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High-Quality Replication: The Future of Charter Schools

The idea for quality charter school replication has been around for awhile. A 2009 NACSA study claimed that an “approach that is becoming more widespread to meet demand is the replication of existing successful charter schools.” The report went on to say that, even so, most states did not really think about replication as a solution to their educational needs, and that authorizers tended to consider each charter school applicant as a standalone, separate entity from everything else in the state. A paper by the National Charter School Research Project (now the Center on Reinventing Public Education – CRPE) in 2007 stated that management companies and other charter network operators would be crucial for any sort of national replication program due to their experience and resources. A brief by the current director of that group in the same year implied that successful schools have an embedded DNA that can be cloned at other sites.

Despite studies like this suggesting that replication of high-quality models was the best route to success, most charter-friendly states continued to approve charter applications the way they had for years, with no real direction other than satisfying public demand for them. The applications that were denied usually contained egregious errors, an unrealistic budget, conflicts of interest, or other things that don’t sit well in departments of education. The ones that were approved weren’t necessarily special, but the paperwork was in order.

In a way, this process left it up to network operators (CMOs, EMOs, etc.) to determine what to replicate, and it might naturally follow that only the most academically successful models would persist since those are the “products” that their customers like the most. Many of the largest network operators today made great strides during this period, while others failed. The failures were frequently high-profile, and created bad press for the charter sector and greater selectivity among authorizers and administrations nationwide.

Backlash was inevitable. In 2010, New York closed its doors to for-profit operators altogether, blaming profiteering for academic problems. Ohio began ranking its authorizers in 2011 after a rough period of overexpansion allowed rogue EMOs to run amok. Even this year, AB 401 in California sought to set a statewide charter school cap there into 2017, and Massachusetts has yet to lift its cap (look no further than the AFT). The maiden charter laws for Mississippi and Maine in 2013 contained strict caps on charter growth, and Connecticut’s charter law has one of the most restrictive caps we’ve ever seen (it even caps enrollment per school).

Charter applicants in some states today are seeing much more pushback than they did in the 2000s. Teacher unions and school districts are putting massive amounts of pressure on legislatures nationwide to end the proliferation of brand new charter schools, finally realizing that this is a life & death struggle for them. The education reform movement itself is slowing under its own weight, with so much success over the last decade that it may simply be time to stop and get a new compass bearing. Still, we have kids to educate, and in the realm of education reform, there is no time to stop and smell the daisies.

Besides, how can we stop in the face of such demand. Last year in California alone there were 50,000 kids on charter school waiting lists, and the most recent data from Washington D.C. shows about 7,000 kids trying to get into capitol-area charter schools. There is also an astounding 70,000 children hoping for a seat in New York City’s 198 charter schools, and the city’s charter network saw a 17% increase in charter applications from last year. Some critics attack these wait list numbers, saying that some children are on multiple schools’ wait lists, but this ignores the immensity of the numbers themselves and the fact that multiple applications per child means that their parents are doing everything they can to get their child into a new school (even if it involves submitting multiple applications and attending various, heartbreaking lotteries.

Jealousy can be a powerful motivational tool, and charter school popularity among parents has drawn the ire of Districts and teacher unions. In turn, they have pressured many public authorizing bodies (remember, some of these Districts are the authorizer, like in Florida) into widespread denials. Pennsylvania denied every single application for cyber charters for 2014, and Philadelphia has kept a moratorium on charter applications for years now. A Florida district killed a charter school proposal by an air force base that would’ve served primarily military kids, which is just the kind of niche project in which charter schools excel. Despite lifting their cap recently, only 23 of the 71 applications submitted in North Carolina for 2014 were approved, and a lot of speculation has arisen as to the integrity of the approval process there. Expect even fewer approvals in NC for 2015, since 42 applicants weren’t even invited to the interview stage. In Washington, where a new charter law inspired 22 charter applications, only 8 of them will open at all, and only a single school in 2014.


Replication Upon Request…and Out of Necessity

For anti-Choicers, the collective strategy for maintaining the status quo is simple: kill charters, keep children. If they can kink the pipeline of new schools, parents won’t have as much incentive to leave their District school. In fact, they wouldn’t have much of a choice at all, even if the District school is disastrously underperforming or in extreme disrepair.

The Districts, which had a monopoly on public education until charters arrived, would rather just keep their kids, stay the course, and hope things turn out for the better down the road. After losing kids and funding to charter schools for years, they’ve now gone directly to the source and petitioned for more money to help close that expanding gap. This money, they say, will go to renovations, new construction, and anything else the District can find to spend money on. The trouble is, the pie is only so big, and to give Districts a larger portion of it means taking away from charter schools.

No example of this is better than what just happened in Florida, where lawmakers flung over $100 million into facilities funding for District schools, while substantially cutting facilities funding to the charter school sector that is seeing increasing enrollment every year. In the end, charters got $75 million, which is a far cry from the $91 million they got last year. Florida charter schools should count themselves lucky since they almost got stuck with a mere $50 million, if not for a midnight decision. Even worse, if accounting for new charter schools in the system for 2014-15, which will soon be taking a piece of the pie, $100 million would’ve been required just for all charters to break even from last year.

