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Chapter 6: Solving Special Operational Issues

Operating outside of state and district bureaucracies gives a charter school the chance to forge an ambitious mission and then be highly inventive in aligning its day‑to‑day activities with those goals. Autonomy comes at a price though. The more independently a charter school operates, the more it is cut off from the practical supports offered by established educational systems. For district schools, having a facility is a given. The central office takes care of services like accounting, transportation, food service, security, employee benefits, regulatory compliance, purchasing of equipment and curricula, annual testing, and staff training. Governance is handled by the district superintendent and board of education.

Charter schools have to manage all of that, and more, on their own. Few charters would trade their freedom of operation in order to obtain those services, and if they did, most would lose their performance edge. Yet the lack of logistical support that many charters feel can create heavy operational burdens and hamper their ability to function as effectively as they might.

Some examples of a few of the practical responsibilities that can dog charter operators today:

  • Charter school leaders sometimes spend a lot of time dealing with back‑office issues (financial management, supply purchases, state reporting).
  • Special‑education requirements apply to charter schools, as they do to all public schools, pulling charters into complicated and expensive regulatory compliance.
  • The oversight boards required for each charter are legal entities that carry fiduciary and statutory demands. Keeping up with these can eat time and resources that principals would rather put into improving instruction.
  • Perhaps most taxing are the demands of acquiring and maintaining facilities. At last count, only 15 states plus D.C. provided charter schools with any financial compensation for the cost of facilities. Most charter schools are thus forced to take a significant chunk of the money that states apportion them for instructional expenses (an amount that already averages much less than what conventional schools get per child) and devote that to their building.

When you ask charter school founders and operators about the toughest problems they face, financing facilities regularly tops the list. The costs of buying land, erecting a large building, or renovating an existing structure can be prohibitive for an enterprise that doesn’t yet have any income stream. Since charter schools can go out of business or be shut down for poor performance, lenders often see them as a risky investment. Exacerbating this is the fact that charters are often first ventures for those who start them up, while most founders are educators without a lot of business or real‑estate experience. Financiers charge a premium to cover these perceived risks, and charter schools end up paying carrying costs heavier than those of regular school districts.

While financing a facility remains very difficult for many charter schools, it has become somewhat less lonely and expensive than it used to be. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation has surveyed dozens of nonprofits that began offering financial assistance for charter school buildings over the last decade. By mid‑2012, their research showed, a total of 583 facilities costing $6.4 billion had been helped with bonding. The assisting groups were partly encouraged to enter this arena by the U.S. Department of Education’s Credit Enhancement Program, which assists nonprofits who develop such programs.

There are many superb schools operating out of strip malls, closed big‑box stores, converted warehouses. Don’t get hung up on fancy facilities.

The best long‑term solution would be for state, federal, and local education authorities to treat charter schools like other public schools when it comes to facilities. This could involve allowing them access to public financing and bonding, folding an allotment for building costs into the per‑pupil payments made to charter schools, and allocating closed or surplus schools to charter operators. Putting charters and conventional schools on equal footing in this area should be an important priority within the advocacy work discussed in Chapter 5. Groups like StudentsFirst and the various state charter associations are emphasizing this problem, and may get traction if sustained in their efforts.

In the meantime, there are growing numbers of ways that donors can help talented charter founders and operators jump the difficult hurdle of acquiring a home for their school. We’ll sketch several options in the first sections of this chapter.

Giving charter schools direct support for facilities

Building grants to charter schools are one simple way for givers to ease facilities pain. Or something more involved can be undertaken—like the donation of a building directly to a charter school operator, or its lease at a low cost. The Longwood Foundation of Delaware, for example, worked with Bank of America to turn an office building the bank no longer needed into the Community Education Building. Along with other philanthropic and civic partners, Longwood provided management and financing to remake this space into a facility for high‑performing charter schools and community organizations, which will eventually serve some 2,000 of Wilmington’s children.

Philanthropists may also offer loans or loan guarantees. To make charter schools a more attractive investment for lenders, several donors put foundation backing behind the mortgage debts of one or more charter schools. By placing funds into a reserve account or simply signing a guarantee letter, funders can provide lenders with a degree of security that encourages their lending and reduces interest rates. This is known as “credit enhancement” because it boosts a school’s standing to operate in the private financial marketplace.

Interventions like these where philanthropists act almost like investors or banks rather than simply giving donations are sometimes referred to as “program‑related investments.” Foundations can sometimes put portions of their endowments into PRIs, with the expectation of getting their principal back, and perhaps also some modest return on their money. Several donors—the Walton Family Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, for instance—have been making PRIs to help charter schools acquire useable campuses. When loans get repaid, or rent or interest installments are returned, the giver can recycle that money into additional PRIs for other operators. In this way, a given sum of capital can get multiple uses in kickstarting buildings and new schools.

Donors should be aware that many of the best charter operators are exceptionally frugal with physical facilities. Most would rather put discretionary funds into teachers, curriculum, or technology, so charter schools are often quite spartan in their physical plants. There are many superb schools operating out of strip malls, closed big‑box stores, converted warehouses or call centers, old tortilla factories, and former car dealerships. Many do without full gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, large playing fields, or decorative flourishes. Schools need not reside in classical structures to have great academic results. Many creative school founders have improvised unusual real‑estate solutions, and donors who aim to help with the facilities crunch should encourage school leaders to research the workarounds already pioneered by others.

