As Charters Face Growing Opposition, NewSchools Summit Makes Its Case

Charter Schools

As Charters Face Growing Opposition, NewSchools Summit Makes Its Case

By Tony Wan     May 14, 2019

As Charters Face Growing Opposition, NewSchools Summit Makes Its Case
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf delivered welcoming remarks to kick off the 2019 NewSchools Venture Fund Summit.

Each year, the invite-only NewSchools Summit spotlights the latest school models, leaders and technologies that aim to serve underrepresented students and communities.

And for the past 21 years its organizer, the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit known as NewSchools Venture Fund, has also put millions of dollars into novel schools in public districts—many of them charters—as well as various education technology tools focusing on areas ranging from early-childhood education straight through to career and workforce development.

But never straying too far from the minds or sight of attendees at last week’s gathering in downtown Oakland were concerns that some of this work could face new, considerable challenges, particularly for the charter school community. “There’s no question that our movement is facing an existential threat,” said Myrna Castrejón, who earlier this January became the president and CEO of the California Charter School Association.

That comment, at a session about the future of charter schools, came in response to a question about proposed legislation to curtail their growth in California. Currently, there are four bills being considered in Sacramento that, if passed, could significantly impact their growth. The most stringent one, AB 1506, would cap the number at the number of charters operating on Jan. 1, 2020. There are currently 1,306 charter schools in the state.

Charter schools operate with public funding, and sometimes philanthropic support, but are managed by an outside organization that is independent from local district oversight. In California, they are run by nonprofit organizations with self-elected boards. (For-profit charters are outlawed.)

Their supporters and operators—who make up the vast majority of the 1,300-plus attendees at this year’s Summit—say the model offers the flexibility needed to introduce, test and adopt new curriculum, tools and pedagogical approaches that could better serve students, particularly in low-income and minority communities.

“Starting new schools is one of the best ways to learn more about how to run great schools and encourage innovation. If we lose charters, we’ll lose that engine of innovation,” said Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund, an Oakland-based nonprofit that has helped fund more than 50 district, charter and independent schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Bay Area is home to nearly 200 charter schools, some of which have garnered attention for non-traditional instructional models that have been adopted elsewhere. Rocketship Education was an early showcase for blended learning, where students rotate between working on computers and in small groups with teachers. Summit Public Schools, a network of charters that now claims a nationwide footprint, promotes project-based learning assisted by an online learning platform.

But charters have also attracted an increasingly vocal opposition, who charge them with funneling students, teachers and funds from traditional district schools. Aside from raising teacher salaries, a sticking point in the recent California teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland has been stopping the growth of charter schools.

“This year, we’ve seen teachers and their unions include charter moratoriums in contract negotiations that have traditionally focused squarely on salary, benefits, classroom conditions and student supports,” NewSchools CEO Stacey Childress said in an email. “It is a shift that does present a new set of challenges for charter schools who are now being targeted in an unprecedented way.”

Demonstrating outside the conference venue were several dozen protestors affiliated with the Socialist Alternative, a local activist organization, and the Oakland Education Association, the teacher’s union for Oakland Unified School District. In her opening remarks, NewSchools CEO Stacey Childress said she invited union leaders for an onstage dialogue, but they declined. The OEA did not respond to multiple EdSurge inquiries for comment.

The variations in student outcomes, charter models and the communities these schools serve make it difficult to make broad-stroke assessments. Detractors can point to fully-virtual charters, run by for-profit companies, that have been fined for misleading claims and graduating students at rates far below those at traditional schools. At the same time, research suggests that students attending charter schools in urban regions outperform their peers in traditional school settings.

At another session about the charter movement, a conversation among the panel of school founders sometimes veered toward group therapy, as they recalled the vitriolic opposition from their local communities. “It’s sad and lonely right now to be a charter school leader. The entrepreneurial energy of the charter movement has gone away,” said Shannah Varón, executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School.

Jeanne Allen, CEO of The Center for Education Reform, a staunch advocate for school choice and charters, attributed some of that to waning bipartisan political support. “Republicans are no longer as excited about charter schools as they used to be,” she claimed. Meanwhile, the overt support from President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proven problematic for Democrats who support charters.

Across the country, the growth of charter schools has slowed notably. While the first decade of this century saw double-digit percentage increase in the number of such schools, it has almost entirely plateaued (at 1 percent growth) in the 2017-2018 school year, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Instead of a blanket ban, Silicon School’s Greenberg would prefer to see states and local education agencies improve the rigor of their approval processes, and make decisions based on student outcomes. “State authorizers should look at the quality of [charter] applicants and approve the good ones that actually help students, and close the bad ones.”

“Hundreds of thousands of families here in California have chosen public charter schools as the best option for their children,” he added, “and the best practices that are being developed in charters can be adopted by the broader public school system so that more students benefit.”

 

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