Charters II

A while ago I hinted at the tension between charter schools in DC* and Michelle Rhee over the teacher pay raises in the new contract.  That’s now becoming a bigger issue.

When Michael Bennet, now Senator Bennet (D-CO), was superintendent of schools in Denver I remember all the grumbling about his indifference to charter schools within the ed reform scene there.  It wasn’t that he was hostile to them at all, he was quite supportive.  Rather, if he had a large dollop of money to invest in reform it was usually for something systemic to help the city’s schools.  Michael’s view was that while $3 million could help open a great charter, it could also help develop a training program, recruitment strategy, etc… that would help the beleaguered district improve.   In other words, while he was a reformer’s reformer, he knew he wasn’t superintendent of the charters, he was superintendent of the public school system there.   Although not in Bennet’s case, too often that ethic turns into hostility to charters, and that’s a huge problem.  But in the context of intensive urban education reform benign neglect for charters isn’t unreasonable and may be the best strategy to help both sectors and ultimately build urban systems that work for all students.

And that brings us to Michelle Rhee in D.C.  Like Bennet she’s a reformer’s reformer.  And like him she’s pro-charter.   She’s pro-choice in general in fact.  But she’s the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, not just the Chancellor of the Charters.   Her job is to fix the demonstrably awful schools in D.C. not just to help charters grow.  To the extent there are inequities in the city’s funding formulas that don’t put charters on a level playing field with other public schools, those should be remedied (although D.C. is much better on that score than some other jurisdictions).  But, the charters have enjoyed the pick of teachers in the city for a long time now because they offer better working conditions, better opportunities, etc…Now the city is, yes, competing under Rhee’s leadership.  And competition is part of what this is supposed to be all about in terms of a theory of change.  Fortunately, the charters can continue to compete in a bunch of non-monetary ways but the idea that this new contract is an untenable problem because it will complicate the human capital situation for the city’s charters doesn’t hold water.

Put a different way that will resonate with some people, sometimes Creon is operating in a larger context, longer time lines, and under different constraints than are immediately apparent in the specifics and passions of the moment.

The one aspect of this I do worry about is the issue of leveraging reform, assuming the contract ultimately goes through.  Teachers in D.C. did not see raises for several years but are not underpaid the way teachers in some jurisdictions are.  The point of this new money is to leverage a new, and better, approach to human capital in the city.  In other words, if Rhee isn’t able to really exploit the new contract to change things in DC, it’ll be an enormous missed opportunity because the new money’s real value is in what it can bring about by way of change.

Update: Smarick has a smart response to this up. Let me be clear, I’m all for using charters as a reform strategy.  My point is just that as contemporary education reform becomes more integrated with education policy overall reformers should be ready for the kind of hard choices that come with running large systems.   So to Andy’s example of a district working with a CMO, sure.  But you can argue that some sometimes big system-wide fixes, even if not ideal for charters, are the best way to serve more kids better as quickly as possible.  E.g. the new contract in D.C.

*I was a charter trustee in the city for seven years.

3 Replies to “Charters II”

  1. Although it’s accurate to say Rhee is a charter supporter, there are a couple of incongruous actions on her part to consider. She continues to retain a tremendous amount of excess school space that by law should be ceded to public charter schools. This has been justified by incredulous enrollment growth projections. Her actions on this have not been in the best interest of DC students or taxpayers.

    She also has been tacitly complict in the Fenty administration’s government funding inequities for between DCPS and charters. This includes multiple supplemental appropriations for DCPS that were not counted in the per-pupil funding formula and cuts to the charter school facilities allowance.

    Charter schools in DC should be taking their case not to the District government, but to the foundations that have promised the funding needed to revamp DCPS’s human capital. For over a decade, these same foundations paved the way for Rhee’s arrival by spurring competition through charter schools. They now risk unraveling a fragile competitive balance and a decade of reform.

    But part of the bargain for DC charters should have to be matching Rhee’s vision for teacher incentive pay. Progressive teacher compensation is not a common feature of DC charters, and it should be. They can no longer simply rely on not being DCPS.

  2. If you think competition in DC between DCPS and charters is over teachers, think again. It’s over funding/facilities and students. DCPS has been hoarding real estate and the city has been doing whatever it can to keep empty buildings out of the hands of charters. Given the law on the books regarding right of first offer this is literally a crime.

    Chancellor Rhee is responsible for DCPS only, not charters, but Mayor Fenty is responsible for all public education — traditional and charter — and he is clearly favoring one at the expense of the other.

  3. The role of the superintendent is key in school reform, and I think the evidence is clear, too.

    — in 99% of american schools supported by public funding, the person who has the real authority to decide what happens is the division superintendent. and

    — in 99% of the reform plans, the people who are held responsible and accountable for problems are NOT the superintendent.

    Frankly, when superintendent’s get replaced, how often is it due to student performance, and how often is it due to personality conflicts with the school board?

    And when superintendent’s are kept on, as they usually are in most districts for quite some time, isn’t it because they have had a strong say in encouraging pliable candidates to serve on their school board?

    Take Fairfax County, VA, a very wealthy district outside DC. In 2007, 5th grade reading scores on state tests in Fairfax tied reading scores in the urban, high poverty district of Richmond, VA. In chemistry, the gateway and barrier to technical majors, Fairfax students have scored below the state average for 9 of the past 11 years, because of reading and math programs selected by the superintendent’s staff for use in every school that simply do not work in real classrooms. Richmond’s superintendent secured science-based programs that work, Fairfax still uses whole language and fuzzy math. The results from the two superintendents are clear.

    And yet, despite the scores, no one raises a peep in Fairfax. Like board of many kinds, the school board has been captured by those it is supposed to be overseeing.

    Duncan and most other “reformers” are holding teachers (and most principals) responsible for learning conditions that those above their heads control. What can be controlled in schools is the curriculum, which greatly impacts what happens in classrooms. But in schools, those with the real authority are not those held accountable and responsible.

    Separate authority, accountabiity, and responsibility, and no management system will work. Teachers (and in most cases principals) do not have the power in school systems. Superintendents do. Where is the requirement to “reconstitute” the central offfice? Nowhere to be found.

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