While in many older Northeastern cities there are vacant buildings, and often even vacant schools, that can be repurposed efficiently, there are other places and times when new construction is the best choice. In newer cities in the South and West that are less dense and have cheaper land, it may be smarter and even less expensive to build from scratch, yielding exactly the campus a school wants at a modest cost. In short, there is no single best way to house a school.

Several charter networks have perfected fast, no‑frills construction, including BASIS, Carpe Diem, National Heritage Academies, and Rocketship. BASIS has been putting up modern steel and glass school buildings in Arizona at a cost of around $8 million including the land. That is less than half the cost of a typical school built in the Phoenix area. They do it by prefabricating the building in Texas, trucking to the site in pieces, and assembling it in just a few months. Education Next reporter June Kronholz recently visited a new BASIS school building and described some of their secrets of cost control.

There’s no cafeteria or library. Floors are polished cement. The ductwork is exposed. Theater and orchestra audiences assemble on the parking lot—a garage door in front of them opens into the performing‑arts room. I noticed overhead projectors and a cart of laptop computers, but there’s no technology lab.

“Of course if proscenium stages and audiovisual equipment made a difference in student learning,” Kronholz concludes, “the U.S. wouldn’t be struggling to keep up with the international average.”

In some places, the quickest and most efficient way a donor can help a charter school find a physical home is to help arrange a facilities‑sharing agreement with the local school district. Even as charter schools across the country clamor for more space, many districts are facing declining enrollments and closing underused campuses. Where local leaders are able to overcome the suspicions that often exist between district officials and charters, charters have frequently ended up housed in closed district schools, or even in one wing or floor of a district school whose remaining space continues to be used by a conventional public school. This has happened in New York City, D.C., Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, and elsewhere.

When political winds shift, this occasionally leaves charters exposed. In New York City, for instance, mayor Bill de Blasio has voiced harsh skepticism toward the previous policy of sharing unused schools with charters (even though charters and conventional schools are both public institutions serving interchangeable populations). Where leaders are cooperative, however, school handoffs or space sharing can be win‑win scenarios.

One example can be seen in Philadelphia, where the school district is working closely with the local Mastery Charter Schools network. Mastery has agreed to take over operation of some of the district’s poorest performing schools, and then convert them to charter status. One advantage of this arrangement is that it typically allows the charter to use the district facility in that neighborhood.

To upgrade the inherited school to meet its needs, Mastery obtains its own construction loan from the Reinvestment Fund, a community‑development group based in the region that has paid for (among other things) the facilities for 36,000 charter students. Mastery, a lean organization free of the bureaucratic strictures that encumber any construction undertaken by the school district, makes the building improvements quickly and comparatively cheaply. Then the district buys the improvements back and gives Mastery a long‑term lease for the facility. This allows Mastery to obtain a custom facility at low cost—and keeps valuable public facilities from going to waste.

In some places, cooperation on facilities becomes a foot‑in‑the‑door for wider collaboration between charters and districts. One such example comes from Columbus, Ohio, where the Fordham Foundation and a coalition of more than 30 local businesses helped broker and pay for an arrangement where a KIPP school was able to lease a closed campus from the Columbus Public Schools. In exchange, the district got to incorporate the impressive achievement scores of those KIPP students into its overall accountability ratings—a strong incentive for the district to play ball.

Even as charter schools across the country clamor for more space, many districts are facing declining enrollments and closing underused campuses. Property transfers and space sharing can help both sides.

In the Houston region, an interesting effort called the Sky Partnership began in the 2012‑13 school year. The Spring Branch Independent School District invited KIPP and YES Prep to start operating a few grades right within some of the district’s underperforming schools. The charter operators will add more grades every year, eventually taking over their campus entirely. The goal is not only better outcomes for the children in those schools, but also “shared learning” which will allow the district to absorb some of the school culture of successful charters with the aim of raising achievement in its own schools.

Giving to organizations that help charters find buildings

Philanthropists who want to attack the facilities crisis on more than a one‑school‑at‑a‑time basis can contribute to regional and national organizations that have sprung up over the last decade or so to help charter operators obtain space. These groups specialize in either providing facility financing directly to the schools or helping them obtain outside financing, and many of them are quite nimble. These entities enjoy significant philanthropic funding.

Building Hope, for instance, is a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. It relies on support from the Walton Family Foundation, the Sallie Mae Fund, and other donors to orchestrate below‑market loans and lease guarantees that allow charter schools to acquire, construct, or renovate school facilities. Since its inception in 2003, the organization has provided 30 loan‑ and lease‑guarantees which have enabled real‑estate transactions worth over $230 million.

