In our second installment of Education Lab IQ, we answer a reader’s question about the differences between charters and traditional public schools.
In our second Education Lab IQ (short for Interesting Questions), we’re answering reader Eric Swenson’s questions: What exactly are the factors that prevent public schools from doing what charter schools do? Why not just change those factors instead of adding charter schools?
The state’s charter-school law says that charter schools “free teachers and principals from burdensome regulations that limit other public schools,” giving them “the flexibility to innovate and make decisions about staffing, curriculum, and learning opportunities to improve student achievement and outcomes.”
Charters get that flexibility in three main ways:
1. They have more control over whom they hire — and fire.
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2. They answer to an appointed rather than an elected school board.
3. They are accountable to a charter authorizer rather than a school district, which allows them to define their own goals and success metrics.
We spoke with a dozen people who work in or with charter and traditional public schools, and here’s what we learned.
Charter schools have more control over whom they hire and fire
Charter schools have two clear freedoms: First, they aren’t required by law to bargain with teachers unions over pay and working conditions, although they can.
Charter- and traditional public-schools teachers generally must be certified by the state. But charter-school leaders say the freedom from collective bargaining means they never have to hire a teacher who doesn’t agree with their school’s approach and mission.
In traditional public schools, principals sometimes must accept candidates who meet a position’s qualifications, even if they don’t think they would be a good fit. In Seattle, for example, when there are layoffs, the teachers contract says teachers with the least seniority are first in line to lose their jobs, or be transferred to other schools.
Second, charter-school principals don’t need to be certified by the state. People who lead charter schools need a different set of skills than traditional public-school principals, said Joshua Halsey of the Washington State Charter School Commission. For example, charter principals need to understand finance, fundraising and how to manage a board, he said.
Charter schools don’t answer to an elected school board
By law, each charter school is governed by a board with members selected by the charter school.
Maggie O’Sullivan, Rainier Prep’s co-founder and school leader who taught in Washington’s traditional public schools for 20 years, said the advantage of a nonelected board that’s dedicated to one school is that its members can focus on what’s best for that school.
“Many elected school-board members are in it for the mission, too, but they’re so affected by the politics it can be difficult to get things done,” she said.
Charter-school advocates also say they aren’t beholden to a bigger organization, so they can be more flexible than traditional districts in setting school schedules and choosing curriculum.
For example, at Excel Charter School in Kent, the school day and year are longer than in the district’s other public schools. Also, after this school year began, teachers wanted more time for reading instruction, and the school added 25 minutes a day.
“To change a schedule that’s already been locked down is very difficult to do in a traditional system,” said Adel Sefrioui, the school’s founder and former executive director.
“We can be nimble and do that,” he added.
Charter schools are accountable to a charter authorizer
A common refrain from charter-school advocates is they receive “more autonomy in exchange for more accountability.”
Instead of answering to an elected school board, charter schools are held to the terms of a charter, or contract, that must be approved by a charter authorizer. (Authorizers have the power to review, approve or reject charter school applications.) When an applicant applies to become a charter school, it sets goals for itself. If it falls below those expectations, the authorizer can close the school.
“While there may be penalties for the underperformance of traditional public schools, closure is not one of them. The threat of closing, it may be argued, is a main driver for innovation,” said Nate Olson, spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
So why not just give the same freedoms to all public schools instead of adding charter schools?
First, many charter supporters and opponents don’t think that’s a good idea.
Some charter opponents, for example, say some charter-school freedoms could lead to problems, such as the lack of job security for teachers.
“They don’t have to be accountable to their staff; there’s no due process,” said Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle Education Association. “So you (as a teacher) could have a different opinion on a curriculum, voice your views to the principal, and lose your job the next day.”
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, agreed.
“I would argue that you want a stable workforce of educators that can focus on teaching students in the classroom as opposed to being worried about getting fired the next day for some arbitrary reason that doesn’t have to do with their performance or how kids are doing, which is what can and does happen in charter schools,” he said.
And when it comes to accountability, Wood said schools should be answering to an elected school board.
“There’s tremendous value in local public schools being run and overseen by locally elected school-board members who are ultimately accountable to their local voters and local taxpayers,” he said.
Charter supporters also don’t think charters work well unless they can operate outside of a district’s bureaucracy.
Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, has studied charter schools for the past 20 years, and says school districts weren’t built for innovation.
“I’ve been asked over the years, ‘Couldn’t we just change one regulation here or adjust the law there?’ But real innovation dies a death by a thousand cuts in our traditional system,” she said. “It’s not one rule, it’s not the union contract per se, it’s not the elected board politics per se, it’s not a large bureaucracy per se. It’s a system that, taken together, was really built for a different purpose than innovating.”
Mitch Price, policy director of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said when a school’s autonomy relies on waivers or exceptions — versus official laws or policies — it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks.
“If political winds change, or if there are new folks at the central office or new school-board members, policy can wither on the vine … whereas, the benefit, I suppose, in the charter law, is that stuff is baked into the statute,” he said.
That’s part of what happened to Seattle’s Queen Anne Elementary, said David Elliott, its former principal. He started the school in 2009 and left last fall after he said the district forced him out over incomplete teacher evaluations.
In 2012, Queen Anne was one of seven schools that became a part of Seattle’s Creative Approach program. Schools could be exempt from almost any district policy or teacher contract provision, and Seattle’s teachers union touted it as a way to show that charters were a “privatization boondoggle.” Now Elliott had more autonomy over hiring decisions, and recruited nationwide, receiving up to 70 to 80 applications per job, rather than just three or four.
But the program didn’t provide as much autonomy as he had hoped. And because the district’s leadership was in such flux, Elliott said he had to argue with the district every year to explain that he had full power to choose his staff.
Second, the vast majority of charter supporters don’t think all schools should be charters.
“There shouldn’t just be one form of innovative schools. We should have lots of types of innovative schools in public education, all pushing each other to be innovative,” Sefrioui said.
A number of districts have schools with some features of charters, including the TAF Academy, which is comanaged by the Federal Way School District and the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation. In the Lake Washington School District, there are a dozen “option” schools that have the freedom to use different instructional approaches, like project-based learning.
Spokane Public Schools has traditional public schools, option schools (which have more autonomy over their budgets, curriculum and professional development) and charters.
Steven Gering, Spokane’s chief academic officer, said it’s important for all the school models to learn from each other.
“When you look at the research and ask the question ‘Are charter schools doing better than traditional public schools on average?’ The answer is no,” he said.
“But there’s a group of them that do really, really amazing and get these crazy results. And I think what everyone, no matter what side you’re on, wants to know is what is it about that 20 percent of schools that are getting such great results that are worth studying? That’s the intriguing part of it.”