But since 2013, that growth rate has dropped sharply and some of the possible culprits are familiar: high real estate costs, teacher shortages, and politics.
She reports that researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) took a close-up look at the San Franciso Bay area, which is experiencing a negative charter growth rate for the first time (more closed than opened) to see what exactly the issues might be. CRPE is a think tank funded by all the usual reformy suspects, and the report itself was funded by Silicon Schools Fund, another charter advocacy group (EdWeek, sadly, failed to mention any of this.). So the report is a study with a definite agenda-- identifying obstacles and overcoming them (the final section of the report is headed "Solutions"), so nothing in the report is going to challenge the premise that charters are awesome and we should all have more of them. But it is an interesting study in what the charter advocates think their obstacles are.
After some brief charter history, some data substantiating the slowdown, and some details about the Bay Area charter scene, CRPE gets to the Big Obstacles. This list is the result of interviews with charter leaders, so again, we're looking at the perceptions of charter fans.
1) Real Estate Problems
Unsurprising in the Bay Area, because everyone who is not a newly minted tech is having a Bay Area real estate problem. Facilities are a "hard cap" on charter growth, which underlines what we've seen all along-- the charter school movement has been as much a real estate movement as an educational one.
Look across the country and you find guys like Carl Paladino of Buffalo, who got involved in charter schools because they were a great way to make a killing in the real estate business. You also find areas (eg NYC) where the charter movement has been about finding creative ways to steal public-owned buildings (or portions of them) and gift them to private charter school operators. Or as the report says:
For charter leaders, the ideal scenario would be to secure long-term facilities in unused district properties or to colocate in underutilized district buildings.
Well, yes. And if I were opening a new McDonalds in town, it would be ideal for local government to just give me a building to put my business in. There is an irony in the modern charter movement-- we want to apply business models and methods to schools, but not the part where the business has to invest a bunch of capital to get up and running. We would like to skip that part and just be given Free Stuff from the public.
2) Escalating Political Street Fights
Districts facing financial strains often see charters as responsible for their challenges (whether this perception is accurate or not). [Spoiler alert-- it is] As a result, charter growth becomes an enemy of district financial security in the minds of some school boards
So, not so much street fighting as public education fighting back against the long-running and debilitating attacks of the charter sector. The leaders interviewed said that political resistance to charters is growing, in part because of "the perceived financial impact on districts," a perception that exists because of reality.
The modern charter movement has always depended on one huge central lie-- that multiple schools can be operated for the same cost as a single school. They can't. The solution here is simple. Get a politician to stand up and say, "We believe that having choice and charter schools is so important that we want to raise your taxes so that we can fully fund them." Oddly enough, that has not yet happened.
Meanwhile, the charter "brand" collapses under the weight of its own under-performing reality. Every time a charter closes mid-year, pushes out students, hires unqualified "teachers," turns out to be mediocre or worse, reminds the taxpayers that they have no say in how the school is run, or gets caught in some sort of shenanigans, more members of the public realize that charters do NOT come with the same commitments and promises as actual public schools. Every time one more teacher leaves a charter school and tells tales of what a shit show it was, it gets just a little harder for charters to find staff.
Charters promise too much and deliver too little, all at too great a cost, and so time is not their friend. The longer the movement goes, and the more people confront the reality of it, the stiffer the resistance becomes;.
3) Start-up Funding Is Hard To Get for Less-Connected Leaders
Don't have friends in rich places? You may not be able to get an investment to start your charter school. And charter investors are not interested in breaking into new areas. Why, it's almost as if a business model deliberately choose NOT to serve all potential "customers," leaving some to just languish. Go figure.
4) Lack of coordination and "survival of the fittest " thinking are self-inflicted wounds that constrain supply.
A consistent theme we heard from Oakland operators in particular was the view that the high concentration of charters in the city causes any new school to spend more time and energy competing with other charter schools for students, teachers, and facilities.
But wait-- that can't be right. I thought competition bred excellence and spurred everyone on to heights of awesomeosity! But no-- the leaders suggest that market competition wastes resources that could be used to educate students, and that fighting for resources leaves deserving schools working without everything they need. Say it ain't so!
5) Mature CMOs are slowing their expansion plans to attend to instruction, talent development, and other internal issues.
Well, sort of. Some are trying to tweak their work because they are discovering that their amateur-hour plans to raise test scores aren't actually working.