Some other examples of similar organizations:

  • Low Income Investment Fund (which has financed 69,000 school seats)
  • Local Initiatives Support Corporation (spun out of the Ford Foundation, this is one of the oldest and largest such organizations, though charter schools are only one portion of its development activity)
  • Charter Schools Development Corporation (the only one of these organizations focused solely on charter school facilities; operates nationally)
  • Housing Partnership Network (an alliance of community‑development nonprofits located all across the country)
  • Reinvestment Fund (mentioned in the Philly case above)
  • Illinois Facilities Fund
  • New Jersey Community Capital
  • Self‑Help Credit Union (North Carolina based but operating in other states too)
  • Raza Development Fund (Hispanic oriented)

There are also organizations that go beyond just financing and sometimes also help charter leaders find, renovate, design, build, or lease buildings. These groups are often able to secure better terms than a new charter school could on its own, and they also add development expertise. Sometimes they assume the facilities burden in toto, freeing the school’s staff and board to focus on educating students.

Civic Builders is an example of one of these “development” intermediaries. It is a New York City‑based nonprofit that finds, purchases, and refurbishes buildings, and then leases them at affordable rates to charter schools. With support from the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Civic Builders allows charter schools to focus on academics rather than the ordeal of navigating the New York City real estate market.

Somewhat similar work is done across the state of California by a real‑estate development nonprofit called Pacific Charter School Development. Starting with around $50 million of initial equity contributed by the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Ahmanson, Gates, Broad, Walton, Weingart, and Ralph M. Parsons foundations, PCSD has revolved that money into a total of $353 million of investments in 45 charter school buildings, creating 19,000 student seats. Starting with tax‑advantaged debt financing, PCSD provides facilities consulting and construction management that finishes buildings very efficiently. Most completed projects are eventually sold at cost to their school clients, with the proceeds funneled back into another development elsewhere. The organization has particularly partnered with six of the nation’s leading charter chains, but with dedicated funding from the Walton Family Foundation it has also made special efforts to work with high‑quality smaller “mom and pop” charter operators, who often need facilities help even more than their bigger brothers.

The Charter School Growth Fund has assembled a Revolving Facilities Loan Fund that offers existing school operators short‑ and medium‑term financing for facilities, allowing them to grow their networks of schools without scrambling every time they want to acquire a new property. The revolving fund accepts program‑related investments from foundations and then combines them with funding from more traditional lenders like CitiBank. It also helps stable school chains find more permanent financing like bonds or traditional loans. This allows the schools to pay off their CSGF bridge loans, and those funds are then recycled back into a speedy school expansion by some other charter operator.

Though it is a for‑profit operation, unlike the three groups just mentioned, the Canyon‑Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund is another entity that philanthropists operating in this area should know about and learn from. Former tennis star Andre Agassi became a supporter of the charter-school movement after he founded his own charter school for children in Las Vegas. In 2011 he pooled funds with Canyon Capital Realty Advisors to create the Canyon‑Agassi fund, which also received anchor investments from Citi, Intel Capital, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The fund is positioned to build half a billion dollars worth of charter school infrastructure over the next few years. This will create new slots for up to 50,000 students on 100 campuses. As this book is being written in 2014 the fund is constructing its 24th campus—a brand new $7 million school on a three‑acre site in Nashville that will be run by Rocketship Education.

Canyon‑Agassi’s partnership with Rocketship illustrates its pioneering formula. The fund uses its own money and its own site‑selection, design, construction, and finance specialists to erect structures and playgrounds to the exact specifications of Rocketship (or other school operator). It delivers turn‑key properties, relieving school leaders of all burdens of raising capital, planning, and managing construction in new markets. In exchange, the school executes a long‑term lease and pledges annual payments, as soon as the school starts operating, of up to 20 percent of the per‑pupil reimbursements it receives from the local public school authority. In the early years when schools are only partially enrolled, Canyon‑Agassi thus subsidizes the leases. As schools become big enough, they cover their own annual rent. By paying 100 percent of project costs and stepping down rents in the beginning, Canyon‑Agassi bridges new schools over the financial strains of their crucial startup years. Once the school reaches operational maturity—typically between its third and sixth year—it can choose to execute an option to purchase its building at a predetermined, affordable price. Philanthropic funders sometimes assist these purchases.

If this sort of practical help can be expanded over the next decade, then both the individuals and grassroots groups who want to start stand‑alone schools and the charter school networks that want to expand their footprint will find their mission much easier. Philanthropists who help solve this operational obstacle may thus tip the scales in favor of growth and expansion. And charter leaders will be freed to focus on their most important work of educating students.

Handling back‑office services more efficiently

The back‑office activities that take place behind the scenes at schools are essential to keeping teaching and learning humming. Payroll, accounting, pensions, and other aspects of personnel and financial management are important practical components that need to be managed carefully. Information technology is now a big responsibility at all schools. Food service is not to be overlooked, particularly given that many charters predominantly serve students who qualify for subsidized school meals. Transportation can be complicated at charter schools, which generally accept students by lottery from across a city, rather than just serving one immediate neighborhood.

Charter schools either have to provide these services themselves or find outside vendors. “Doing it yourself” saps valuable time and energy, while the market for vendors can be difficult to navigate, leaving some charter leaders without easy solutions. Funders across the country have applied several strategies to help with these operations challenges.

Some donors—like the New York City‑based Tiger Foundation—have provided direct support to schools. They set up training programs covering back‑office services where they see many grantees needing help. Much of the technical assistance they have created themselves.

