growth. Moreover, because charter schools sometimes experiment
with novel educational approaches and â€˜â€˜collect test score data in a given grade over
time without accounting for the fact that a school enrolls different students in that
grade in different school years,â€™â€™ study results often are problematic (Betts and Tang
2008). Other researchers, noting that assessing academic performance is a complex
undertaking, suggest the use of different kinds of assessment and urge that
assessment be conducted over a long period of time (Bulkley and Fisler 2003).
176 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
Over the last decade, assessment of charter schools has remained a salient
concern among educators, policymakers and parents. However, very recently, a
significant change in the approach to charter school assessment has been suggested.
Betts and Tang (2008) advocate a value-added approach. They use this approach,
along with random assignment, in their investigation of charter school achievement.
Despite considerable variation among the schools, the overall evidence shows that
charters outperformed their traditional public school counterparts. The researchers
suggest that, given the variety among charter schools, variation in performance
should be expected and not used to dismiss charter schools in general. Betts and
Tang acknowledge that the results of their study are preliminary and note that at the
high school level, the findings are quite disappointing. Still, they argue that the
results for elementary and middle schools offer reason for optimism.
Are charter schools being held sufficiently accountable?
In exchange for autonomy, charter schools are supposed to be held accountable for
achieving the goals they set forth in their charter. Given the publicâ€™s investment in
these alternative public schools, the level of accountability is both a political and an
educational concern. Bulkley and Fisler (2003) note that â€˜â€˜there is considerable
variation in state approaches to governmental accountabilityâ€™â€™ (p. 327). Although
some states exert considerable control over charter schools, other states rely on
market accountability or district oversight to ensure quality.
Some researchers have pointed out that even when there is some evidence of
accountability, problems persist because of the kinds of relationships charter schools
have with their authorizers. Wells (2002) argues that
Charter school authorizers find it difficult to know how to relate to schools on
the basis of performance rather than compliance. In short, there are now
massive amounts of evidence that the systemic reform vision of charter
schools and their autonomy-for-accountability trade off has not materialized.
We are left with a reform that, in many cases, provides a great deal of
autonomy for individual schools but little public information or feedback
about what takes place within them (p. 13).
A common assumption is that the market will drive accountability, but there appears
to be no additional academic accountability for charter schools (Wells 2002).
Proponents maintain that charter schools that do not provide quality education
simply will not remain open, since parents will remove their children from
unsuccessful schools. Research on this issue, however, reveals that this assumption
may not be correct.
Research on charter schools has shown that parents generally are more satisfied
with their choice to enroll their children in charter schools as opposed to traditional
public schools and that they are more involved in their childrenâ€™s education (Teske
and Schneider 2001; Vanourek et al. 1998) than they were previously. This high
level of satisfaction may be a rationalization. Parents who have made the extra effort
to choose a charter school believe that the charter must therefore be superior to a
conventional public school (Fuller et al. 1996). This conviction may weaken over
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 177
time (Ogawa and Dutton 1994). Nevertheless, across the research studies we
reviewed, there is general consensus that parents seem pleased with their choice.
A study of charter schools in Texas found that parents are more likely to pull
their children out of ineffective charter schools (i.e., ones that boost studentsâ€™ test
scores by less than average) than effective ones (Hanushek et al. 2007). Yet,
charters vary in their goal specificity. This can make it difficult for parents to
accurately measure the schoolsâ€™ performance. Carnoy and his colleagues (2005)
point out that the basic assumption that parents will hold schools accountable often
is invalid, since â€˜â€˜parents may choose charter schools for other than academic
reasons;â€™â€™ moreover, the sheer complexity involved in assessing a schoolâ€™s academic
performance makes it unlikely that parents would consistently â€˜â€˜be able to discern a
charter school that was more academically effectiveâ€™â€™ (p. 4). Experiences in
California would seem to confirm Carnoyâ€™s assertions. In May 2007, accountability
issues drew intense media attention after a series of very public charter school
closings. These closings followed the discovery of serious mismanagement that had
gone unnoticed by parents.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the area of charter school accountability has
been the actions taken by states to rein in charter schools. In California, following
the passage of legislation, the California Charter School Association (CCSA) added
its support to the push for greater accountability, launching, in May 2007, the
Certified Charter Schools Program. In the decades since the start of the charter
school movement, the CCSA has â€˜â€˜evolved from a loose network of charter leaders
and idealists swapping ideas and information to an influential political player with
financial backing from such philanthropic heavy-hitters as the Walton Family
Foundationâ€™â€™ (Maxwell 2008). The CCSAâ€™s transformation into a powerful specialinterest group is ironic, since CCSA founders had fought to rein in the power that
another special interest groupâ€”the California Teachers Associationâ€”exerted over
the stateâ€™s public school system (Fuller et al. 1996). The organizationâ€™s certification
program broke new ground. This was
the first time that a stateâ€™s charter school sector had agreed on a set of quality
standards and said it would recognize schools that lived up to them. Seventy
percent of the charter schools in California are CCSA members and are putting
themselves under the scrutiny of an outside reviewer to judge how well they
educate children, govern themselves, and manage their finances (Maxwell 2008).