And because charters are a business, some charter businesses are deciding to get into another line of work. This is not unusual in an evolving and mature business-- since your main commitment is to making money, and not to whatever method of making money you started out with, evolution is natural and normal. (For example, when was the last time MTV showed music videos?)
And so we have both AltSchool actually getting out of the charter school business, while Summit also shifts more of its energy into its sales arm. Summit and AltSchool both started out as school-running businesses (Summit does charters, while AltSchool was a boutique tech private outfit). Both have decided that they don't want to be just in the school business any more-- they want to be in the school-in-a-box software vending business. More income, less overhead. AltSchool has actually closed several of its schools. It's a natural business evolution, and one more reminder that modern charter schools are businesses first, and schools second (or third or twelfth or, eventually, not at all).
6) Parent demand is generally strong
The report insists that parent demand is strong, and then goes on to make a curious observation:
Gentrification is a more widely reported issue for schools. Charter schools are concerned that the students they seek to serve—usually low-income students, students of color, and English language learners—are being pushed out of the communities that charter schools tend to serve.
Well, yes. Because one of the tools of gentrification is, in fact, charter schools. They are natural partners-- to make a neighborhood "better," you replace the neighbors, and to make a school "better," you replace the students. Can these charter leaders really not know that they are instrumental in the gentrification they bemoan?
7) Talent is an ongoing challenge, sort of
"Teachers are becoming more scarce" is a thing people keep saying. I prefer "school systems are failing to make teaching attractive enough to entice people to pursue it." Charters are feeling the pinch as well, though they are not worried because they are using fun techniques like "grow your own" or "allow charters to hire any warm body" Charters also report having less trouble finding school "leaders" which could be because those jobs have few professional requirements but pay really, really well. "You qualify because you have a pulse, and we'll pay you a buttload of money," turns out to be a good recruiting slogan.
8) Authorizers remain unpredictable.
That damn democracy. California has few restrictions on chartering, but they do make charter operators go through (mostly) local boards, which means if you can't go all LA and just pack the board with charter fans, you might suffer from political pushback. And if you pack a board and then the electorate gets angry about the results, your fortunes could change pretty quickly.
Charter operators like to say that they want authorizers to decide based on what's best for kids, which is a lot easier than making the case that charters would be best for kids.
9) The challenges are regional and specific.
Here, I don't disagree. The rules vary by state and community and the particular charter operator. But some factors-- the failure of charters to deliver, the negative impact on public school finances, the lack of sufficient funding, the theft of public property, the charters' ultimate value of business considerations over educational ones-- these remain pretty constant from place to place.
CRPE wraps up the report with some proposed solutions to the problems listed above. These are.... well, these are solutions only if you decide that the interests of charter operators are the only interests that need to be served.
Facility shortage? Make public districts hand over more publicly owned property to charter schools, change zoning laws, and get the legislature to underwrite the funding charters need to grab real estate. And create a commission to "coordinate" the handover of public facilities to private charter operators.
Bad competition? Create some central planning authority to coordinate the expansion strategies of charters. How that translates into anything other than telling charters where they're allowed to expand, and how THAT translates into anything other than charter operators saying, "No, I don't want to" is not clear. CRPE acknowledges that no charters are saying, "Please give us less autonomy."
Staff? Do some recruiting. From wherever.
More data? CRPE thinks more data about the charter market is needed. Who would collect that, and why?
Toxic local politics? Maybe charter operators could negotiate some sort of deal whereby they didn't completely suck the financial life blood out of public schools (and the schools would hand over real estate just to, you know, be cool).. Maybe they could keep trying to pack local school boards. Maybe they could convince district leaders to "think of their jobs as overseeing a broad portfolio of options with various governance models" except of course some of the items in the portfolio they "oversee" would be completely outside of their control and would be hostile and damaging to the parts of their portfolio that they are actually, legally responsible. Honestly, most of these solutions boil down to "let's wish real hard that public school people will just like us more because it's inconvenient for us when they don't."
I'm happy to see the modern charter tide ebbing. And I'm not sad to see that folks like CRPE and the interviewees don't really have a handle on why it's happening. I agree that it doesn't have to be this way, but it will be this way as long as modern charter boosters fail to acknowledge their major systemic issues, insist on inadequate funding in a zero-sum system, disenfranchise the public, underperform in educating students, and behave as businesses rather than schools. As I said above, time is not on their side, and neither is their inability to grasp the problems they create for public education in this country.