Another route for donors is to fund local or regional charter support organizations that specialize in providing these services to charter schools. The New York City Charter School Center was launched in 2004 with support from the Robertson, Pumpkin, Clark, and Robin Hood foundations (and with the backing of Joel Klein, then chancellor of the New York City school system). It offers help with data management, teacher training, facility maintenance, and other practical aspects of operations. New Schools for New Orleans serves a similar role for the charter schools in its city.

Funders have similarly built up the California Charter Schools Association to provide business services to its members across California. Offerings include insurance policies, startup assistance, leadership training, and access to a vendor network to which day‑to‑day needs can be efficiently outsourced. Similar resource offerings through charter school associations exist in almost every state, though not all are currently offering services as thorough and wide‑ranging as California’s. The Marcus Foundation has helped build up the back‑office assistance offered by the Georgia Charter Schools Association, the Kauffman Foundation has aided the Missouri Charter Public School Association toward similar ends. Many more examples could be added.

Charters always need legal advice on a range of issues. This is an area where philanthropy can make a big difference.

ExED is part of a category of nonprofits that focus completely and solely on providing business‑management services to charters. It has aided more than 100 schools over its 12‑year life, helping not only with things like payroll and benefit processing, accounting, and audit, but also compliance with today’s thicket of state and federal regulations, as well as assistance in securing affordable facilities. ExED bills itself as the “CFO” for each of its client schools. Thanks to philanthropic support, ExED’s clients never pay more than 5 percent of their public revenues for these services.

At a minimum, charter schools can draw on the useful business information now provided through the newsletters, websites, and workshops of various resource centers, member associations, and support organizations. Most of these groups also advocate for public policies that would make operations easier for charter schools. And many offer individualized technical assistance, answering specific questions or connecting a school with specialists who can.

These support groups, and the donors who fund them, are also zeroing in on solving more specific infrastructure challenges. How does a school improve its special‑ed services? Build a strong board? Integrate technology into the curriculum in the most intelligent ways? Establish fundraising operations? Conduct annual assessments? Organize professional development for teachers?

One other crucial area where many small charter schools want help is legal services. “Charters always need legal advice on a range of issues,” notes Christopher Nelson of the Fisher Fund. “This is an area where philanthropy can make a big difference, and one that is frequently overlooked.”

The Atlantic Legal Foundation is a legal nonprofit that advises, educates, and represents charter schools (among its other missions). Their charter school advocacy program publishes a series of state‑specific legal guides, written by nationally known labor law attorneys. The foundation will also assist charter schools in court, free of charge. It offers “friend of the court” briefs that focus on broad policy concerns that have not been developed adequately by plaintiffs and defendants. In addition to offering legal advice itself at reduced rates or no charge, it will also link charter school leaders with private‑sector lawyers able and willing to provide representation.

One issue for the future: Some entrepreneurs have been asking if back‑office services could be provided to charter schools easily and in bulk via the Internet, on a statewide basis or even nationally. This could be an opening for pioneering philanthropy or even for savvy businesspeople. For now, help with back‑office services tends to be provided on fairly local and case‑by‑case bases.

Meeting specialized needs

The operational challenges we’ve discussed up to now are faced by all charter schools. There are also more specific operational issues that will loom larger or smaller depending on the particular school, its mission, and who attends. These include things like providing particular health or poverty services in neighborhoods where that is necessary, or special‑ed and English‑learning services (common to many charters). There are charter schools focused specifically on “alternative” students—dropout risks, those with children, those with behavior problems, those seeking technical education; obviously these pose their own operational demands. There are also rising new operational questions like how to teach good character (an interest in many charter schools), and how to shift schools toward blended learning (using computers for more individualized learning and redeploying teachers as small‑group instructors). In the remainder of this chapter we’ll briefly look at a few of these issues.

In today’s educational jargon, “wraparound services” are various kinds of assistance offered to students and families that go beyond the normal scope of schooling. These include health care, counseling, and other social services. This is a tricky area. It is sometimes argued that it is hard for education to begin if disturbances in family or personal life are keeping a child from focusing in the classroom. On the other hand, turning a school into a centralized hub responsible for feeding, nursing, nurturing, and acculturating the child is a kind of mission creep almost sure to interfere with teaching, and to dramatically raise the complexity and cost of school operations.

Some donors have tried to help charter schools thread this needle. For example, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, the Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis, and others in that city have supported the work of Learning Well, a nonprofit that places nurses in many charter schools in Indianapolis. Fairbanks has contributed more than $7 million to fund nursing positions and school‑based clinics in all the charter schools across the city.

Promise Academy is a charter school chain in New York City that integrates wraparound services into its campuses. These schools are part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, 100 blocks of traditionally low‑income neighborhoods where a massive philanthropic effort is under way aimed at reducing poverty. Elements include free, school‑based health centers, an Asthma Initiative, a Healthy Living Initiative, and programs aimed at strengthening families and reducing the need for foster care.

Donors interested in religious and spiritual education have supported religious training as another supplemental wraparound service. Seton Partners, for example, helps establish rigorous after‑school programs that combine academics, exercise, and faith instruction, all available to charter school students at no or low cost should they and their parents elect to participate. This allows families who cannot afford a private religious school a chance to receive, on a voluntary basis, religious education for their children.