Whether this combination of state legislation and CCSA certification will continue
to ensure accountability across Californiaâ€™s charter schools remains to be seen.
Are charter schools improving the education of all children, or are they
contributing to a re-segregation of public education?
The question of equity in the charter school context has several components. Here we
focus on issues of equity in access and equity in financial resources. In the subsequent
sections, as we discuss issues of innovation and capacity, we take up the additional
concerns of curriculum equity and human capital equity. It is in these areas that the
potential for an unequal education is greatest for charter school students.
178 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, creating heterogeneous public
schools has gained greater importance, and the imperative to preserve that
heterogeneity extends to all charter schools (Arsen et al. 1999; Cobb and Glass
1999). Lopez et al. (2002) warn that segregation may be growing along with the
spread of charter schools. They point out that charter school founders often build what
may be termed â€˜â€˜cultural communities,â€™â€™ which define charter schools in opposition to
other public schools (p. 131). When schools are free to control who gets in and who
does not, when they can â€˜â€˜inviteâ€™â€™ certain groups of students and create microcosms of
populations with the same or similar values and beliefs, racial/ethnic composition,
and social class standing, maintaining equity becomes problematic. Moreover, when
low-income students are excluded because attending schools outside their residential
neighborhood is not feasible, or because considerable amounts of parental involvement are required and additional costs associated with attendance preclude these
studentsâ€™ enrollment, more privileged students are granted an advantage.
Access to school choice also seems to be driven by who knows about the options,
and in this regard, research suggests that more educated, middle- or upper-income
white parents are more aware (Henig 1996). Teske and Schneider (2001) argue that
charter schools are contributing to re-segregation due in part to the behavior of
â€˜â€˜higher-SES parents and white parents [who] appear more likely to favor schools
with fewer low-income students or minorities. Expanded choice systems therefore
could exacerbate stratification or segregation because different types of parents
systematically make different choicesâ€™â€™ (p. 614).
A demographic study conducted by RPP International in 2000 suggests a
different scenario. Researchers found that 70% of the charter schools they examined
had student populations with racial and ethnic compositions similar to district noncharter schools, 17% had a higher portion of students of color, and about 14% had a
lower percentage of students of color. This finding, however, has not been replicated
elsewhere, according to Bulkley and Fisler (2003).
Issues of equity are even more complicated in the case of conversion charter
schools. In the last decade, the number of conversion charters has increased
dramatically, as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements have forced takeovers or
closures of underperforming schools. These schools typically educate the same
neighborhood students who had been attending the local, now-closed conventional
public schools. Since public schools today are more segregated than ever (Orfield and
Eaton 1996; Orfield and Lee 2007), converting them to charters does not interrupt
segregation. Instead, conversions perpetuateâ€”and in some cases exacerbateâ€”the
segregation already present in the school systems from which they have stemmed.
Charter schools are entitled to the same Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funds
allocated by individual states to their traditional public schools (Center for
Education Reform 2008b). Theoretically, this should ensure financial equity
between the two types of schools. Slayton (2002) found, however, that in practice,
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 179
not all charter schools receive the same funding from their districts. The Center for
Education Reform reports that â€˜â€˜charter schools across the United States are funded
at 61% of their district counterpartsâ€™â€™ (2008b). This imbalance leads many schools to
seek private fundingâ€”a difficult and time-consuming endeavorâ€”and one that often
results in failure.