To the untrained eye, this doesn’t seem entirely unfair. After all, we can’t leave our District schools to rot away. But District schools already have access to funding sources to which charter schools do not. The District’s relationship to the local government means it has the indirect power to tax. In essence, then, Districts are now double-dipping into Floridian tax dollars: once locally with their public school levy and again at the state level with the PECO funds they just received. Charter schools get state funding and can take out bonds, but can’t levy their own taxes.

It doesn’t really make sense that the state would so eagerly do this unless it was under tremendous pressure from someone. After all, charter schools are cheaper for states because charters historically get less per pupil from the state than District schools do. Charter facilities are also cheaper. You can throw up a K-8 charter school building for about $12 million in 6 months, while the District would have to build two separate buildings (elementary and middle) at between $10-20 million apiece and take forever to do so. All in all, charter school facilities are a great bargains for state budgets.

However, it is this funding disparity and persuasive facilities solution that has likely perpetuated the condition itself. Charters continue to fight (futilely, it would seem) for closing the financial gaps. In case you missed it, the University of Arkansas recently sponsored an updated version of an older Ball State study called “Inequality Persists,” which was basically an overview of state-by-state spending for both District and charter schools. The specific numbers have changed, but the thrust of the argument has stayed the same:  charter schools continue to get far less per pupil funding than District schools. In fact, the disparity has gotten worse.

If charter schools can’t count on more facilities funding or per pupil reimbursements, and if new charter applications continue to be denied on a wide scale, the only thing left to do is reinvest in what already exists with what little we have. That’s where replication comes in.


The Great Cull

Look behind the curtain and you’ll see various wizards defining the course of American education. With well over 6,000 charter schools in the country enrolling 2.5 million students, federal policymakers believe the data set is large enough to start culling the best examples and replicating them or asking them to expand. This will come in the form of new charters under existing high-performing governing boards, amendments to existing charters for enrollment expansion, turnarounds of failing District schools by successful charter operators, etc. In short, charter applications themselves may not decrease at all, even in the face of sweeping denials.

What will decrease are “additions to the data set,” as it were. It’s finally clear that charter schools were not an experiment. They will continue to be built and enroll more and more kids, but their function will also become more and more refined. The mature markets like California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and others will start to limit rookie charters in favor of simply expanding what already works. Those same markets will also continue to close struggling charter schools, further narrowing the direction that future charters will be allowed to take. Newer markets, especially those markets that have not even opened up yet, will have a choice to make: repeat the whole charter experience of mature states or copy what clearly works elsewhere. Odds are the latter will be the more popular choice.

This is not to say that small, independent charter schools will not continue to open. In fact, expect those mom-and-pop operators to comprise the bulk of this new generation of rookie applicants. These types of charters are how the whole movement began; small towns and neighborhoods attempting to express their local identity through education. But these will be a tiny share of the national market compared to the 2,000 student K-12 charter campuses and District takeovers that larger operators will continue to be charged with. Of course, we can expect the wild, wild west notion of bulk authorization and subsequent closure of bad apples to be over. The list of charter operators being asked to continue serving American kids will grow thinner.

Grant funding is already pushing us in the direction of replication. Most grant funding has primarily been for those schools that did a good job with challenging student populations, which contains an inherent selectivity to it. But the nature of other grants is changing to include similar elements. For instance, in 2010 the Charter Schools Program (CSP) grant began including a competition between CMOs for money related to the “Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools.” The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program changed in 2010 to focus on four specific school “turnaround” models aimed at over 12,000 schools identified as low performing. Charter schools specialize in turnarounds, at least according to Stanford’s CREDO report, so if the required flexibility were ever to be injected into SIG funds we could see a flood of charter school turnaround activity. Word on the street is it’s only a matter of time.


Copy, Paste, Repeat..

Replication has really picked up as a buzzword since the idea of it took shape in the mid-to-late 2000s. NACSA, in its perpetual drive to purify the membership of the charter sector, has issued an entire roadmap to replication. Stanford’s CREDO jumped on board early last year, but clarified that replication isn’t as easy to pull off as policymakers think. Late last year, the New York City Charter School Center launched a program aimed at expanding high-performing options in four cities across the country, starting in New Orleans. It claimed to be the first of its kind, but plan on seeing that replicated as well.

The charter school landscape over the next decade will grow increasingly Warholian, as charter laws begin to include replication incentives (and maybe even requirements) and the federal government begins to reward successful replications with grant money. Rookie applicants will be discouraged from applying for a charter unless it clearly operates in a niche market, which means only those new charters in remote towns or with a homogenous student body (i.e. performing arts kids, autistic students, etc.) can feel optimistic about the application process. There will be no more approvals-for-the-sake-of-approvals, and even existing management organizations will have a tough time getting new charters for anything other than a high-performing replication.

Though this new generation of charter approvals sounds boring and kind of elitist, charter schools will still find ways of innovating within these parameters. That is the nature of private enterprise, and it is how charter schools continue to distinguish themselves from traditional public schools run by the District. We can only hope that policymakers don’t sacrifice too much of the individuality of charter schools for the vapid replication of their respective educational agendas, especially when those agendas change every 4 to 8 years.

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