Charters, as public schools, are open to all students, including those with disabilities, so special education is a major operational need at nearly all charter schools. A 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 8 percent of all charter school students were receiving special‑education services. (In conventional public schools the average was 11 percent.) The costs of complying with myriad federal and state special‑ed laws can be daunting, particularly for small schools and schools in states where reimbursements to charter schools are much lower than those to convention schools.

There are prominent examples of charter schools having success with special‑education students. Granada Hills is a very large (4,300 students) charter high school in Los Angeles that gets high performance not only out of its overall student body but also from its special‑education pupils specifically. Technological interventions has been a big part of their formula. Aspire, one of the largest charter school networks, has a reputation for serving special‑ed students well. Collegiate Academies is a group of three charter schools in New Orleans that achieves consistently higher test results among its 99 percent minority, 93 percent poor enrollees than the average school in Louisiana. It does this while fully 18 percent of its students are enrolled in special‑education classes.

A five‑person team bird‑dogs students with warnings, text messages, phone calls, and home visits to keep them from becoming truant.

Just the same, special‑ed is an area where charters (like conventional schools) sometimes struggle. “We need to place a much greater focus on helping charter schools figure out how to better serve and reach out to students with special needs,” says Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. One way donors have pitched in is by helping schools form special‑education cooperatives—in which they join forces to ensure that they are providing a quality education to students with disabilities and complying with all applicable requirements.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation provided early funding for the District of Columbia Special Education Cooperative, and current funders include the Moriah Fund and the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Through this cooperative, schools have access to technical assistance and teacher training for special‑ed. They can share staff and make joint arrangements with special‑ed contractors. The cooperative helps schools get reimbursements through Medicaid.

A similar cooperative exists in New Orleans, called the SUNS Center. In addition to providing day‑to‑day services it manages a leadership academy that trains special‑ed administrators for charter schools. These cooperatives borrow techniques from the regional cooperatives that school districts have utilized for some time to keep the costs of special‑ed services manageable.

To improve special‑education performance in charter schools nationwide, the Walton Family Foundation and other philanthropists helped create the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. This organization highlights excellent programs, develops and disseminates workable solutions, and informs policymaking. It also communicates with authorizers and legislators on special‑ed services in charter schools.

Then there are so‑called “alternative” charter schools, which provide customized education for students who have not succeeded in traditional schools. Some of these students are returning after dropping out. Others are young parents, have a criminal history, or need to schedule study around a part‑ or full‑time job. These populations pose enormous challenges, and have often led to lowered academic standards and criticism of alternative schools as “diploma mills” that allow students to get by on minimal effort, leaving them ill prepared for gainful employment or higher education after graduation.

With their increased autonomy and flexibility in scheduling, staffing, and other operational details, it is hoped that charter schools might have more potential than district schools to succeed with some of these difficult students. Three pioneering charter schools in this arena are the School for Integrated Academics and Technologies (SIATech), the Phoenix Charter School, and the Excel Centers. Each is constructed to belie the “diploma mill” rap via high standards and extra work.

SIATech operates charter schools in California, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, and New Mexico. All of the campuses adjoin Jobs Corps centers administering a federal program that offers occupational training to high‑school dropouts. Through a mix of online and in‑person instruction, SIATech helps dropouts earn a full high‑school diploma instead of a GED. The average student enrolled in their program makes two years’ worth of academic gains in literacy and math in just one year’s time. And because this academic work is matched with technical training from the Jobs Corps site, graduates emerge with much improved employability.

Phoenix Charter Academy, located in Chelsea, Massachusetts, is another charter that has had success with difficult students (54 percent former dropouts, 14 percent involved with the courts, 13 percent parents, 29 percent with special disability curricula). Every attendee is given an individual course plan without any set time parameters. Progress is measured not in years or grade level but according to proven mastery of the curriculum. The school has a strict culture, a longer school day, a longer school year, and high standards—including AP classes and college‑class dual‑enrollment options. It also offers extraordinary social supports like on‑site childcare and a dean of students who manages two on‑site social workers, several Student Support Specialists who help enrollees build scholarly habits, and a five‑person Attendance Transformation Team that bird‑dogs students with reminders, encouragement, warnings, text messages, phone calls, and home visits to keep them from becoming truant or dropping out. Phoenix students score significantly higher on year‑end state exams than average students at the schools they flunked out of, and a majority of graduates go on to two‑ and four‑year colleges. Phoenix will open a second charter high school in 2014, and also manages a school in the Lawrence school district. Further expansion is planned.

The Excel Centers, founded in Indiana in 2010, are operated by Goodwill Industries’ education division. They place a strong focus on career and technical training, and like the other schools mentioned here they rely on high demands, extended night and weekend hours, childcare, and support groups to help students balance school with work and often‑difficult home lives. Within a short time after its launch, the original Excel Center built up a waiting list of more than 1,300 adults hoping to finish their high school educations. Seven additional centers have since opened to help meet the demand.

It isn’t only among charter schools serving at‑risk populations that one finds a strong focus on career and technical education. There are also lots of more mainstream charters that put special emphasis on valuable career paths. High Tech High is a California network of 11 schools with a curriculum that melds liberal arts with advanced technology education. Cornerstone Charter Health High School in Michigan lets students explore career options in health care, in partnership with the Detroit Medical Center. There are now several charter schools, including the West Michigan Aviation Academy created by philanthropist Dick DeVos, that allow students to test careers in aviation.

