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Charter Operators v. Charter Reformers

Alexander Russo | September 28, 2012

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This week’s piece by Emily Bazelon in Slate about school district-charter school cooperation in New Haven sounds pretty cool as these things go — a teacher exchange between the district and a charter network that seems to be a win-win for both parties.

I’m told that something similar is going on in Denver, with three charter networks helping train district teachers to become district principals.  (They’ve also agreed to a single application form, deadline, and single website for charters and district school programs there, which is pretty cool, too — no more confusion of dates and forms and programs for parents looking to make informed choices for their kids.)

But the article reminds me that there’s a ferocious behind-the-scenes battle going on over charter schools (in addition to the public one going on out in the open between districts and charters).  I’m not sure the good guys are winning, or seem to have much of a chance.  Nationally, and in many parts of the country, charter school reformers have lost control of their movement.

This second battle I’m talking about is taking place between charter school operators (networks, state associations, charter ideologues) and charter school reformers (a more diffuse group including authorizers, think tank folks, and a small subset of high-performing operators).

Even if you’re not charterphobic, it’s pretty clear that the many charter operators want to build and run as many charters as possible as freely as possible, with as few constraints and little oversight as can reasonably be expected.  They think they have a good product.  Their focus is on creating immediate choices for parents.  They won an amazing gift from the Obama administration when its Race To The Top made eliminating charter caps a top priority without any equally clear consideration for quality, performance, diversity, or anything else. They’ve been struggling to deal with their quality problems — charters aren’t consistently better than district schools, and turn out not to be as easily shut down as advertised.

Their fraternal opponents are what I’m calling charter school reformers, pro-charter leaders and organizations that are interested in charter schools for their effects on the rest of the public school system, short- and long-term.  They’re the folks who are working with districts in New Haven and Denver, who signed onto the Gates-funded charter-district compact.  They want both short-term alternatives for parents but they also want to revamp the districts rather than creating an alternative charter universe.  They’re not interested in building a second, alternative universe of charter schools — they want the charter schools to help inform and improve the district.

This second group is by far in the minority, far as I can tell, and has much less influence than their counterparts.   The folks focused on charter operations and expansions dominate the national association representing charter schools, which is a membership organization, and seem to dominate at the statehouse level.  And for one brief, inexplicable moment that we have been paying for the past three years, they seem to have hypnotized the Obama administration.

Of course, there’s lots of overlap, rhetorical and real.  Nina Rees, the new president of NAPCS, talks about quality every time she talks about expansion.  Greg Richmond, the head of NACSA (for whom I’ve done occasional consulting), talks about the importance of providing choices for parents in the short term even as he’s urging greater attention to quality.

The tipping point may be the new, CMO 2.0 folks coming into the charter space — the Rocketships, with their low-cost teacher models and quick expansion plans.  Are Rocketship et al out to be the next KIPPs or the next White Hats?  Will the new entrants into blended and online charters tip the scales towards charter expansion basically in isolation form district school systems, or towards charter-district collaboration?

Now you can see why I’m so pessimistic.

PS – There’s a similar dividing line within alternative certification.

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