Charter Schools and The Issue of Scalability: An Unexpected Conclusion

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A fundamental tension throughout A Smarter Charter and the greater charter debate is should charters be mere laboratories with the sole purpose of improving public education for all, or should charter schools provide an increasing segment of the population an alternative to traditional public schools. The ability for charter schools’ methods to scale up to the rest of public schools is the central consideration in this tension. It may seem like the lack of scalability charter schools face would support proponents of limiting charter growth. However, when you reframe the question, the exact opposite conclusion comes to light, universal charters are the solution to the issue of scalability.

Throughout A Smarter Charter, scaling up proved to be challenging. Numerous teachers at the Cesar Chavez school, in D.C. experienced a significant drop off in support and positive work environment when the charter network expanded from teaching 60 students to nearly 1,500 (25). It was not until they unionized that some of that empowering environment was restored. But even then a lot of the teacher-administrative collaboration is delicate, largely hinging on a “more communicative and responsive administration” that could change at any time (44). Kahlenberg and Potter point out that stand alone schools are more conducive to promoting teacher voice (96). There are ways to mitigate these growing pains, but it is not easy to scale all of these reforms. Co-op teacher models, unions, slim contracts, and teacher voice in particular have trouble scaling up (104,109, 117). This inability to scale is not only evident in the very successful schools in the book, but in the charter school community as a whole. On the whole charter schools are not showing gains in student outcomes (68).

Many of the successful practices at the schools featured in this book are examples of charter schools moving in the right direction. However, we saw these policies lose their edge when applied to larger charter networks. How do we interpret this lack of scalability, does this inability to scale support or refute the idea that charter schools should provide education to an increasing number of students? One response to these findings, would be to curb the number of charter schools allowed as Al Shanker original suggested. Charter schools would be used as innovative labs to inform public education and not as a universal school.

Alternatively, the inability to scale successful methods could be interpreted as the exact reason why a universal charter system is needed. A large network of charter schools or the even larger network of traditional public schools will never be able to support the teacher voice, student integration, small community, and site specific flexibility necessary to best address the needs of the students. Perhaps we can preserve the benefits of the smaller charter school by replicating the model rather than expanding the model. In other words, keeping the charter schools small, each with a democratic participatory governance that are independent, yet associated with other charter schools for support and shared knowledge.

Additional questions for Kahlenberg and Potter:

We think of no excuses schools to be paternalistic (20), however these school rarely practice progressive education and other techniques used in schools that serve the elite. What do we make of this irony?

One of the positive impacts highlighted about integrated schools was the role of the parents (64-65) is the increased parent involvement by middle and high income parents. However, are these parents serving the interest of all students at their child’s school or only the interest of their own child? If so, I could see a situation where middle and high income parents bend policy to benefit their own students, for example advocating for extra funding going towards enrichment rather than extra support that actual harms low income students.

Using portfolios to evaluate teachers and teacher pay is a really interesting proposition. How would this affect the current incentive structure for teacher evaluation, and what unintended consequences would come of this policy shift?

In Hartford, the Sheff case has forced minimum levels of integration in all magnet schools. Schools use weighted lotteries to insure this balance. These weighted lotteries receives pushback from some communities leaders arguing that these lotteries take away spots from Hartford students who would otherwise be going to struggling schools and gives them to suburban students who would be going to a high achieving schools no matter what. By using a weighted lottery we are sacrificing equity for integration? Are we okay with this?