With money from scores of donors, three DaVinci high schools (along with an interesting K‑8 school) have been created in Los Angeles to help students prepare for very specific careers. One school trains its graduates for various careers in design (architecture, product design, graphics, etc.). Another school is focused on engineering and science. The newest school to open provides special instruction in communications, and includes an option of attending a fifth year which will yield not only a high-school diploma but also a college associate’s degree, or major installment toward a bachelor’s.

Offering a rounded education

Good charter schools will use their flexibility to sometimes pioneer new methods and subjects of teaching, and new ways of tracking student knowledge and skill. This kind of social invention can have great value, but also be challenging to figure out. Both are good reasons for philanthropists to offer support.

Take testing, for instance. In the many charters that are beginning to explore blended learning (to be discussed more in the next section), educators are piloting more frequent, more sophisticated forms of testing that assess student knowledge every week and signal learning failures right away, rather than waiting for year‑end exams to see what students have absorbed. Other charters with especially advanced curricula—like BASIS—are substituting the international PISA exam for less rigorous year‑end exams, establishing a baseline for richer comparison of American schools with overseas counterparts. These sorts of innovation can have valuable overflow effects for all of American education. They can, however, be lonely and expensive journeys for charter school leaders to navigate their way through.

Another sector where charter schools are operational pioneers is in systems that inculcate and then measure important, non‑academic skills, like self‑control, grit, and future‑oriented thinking. These qualities are being fostered as a supplement to traditional cognitive training, not as a substitute. But many charter schools start with the core idea that intellectual discovery needs to be yoked to strong character in order for the student to fully succeed. And charters are often open to unconventional methods of learning and discovery. Which is why they are deploying new styles of pedagogy like computer‑assisted instruction, project‑based learning, single‑sex schooling, Socratic seminars, and various forms of work‑connected education.

The KIPP schools are searching creatively for new character‑based ways of making their students successful. Some of this was inspired by their discovery that while KIPP students are unusually successful in qualifying for and entering college, they lag middle‑class students in their rates of college completion and degree attainment. Academic training alone was insufficient to get some KIPP alums over the hump of disadvantages of family life. So KIPP’s leaders dug deep into research by Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and other specialists and zeroed in on seven character traits that have been shown to be predictive of future personal success and fulfillment:

  • Persistence and resilience (“finishing what one starts…despite obstacles”)
  • Zest (“approaching life with energy”)
  • Self‑control (“regulating what one feels and does”)
  • Optimism (“expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it”)
  • Gratitude (“being aware of and thankful for opportunities”)
  • Social intelligence (awareness of the “motives and feelings of other people”)
  • Curiosity (“taking an interest…learning new things for their own sake”)

Character education and moral training reinforcing these personal characteristics was woven into the school day. And in all of KIPP’s charter schools each parent or guardian now receives a “character growth card” where teachers offer feedback to students across these seven traits. Students also rate themselves. Twice a year, parents, teachers, and students sit for constructive discussions of a child’s ethical and humane development, and seek ways for students to burnish these essential social skills. “The kids feel like this is the coolest thing ever,” says Dave Levin, who has led this work for KIPP. “They say, ‘finally someone is recognizing this.’”

The efforts of KIPP leaders to improve college performance by their alums weren’t limited to this character training. The school also formed partnerships with two dozen colleges, and signed formal memoranda of understanding on various steps that KIPP and the colleges would each take to support enrollees and help them complete their higher education on time. Taking this sort of long‑term interest in the welfare of their students—extending years after they have left the school campus—is another charter school innovation that puts real demands of operators, while yielding valuable benefits for children.

Charter school leaders can’t plow these rich new fields alone. One donor couple who are helping out are Jeff (ex‑Microsoft executive) and Tricia Raikes. At another set of charter schools, their Raikes Foundation is supporting work similar to what KIPP has undertaken. A collaborative has been assembled to help schools study and then reinforce in their classrooms student qualities like tenacity and delayed gratification. “There are lots of kids out there who are lagging academically not because they aren’t smart, but because they don’t have the mindsets. We’re trying to help them unlock their smarts with learning strategies that will let them improve in school, be ready for careers, and be successful in life,” says Tricia Raikes.

Recognizing that not all children learn and communicate in the same ways, other charter schools are experimenting with rather different methods of teaching and assessing pupils. There are, for example, charter schools like MC2 in New Hampshire (funded by the QED Foundation and the Oak Foundation) that are relying heavily on “student‑centered” progress measurements like major projects, pieces of artwork, oral presentations, creative writing, or song composition. The goal is to deepen students’ engagement with subject matter, respect unconventional channels of learning, and get students to take ownership of their own learning process.

These sorts of innovations in educational technique and infrastructure have the potential to make charter schools much more effective. For these services to work, though, charter schools need to give them lots of management attention, resources, and follow‑up assessment—operational demands which require money and talent. Done right with philanthropic partners, however, these sorts of fresh thinking and practice will separate charter schools from the pack in terms of student flourishing.

There are lots of kids out there who are lagging academically not because they aren’t smart, but because they don’t have the necessary character habits.