Conversion charter schools may face double jeopardy. The authorizing agent for
this type of charter typically is the local school district, and conversion charter
schools often continue to occupy district-owned facilities. Thus, the district has the
option of raising the rent on these facilities, assigning additional special education
students to these schools, and determining the level of support to provide for special
needs students. In some districts, conversion charters may also be responsible for
supplying professional development for teachers and administrators, an expense that
was previously covered by the district. Meeting these and other externally imposed
responsibilities can quickly become a major financial burden. It is not surprising,
then, that in many cases, individuals who are interested in starting a charter school
turn to CMOs, who help with start-up funds and locating potential school sites, and
often also provide curriculum and the professional development necessary in order
to open the school (Scott and Holmes 2002). This increasing reliance on CMOs is,
arguably, one of the greatest changes that has occurred within the charter school
movement over the past decade. The additional financial burden experienced by
most charters, given they often do not receive the same local and facility funds that
regular public schools receive (Speakman 2008), can undermine the quality of the
education children in a charter school receive, as opposed to those in an equivalent
conventional public school (Fuller et al. 1996; Wells 2002).
When charter schools do not provide equal access and when tight finances reduce
the number and type of educational resources that can be made available to students,
the highly probable result is an ever-wider gap in achievement, not only between
charter and traditional public schools, but also between students of different races
Are charter schools truly innovative (thus expanding choice for diverse student
needs), or are they similar in many respects to conventional public schools?
One of the more exciting expectations of charter schools was that they would offer a
venue for innovation, which could potentially not only expand choice but also
address the needs of a greater number of students. Hill (2006) confirms a trend
among charter schools to provide a college preparatory curriculum to inner-city
students, a course of study often not available to them. Some charters extend school
hours and the school year to enhance learning opportunities.
Wohlstetter and Griffin (1998) suggest, however, that charter schools do not take
advantage of their autonomy when it comes to practice. Lubienski (2003) seems to
concur. His review of research on charter schools that report using more innovations
than district schools found that there was a â€˜â€˜trend toward standardization of
practiceâ€”rather than innovationâ€”in many of the schoolsâ€™â€™ (p. 417). Charter schools
may be looking more like their traditional counterparts because parents who do not
want their children to be guinea pigs may make few demands for innovation (Lake
180 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
and Hill 2006). Although they still hold the promise of bringing much-needed
change, in their fervor to achieve strong test results and to respond to federal and
state accountability mandates, charter schools may be moving more toward the
practices common in their public school counterparts. As they move toward the
mean, charter schools are experiencing what Kemerer has referred to as â€˜â€˜regulation
creepâ€™â€™ (personal communication, December 12, 2008).
Do charter schools have the requisite teaching staff, leadership, and governance
to support their educational mission?
While the autonomy granted charters provides distance from unions, it also raises
concerns as to whether these schools are able to hire effective teachers and,
importantly, whether they are able to retain the brightest and best teachers once they
have been hired. The ability of charter schools to provide the kind of human capital
to best educate children is particularly problematic if a charter school is already
struggling financially and has little margin with which to keep teacher salaries at
competitive levels. The need to control costs often prompts the schools to hire a
greater number of new, inexperienced teachers, which in turn raises questions about
teacher quality (Darling-Hammond and Prince 2007; Darling-Hammond and
Youngs 2002). Moreover, charter schools often demand that teachers work a
longer school day and year. Many otherwise strong, committed, veteran teachers
may burn out under this added burden and choose to leave, while colleagues with
less impressive credentials, who therefore are less likely to land jobs in other noncharter schools in the district, remain in place. Of course, this scenario could,
arguably, instead result in the retention of the most able and the most dedicated
teachers. Further research is called for.
Obviously, leadership is important for the success of any school. Charter schools
face several challenges on this front, starting with the problem of recruiting capable
individuals to lead the schools. Education Weekâ€™s fifth annual â€˜â€˜Leading for Learningâ€™â€™
report notes that according to an estimate made by the National Alliance for Public
Charter Schools, charter schools are expected to need between 6,000 and 21,000 new
principals over the next decade, a figure that â€˜â€˜dwarfs the 4,300 charter schools in
existence as of last school yearâ€™â€™ (Robelen 2008). Most principals have not been
trained in the skills and knowledge necessary for leading charter schools effectively.
In addition to having instructional knowledge and administrative skills, charter
leaders need to know how to negotiate relations with charter school authorizers,
school boards, parents, and teachers. They must be prepared to handle legal issues and
financial problems, including the need to raise money. Preparing individuals to lead
charters is a challenge that must be met by our principal preparation programs, if we
are to ensure the promise of quality education. Over the past few years, we have
witnessed some positive programmatic changes. Universities attempting to address
the needs of charter school principals have developed innovative curricula that often
includes more field experience and problem-based learning, additions likely to be very
helpful to these future leaders (Jackson and Kelley 2002).
