Whitmire: New Report Shows Surging Charter Enrollment, But Could Breakthroughs Be the Prelude to a Backlash?
In a new report that is likely to cause anxiety among superintendents and teachers unions, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools presents the increasing enrollment trends in charter schools. Today, there are 14 communities in the country where at least 30 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, an increase from just one community, New Orleans, a decade ago.
There are two contrasting perspectives on this development. Let’s begin with what I will refer to as the "positive" viewpoint.
At the 30 percent level, superintendents now have a genuine motivation to collaborate with charters in addressing issues such as transportation, special education, and underutilized school buildings.
Moreover, urban districts at the 30 percent mark are starting to engage with charters as partners, leading to the creation of better schools in cities like Denver. Promising collaborations with charters as true partners are also unfolding in places like the Spring Branch schools in Houston.
This also implies that more cities are approaching a 50-50 balance between charter and traditional schools, a balance that has resulted in positive changes for both sides in Washington D.C. In Washington, all families now use a common application process, making life significantly easier for parents. The friendly competition between charters and traditional schools is one of the primary reasons why Washington has the fastest-improving urban district in the country.
Lastly, with tens of thousands of students still on charter school waitlists, charters seem to have the momentum on their side. With this kind of support, we may witness more urban districts similar to New Orleans, where 93 percent of students attend charters, greatly benefiting academically.
Perhaps this scenario could become a reality, or maybe the surge in charter school enrollment is an indication that charter schools are about to face significant challenges.
Allow me to share a personal story that relates to this. My father grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and when I was young, we used to spend whole summers visiting my grandmother on that farm, which was situated near the French Broad River. One day, my father taught me a country tactic for getting rid of a hornet’s nest: you take a long stick, wrap newspaper around one end, set fire to the paper, and hold it near the nest. The idea was that the hornets’ wings would burn off as they flew out.
This method seemed to work for about a minute – until the newspaper burned out and the angry hornets continued to buzz out of the nest. We ran away as fast as we could. I guess it had worked for my father when he was a kid.
Today, the initial successes for charter schools have already been achieved, just like the burning brightness of newspaper around a nest. That phase is over. Now, it’s time to confront the challenges and opposition.
Superintendents have become more adept at impeding the growth of charter schools, teachers unions have made charter schools their primary target, and the Democratic Party, which initially supported charter schools, seems to be turning against them as it shifts towards a more left-leaning ideology.
If Hillary Clinton becomes President, she is unlikely to champion charter schools as President Obama did. The teachers unions have already secured an early endorsement from her.
Even if a Republican president is in favor of charter schools, a Republican-controlled Congress would readily seize the opportunity to diminish federal involvement in education, including the federal Charter School Program, which has played a significant role in the expansion of high-performing charters.
Furthermore, the charter school movement itself may face its own vulnerabilities, such as allowing numerous subpar charter schools to continue operating, which gives critics easy ammunition.
It’s not difficult to observe the growing resistance against charter schools, particularly in cities where charter enrollment is approaching the 30 percent mark. Take Los Angeles, for example, where over 151,000 students attend charters, making it the city with the highest charter enrollment. These students represent 23 percent of the total enrollment.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a strong backlash recently when a leaked draft plan revealed that billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and others planned to invest $490 million in expanding charters in Los Angeles. This would mean that half of the students in Los Angeles would attend charter schools.
Immediately, the president of the L.A. school board and the union chief vehemently opposed the plan and launched a campaign to have the board officially reject it.
"We view this as the first step towards challenging unaccountable billionaires and investing in our traditional public schools," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, in an interview with the L.A. Times.
It is a well-known fact that this criticism lacks substance in many respects. However, pointing out its flaws is as relevant as debating with "birthers" about the birthplace of President Obama. It is not about providing factual information; it is about presenting an argument that has been tested with a focus group and resonates with a specific group of voters. We should expect to hear more of this argument in the coming months.
So, which of these two visions is more probable?
Currently, the negative narrative surrounding this enrollment report seems more likely. The political climate is leaning in that direction. I hope I am mistaken, mainly because the alternative vision of where this charter enrollment could lead is quite positive.
A recent report from the Fordham Institute, which has not received much attention, examined cities where a "detente" between charter schools and district schools has been achieved, resulting in significant benefits for students in some cases. Denver and Washington serve as the best examples.
In Denver, a unified effort by the mayor, superintendent, and school board led to the creation of a unique combination of schools: traditional district-run schools, "innovation" schools with the freedom to explore new approaches, and charter schools. For underprivileged and minority students, charter expansions have yielded the most significant improvements, often achieved by closing underperforming traditional schools and replacing them with high-performing charters.
The report concludes that if the district continues on its current path, replacing failing schools with high-quality options (including charters), it could become the first in the nation to achieve a transformation similar to what New Orleans experienced following a devastating hurricane, all through district-led efforts.
The key word in that conclusion is "if." One change in the school board, orchestrated by the teachers union, which is displeased with the influx of non-union charters, could bring this experiment to a halt.
Washington is the city to observe for examples of what can happen when charter and district schools reach parity, extending beyond healthy competition and shared resources. Currently, both sides are cautiously considering further cooperation in areas such as transportation, data sharing, and job recruitment.
Charter advocates are resistant to relinquishing the authority to decide where new schools will be established, which is a priority for Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. However, considering the number of unused DCPS schools that remain under district control and the numerous underperforming DCPS schools that are ideal candidates for charter takeovers, it seems like the perfect location to explore the idea of a schools CEO, similar to what New Orleans has, who has the power to make decisions that benefit students in both systems.
Another possibility is granting Henderson the authority to launch her own charters, which would undoubtedly shake things up.
However, these potential developments rely on a positive outcome of the current situation. I just cannot shake the feeling that we are headed towards a negative trajectory. I can already hear the criticism buzzing like hornets.