Blending teachers and technology

Another development putting challenging operational demands on charter schools is the new blended learning instructional approach that many charters are experimenting with. Entire schools are being constructed around fresh efforts to combine the best of human and technology‑enhanced instruction. Some of these are dramatic departures into new territory—producing previously unheard‑of class sizes, testing methods, deployments of teachers, and uses of classroom space.

Obviously this is requiring lots of educational redesign and managerial nimbleness. It seems very likely that blended learning will be a big part of education in the future, and charter schools are far, far ahead of conventional public schools in exploring this new universe. “Blended learning is the biggest opportunity for school reformers over the next decade. And charter schools will be the innovators in this arena,” says Kevin Hall of the Charter School Growth Fund. “They have the innovative spirit, flexibility in teaching force and class sizes, and ability to play with time and resources in ways that most districts aren’t able to.”

Christopher Nelson of the Fisher Fund agrees. “The most promising and revolutionary work in new education technologies will take place in charters, not in districts. There is some really interesting stuff going on in charter schools today. So even if it means operating on a smaller scale, the charter sector is where donors should invest.” Among other things, says Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, blended learning could completely change the economics of public schooling—potentially reducing costs while achievement rises or stays constant.

Assisting the charter operators who are pioneering blended learning is thus vital work, and likely to have lasting effects on the future of U.S. education. Many donors are offering assistance. For example, the Joyce Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have backed an initiative run by Public Impact, called Opportunity Culture. It helps charter schools create new staffing patterns on blended learning campuses that extend the reach of excellent teachers to more students, and create career paths that could be more satisfying and remunerative for the instructor. Scores of donors like the Hume, Gates, and Broad foundations, Microsoft’s philanthropic arm, and funds like Next Generation Learning Challenges, the Charter School Growth Fund, and the NewSchools Venture Fund are likewise helping school operators plan and launch new learning models enabled by technology. City‑based funders like the Chicago Public Education Fund and the CityBridge Foundation are aiding neighborhood schools as they figure out how to translate all these new ideas into day‑to‑day classroom operations.

Again, the definitive book on this rapidly unfolding field is Blended Learning: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Tech‑assisted Teaching. Please refer to it for many details on how philanthropists can help charter school operators meet operational challenges as they redesign schools for the twenty‑first century.

Helping districts learn from charters

At the close of the previous chapter we sketched a vision of how charter schools might provoke a broad reform of American public education, altering the way conventional school districts conduct their business and touching students far beyond those enrolled in charters. The need for wholesale restructuring of public schooling is most clear in big cities. In our 50 largest urban school districts today, only 53 percent of students graduate from high school on time. Our most definitive measure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that the proportion of eighth graders who are proficient in reading is only 25 percent in New York City, 19 percent in Los Angeles, and 22 percent in Atlanta.

With little or no improvement in these poor results being seen throughout the past decade, growing numbers of observers are concluding that our urban public school districts need to be dramatically shaken up, and structured in new ways—using charter schools as the tip of the spear in our attack on educational stagnation. A small number of conventional school districts are tentatively reaching out to charters within their city boundaries and experimenting with new ways of collaborating, sharing burdens, and learning from their nimbler brethren. The extent to which charter schools are able to help large districts improve will depend on how open district leaders are, and how energetically the best ideas from charters are transferred across operational boundaries.

Philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates are actively trying to encourage urban school districts to establish alliances with their local charters. As mentioned toward the end of Chapter 2, their Collaboration Compacts are an effort to get school officials to put aside differences and work together to solve problems together. Areas where the Gates Foundation envisions the most cooperation include joint professional development of teachers and principals, joint implementation of Common Core standards, a universal enrollment application for all public schools, and development of standard metrics that help families make apples‑to‑apples comparisons of their local charter and district schools (and parochial cities as well in some cities). It is earnestly to be hoped that in at least a few of the seven cities where a Collaboration Compact is being tried most intensively—Boston, Denver, Hartford, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, and Spring Branch (in metro Houston)—the school districts will go beyond the mere formalities of a truce and actually build genuine alliances with their local charter schools. The Gates Foundation has invested $27 million and extensive staff time in trying to aid that.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the university of Washington, is leading an even more thoroughgoing effort to get school districts to weave charters into their city operations without prejudice. CRPE has assembled a Portfolio School District Network of 38 cities and counties (see box below) that aspire to make their district not just the operator of its own schools but also a fair overseer of a “portfolio” of schools operated by others within district boundaries. Network members meet twice a year. The aim is that the district bureaucracy will gradually shift toward aiding all schools, and holding every one, of whatever structure, accountable for high‑quality outcomes, closing down and replacing those that don’t produce good results for their students.


Districts are asked to pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t, and to let go of many of the details of school operations, leaving these to be decided by leaders within the schools themselves. The seven principles that CRPE asks participating school districts to follow in a portfolio strategy are spelled out on page 145. The principles are politically ambitious, but well founded in research on school effectiveness.

This portfolio philosophy represents a kind of charter school ethic writ large across an entire school district’s operations. Families get options. Principals and teachers get the freedom to organize their schools as they think best. Independent operators of schools are recruited. Fresh pipelines for teacher talent are opened and performance‑based pay is inaugurated. Funding follows the child. Schools are held accountable for measurable outcomes. The emphasis is on serving students, not protecting existing institutions and adult employees.