Authorizing agents play a big role in the governance of charters. Depending on
the authorizing agentâ€™s level of control, charter leaders have varying degrees of
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 181
decision-making power. For example, in reviewing how various agents approach
their responsibilities, Lake and Hill (2006) describes Central Michigan University as
taking â€˜â€˜a very top-down approach to oversightâ€™â€™ that includes a willingness
â€˜â€˜to impose a specific idea of good instruction and replace board members for the
schools they oversee, even if that means all schools end up with similar approachesâ€™â€™
(p. xii). The State University of New York, by contrast, prefers â€˜â€˜a more arms-length
relationshipâ€™â€™ with the charter schools it oversees (Ibid.). Which kind of relationship
produces better results is an open question, but as Lake observes, the resemblance
between top-down, centralized approaches and â€˜â€˜conventional school district
oversight is strikingâ€™â€™(Ibid.).
Many charters have 501C status and are governed by a full board of directors. As
some experts have pointed out, however, many boards are ill-equipped to handle their
responsibilities effectively. Board members are drawn from constituents who have an
investment in the school, including community members, parents, teachers,
partnership representatives, and administrators. In some areas, charter school
associations have assumed the job of training boardsâ€”explaining state laws
regulating charter schools, teaching members how to work with the authorizing
agent, and, sometimes, providing coaching on how to fund-raise. There are some
concerns that this kind of intervention may give charter school associations too much
powerâ€”power that ought to rest in the hands of the local charter school community.
In other words, as charter schools mature, they may be in â€˜â€˜danger of repeating the
very same mistakes, with regard to whole school solutions and top-down fixes that
[they] set out to correct in the traditional education systemâ€™â€™ (Lake and Hill 2006, p. xi).
Are charter schools sustainable as a permanent alternative to conventional public
Much of what we know about charter schools is based on analyses of quantitative
data (e.g., NCES 2005; RAND 2001; Zimmer et al. 2003). Although there are some
important exceptions (e.g., Fuller 2000; Stulberg 2008), overall, there is a startling
absence of long-term case studies and the rich data they provide. This has led to a
circumscribed understanding of the cultural, practical, and political decisions that
are being made by actors within and external to charter schools. We need to know
more about the relationships, challenges, and conditions charter school educators
and administrators face as they work to keep their schools open and effective.
Almost all charter schools that have closedâ€”whether by their own decision or as
a result of revocation or non-renewalâ€”have done so for reasons unrelated or only
indirectly related to educational performance (Center for Education Reform 2008c).
The most common reasons for closure are â€˜â€˜organizational chaos, management meltdown, and fiscal shenanigansâ€™â€™ (Finn et al. 2000, p. 137). What causes these kinds of
problems? To begin the process of answering that question, in the next section, we
briefly describe the experiences of one California conversion charter middle school,
tracing its transition from a traditional public school to a charter school now in its
fourth year of operation (see Hubbard and Hands 2008 for a detailed discussion of
this). The lessons generated from this case study speak to the question of the overall
sustainability of charters.
182 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
Culture, communication, and collapse
After being part of Californiaâ€™s Immediate Intervention for Underperforming
Schools Program (II/USP) and failing to meet its NCLB performance targets,
Barbara Jordan Middle School (pseudonym) was placed in Program Improvement.
In the spring of 2000, only a third of the schoolâ€™s nearly 700 students tested at or
above 50% on the stateâ€™s standardized mathematics and reading tests. Student
achievement began to improve in 2001, under the leadership of a newly appointed
principal who formerly had been a Jordan Middle School teacher. The Academic
Performance Index (API) climbed from 546 in 2001 to 629 in 2004, but the school
remained in Program Improvement status through the 2004â€“2005 school year. The
threat of a takeover by the state galvanized the local community. Members protested
in front of the district school board, charging that their children had suffered from
the districtâ€™s neglect. The school community fought for and won the right to convert
to charter status. In 2004â€“2005, the school re-opened as a charter school, under the
new name of Barbara Jordan College Preparatory Academy, and with a new
executive director. The local school district is the authorizing agent.
Faced with an array of challenges, including developing greater financial
resources and human capital, the new executive director reached out to a
neighboring university, hoping to forge a supportive partnership. This is an
increasingly common strategy among charter leaders in California. According to the
California Charter Schools Association, the number of charter schools in the state
that operate in conjunction with a university has nearly doubled recently. In 2007,
there were 12 charter schools associated with universities. By fall 2008, 10 more
were slated to open, with several other campuses planning similar kinds of
partnerships in the near future (Maitre 2008).
A board was appointed, with members drawn from the local community, from
among parents of students enrolled in the school, from the charterâ€™s teaching staff,
and from the partnering university. A somewhat contentious relationship developed
with the school district as a result of steep increases in rent for the charterâ€™s
facilities, located in a mixed-use, low-income neighborhood (the same site the
school had occupied before the conversion). Some board members described
the new rent as commensurate with the going rate for pricey real estate in one of the
areaâ€™s exclusive beach communities. This troubling financial scenario (one all toofamiliar in the charter school movement, as noted in our earlier discussion of
financial equity) was exacerbated by a change in district superintendents. Unlike his
predecessor, who had been supportive, the new superintendent was critical of
charter schools in general. Additional problems occurred when the district increased
the assignment of special education students to the school without providing the
requisite support. Meanwhile, although the school successfully shed its â€˜â€˜need for
improvementâ€™â€™ status, academic achievement has been faltering recently. Some
children are showing improvement, but there is evidence that all children are not
experiencing academic gains, thus raising questions as to the ability of this charter
school to improve academic achievement.
Relationships between the school and the community also have been deteriorating. Previously extremely supportive, the community is now less committed and
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 183
some members express feelings of alienation. For example, some parents complain
that they and their community are viewed as deficient by the executive director and
that they feel marginalized. A school staff person who is a parent and long time
community member told us that members of the Latino community in particular do
not feel that their needs are being taken into account, or that school administrators
are being held accountable for their actions. For example, although the school
arranged for parent meetings, they scheduled them at a time when most of the
parents were working and could not attend. Moreover, when parents did attend
school functions they were not shown the respect they felt they deserved.
The universityâ€“school partnership is splintering as well. Neither side had clearly
articulated their expectations when the partnership was first created; with the
passage of time, charter representatives have come to view the university as selfserving, and as failing to provide the level of monetary and tutoring support they
expected and the school needed. For their part, the university representatives now
feel that no matter how much support they provide, it is never considered â€˜â€˜enoughâ€™â€™
by their charter partners. In year three of the charter, amid increasingly poor
communications and strained relations, the executive director resigned, under some
pressure from the board.
This resignation required the board to search for and hire a new director. When
the first candidate search proved unsuccessful, the former executive directorâ€™s
number two person was appointed as interim director. Later, when the board
decided not to appoint him as permanent director, some teachers and parents
rebelled. They believed the board was simply capitulating to directives issued by the
university and was no longer meeting its obligation to be accountable to the
community. Thus, they demanded termination of the schoolâ€™s partnership with the
university. The charter contract, which is up for renewal in the 2009â€“2010 academic
year, is reliant upon strong direction from the school leadership, but to date, the
school remains without a permanent executive director, and teacher and community
sentiment concerning the interim director is split. One of the few things all parties
agree on is that the survival of this charter is at great risk.
From our perspective, this conversion charter schoolâ€™s experiences confirm many
of the research findings that have emerged over the last 10 years. Like other charters
across the country, this school has been plagued by issues of uneven academic
achievement, limited accountability, and financial and human capital inequity.
Sadly, the additional problems of inexperienced leadership and contested governance have further hobbled the schoolâ€™s efforts to meet its educational mission.
What accounts for the schoolâ€™s rapid decline? Are there any general lessons to be
learned from its particular course of development, its implementation processes,
and/or its responses to the many challenges to even its short-term sustainability? We
think so. Suggestions for fixing the problems of this school will not, of course, apply
to all charters, nor even necessarily to ones that face similar threats. But we believe
that several findings that have emerged thus far from this case study can help guide
184 J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189
researchers, educators, parents, and policymakers as we all think about and craft the
future direction of charter school reform. These key points are as follows:
â€¢ Cultivate relationships. Relationships among all key constituents (board
members, university partners, administrators, faculty, parents, and authorizing
agents) must be deliberately cultivated and carefully negotiated on a continuing
basis. Open, on-going communication is essential. The case study findings
indicate that when expectations are not fully articulated and/or when they are
ambiguous, key participants become confused or disappointed and, ultimately,
they will become disengaged as well. Ruptured communications can lead
parents and community members to perceive school administrators, faculty and
board members as not sufficiently accountable to them, a perception that may
eventually endanger charter school survival.