If actually put into effect, the portfolio strategy would enact a cessation of hostilities between school districts and charter schools that have historically had such rocky relationships. Resources and responsibilities would be shared among all types of schools, with those that produce the best outcomes for their pupils gradually replacing others. Charter schools located in portfolio districts are supposed to be given more equitable funding, access to facilities, help with back‑office functions like payroll and health‑insurance administration. The biggest winners are parents and students, who benefit from a more diverse supply of schools and higher and more consistent standards.

Obviously this will require any sincere school district to completely reinvent its central office structures so that charter schools can become a normal part of serving students. So far, some of the participating localities (like Denver) have gone much deeper than others. This work is heavily supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which has invested both money and staffing in districts that have signed on.

Several of the school districts experimenting with CRPE’s portfolio strategy are doing so at the behest of a city mayor who controls the local schools, or some other local political leader. Unfortunately, a city’s commitment to the seven principles can vanish overnight when a new politician is elected. It is unlikely, for instance, that New York City will remain a leader of the portfolio approach now that the transition from the Bloomberg to the de Blasio administration has taken place.

Operating “portfolio” school districts in real life

In an interesting philanthropically funded experiment, the state of Tennessee is using the portfolio‑district approach to attack some of its most difficult educational problems. Redefining what it means to be a district, the Tennessee Achievement School District pulls together schools from across the state that are rated in the bottom 5 percent by achievement. It gives these underperformers their own transformed marching orders and funding stream, under their own superintendent. And with donations from the Walton, Joyce, Hyde Family, Pyramid Peak, and Poplar foundations, along with others, this portfolio district has set a goal of moving its member schools off the bottom rung of Tennessee schools and into the top quarter.

The Walton money provided start‑up grants for new charter schools to serve children in the Achievement School District. The Joyce and Hyde contributions funded the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, which will be used to attract and train high‑quality candidates interested in founding the new charter schools that the ASD needs. If this attempt to bolster weak schools through a unified portfolio approach works, other portfolio districts will undoubtedly be attempted in other places. Almost certainly these will attract philanthropic support, and become laboratories for public‑school reform generally.

Already the Broad Foundation is doing something similar in Michigan. Many of the lowest‑performing 5 percent of schools in that state will be taken over by Michigan’s new Education Achievement Authority. The effort began in 2012 when the Authority assumed operational control of 15 underachieving schools in Detroit. As schools are taken over, all teachers and administrators must reapply for their jobs; many do not return. The schools are given responsibility to remake themselves under new leaders. Many innovations from charter schools are being adopted: longer school days and school years, flexibility for classroom innovation, new curricula, decentralized control and more accountability at the school level, and so forth. The Authority aims to build “a system of autonomous schools,” and cites New Orleans, “which has aggressively chartered new schools and given greater autonomy to improving schools” as a model.

In a series of influential 2012 blog postings, Neerav Kingsland urged reform‑minded school‑district leaders to become “relinquishers” willing to give up district authority in order to make way for more charter schools of the sort that have performed strongly in New Orleans and other cities. In most urban areas, Kingsland argued, the soundest educational reform strategy will be for school districts to end their central monopoly on operating schools and allow more charters to flourish.

In too many places, school districts continue to hinder the introduction of charter schools. Yet some district leaders (often with philanthropic backing) have recognized that chartering can play an important role in overall school improvement. Large school districts like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Denver have recently decided that instead of investing exclusively in efforts to improve conventional schools, they will also allow new charter schools to play an important role in their city.

During the Bloomberg administration, for instance, charters in New York City went from 14 schools serving 3,000 students to 159 schools serving almost 60,000 students. Mind you, another 53,000 children remain on charter school waiting lists, and New York’s school authorities also opened 140,000 seats in new district‑run schools, so they hardly relinquished their role as school operators. But they did allow charters to become a richer part of the city mix. In the process, they gained sharply improved student outcomes.

Where district leaders are not willing to decentralize control and share some of their authority with a new bloom of charter schools, political leaders may need to override shortsighted school officials. Experts like Andrew Smarick and the authors of the Mind Trust’s report Opportunity Schools have called on state policymakers to push for widespread chartering and increased autonomy for neighborhood schools, even if school districts resist. Philanthropists can urge local leaders to consider the portfolio model, and their financial assistance can be decisive in helping such ventures succeed once begun.

There is a line to be carefully trod when pushing school districts to embrace chartering. It is, after all, the independence of charter schools that allows them to be unusually effective. If chartering becomes a district‑led, district‑controlled, politicized, or bureaucratized process, that can undermine the promise of truly independent schools.

The abortive 2012 experience in Austin, Texas, is an illustration. The Austin school district announced that a floundering school where more than 95 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged would be converted into a district‑run charter managed by IDEA Public Schools. IDEA is a highly successful operator of charters in southern and central Texas. But an offshoot of the Occupy Austin movement got involved and raised a ruckus with parents and the school district. After much nastiness and a political campaign that ousted three school board members, district authorities cut their ties to IDEA and turned the school back into a conventional operation.

That offers a cautionary on the risk of in‑district chartering. In places, though, where leaders are committed to giving charters the freedom to run their own operations, and merely be accountable for good student results, partnerships between charters and school districts can be helpful to students and localities alike. The gifts and guidance of donors can encourage this sort of cooperation.

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