â€¢ Prepare key participants. Charter school participants have roles and responsibilities that differ, sometimes significantly, from those of their counterparts in
conventional public schools, underscoring the importance of adequate preparation. Preparing all participants so that they are able to fulfill their
responsibilities is imperative. Barbara Jordan College Preparatory Academy
board members might have prevented some of the missteps that plagued the
school if they had received board training. Similarly, if the executive director,
who was new to the role of principal and untrained in leading charter schools,
had been properly trained, she might have more expertly negotiated the financial
and legal demands imposed by the authorizing agent and worked more
effectively with the board. Securing grants and soliciting private and/or
foundation support are not functions public school principals are trained to
undertake. This will have to change, at least for charter school leaders.
â€¢ Provide adequate support and training for partners. Maintaining successful
partnerships is hard to do, yet these joint ventures might well prove to be the
salvation for charter schools. The need for both financial and educational
support makes it likely that charter schools will continue to reach out to
universities. The breakdown of the universityâ€“charter school partnership in the
case study reinforces the point made in the literature that we reviewed that it is
essential that all those involved in such partnerships receive adequate training.
Universities and schools have different cultures. For example, university
professors need to do research, and they often want to provide professional
development for charter school teachers, but professors and school administrators work within different time schedules and may have somewhat different
ways of approaching practice. School administratorsâ€”and teachersâ€”tend to
focus on practical, short-term goals; they need to get work done. Practitioners
also need assurance that researchers will not expose their limitations, especially
to administrators. In the conversion charter school we are studying, there has
never been any acknowledgement of the cultural differences between the
university and the school, nor any clear articulation of the sometimes differing
needs of each partner. Training in how to articulate goals and how to negotiate to
reach them is needed for all participants, if partnerships between charter schools
and universities are to succeed.
J Educ Change (2009) 10:173â€“189 185
â€¢ Involve the community. It is not unusual for charter schools to seek community
involvement in the early stages, when the schools need support for start-up. It is
much less common, but arguably much more important to continue to cultivate
community support over time, as the schools grow, ponder their direction, and
perhaps reconsider their mission and vision for the future. Schools need to make
sure they are continually responsive to the parents (and students) they serve, and
that parental input is welcomed as an important part of the decision-making
process. When parents feel that their interests are not being considered, when
their concerns over lack of accountability mount, they begin to question the
extent to which their childrenâ€™s needs are being served. Parents ultimately will
abandon charters if they feel the schools do not represent them.
â€¢ Educate authorizing agents. The extent to which authorizing agents exert
control, create or alleviate financial burdens, dictate curriculum or allow
independence can significantly affect a schoolâ€™s likelihood of success or failure.
Our case study illustrates the problem endemic to the charter school movement,
as noted in our review of the literature. When agents assume a disproportionate
amount of power and do not know how best to work with charter schools,
success is threatened. Authorizing agents must learn how to work with charter
schools in ways that hold the schools accountable, while also allowing
â€¢ Facilitate the researchâ€“practice connection. If we are to correctly understand
the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools, more ethnographic research is
needed. Analyzing test score data is important, but we must also gain a better
understanding of the challenges and conditions under which charter schools
function (or fail to function) in order to support the growth and improve the
quality of these schools. From our perspective, this means that research must be
designed to be formative. Educators and policymakers need the richest
information possible about the conditions that are likely to continue to shape
the future direction of charter schools.
Charter schools continue to be an appealing alternative within the public
educational system. At their best, they have offered the opportunity for innovation
and academic improvement for a greater number of students. At their worst, they
have failed to show significant gains for all the students who attend and, equally
important, they have failed to provide equitable access for all students.
Although the many differences among charters make broadly applicable
solutions to their problems unlikely, researchers nevertheless can make valuable
contributions to the future of this choice initiative by engaging in more
comprehensive studies designed to expose both the range and the depth of the
issues that confront charter schools. It is essential that the charter school movement
be guided by recommendations that will help make these public institutions truly
serve the publicâ€”charter schools must deliver on their promise to extend to all
students an equal opportunity for a high-quality education.
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