Our report, Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment, takes an honest look at an urgent problem that has long divided education leaders. To help inform and advance a thoughtful discussion, we invited a number of experts to share their views on this complex and politically charged issue.
We’ve learned a lot since the first charter school opened 25 years ago. From the beginning, these innovative public schools were a great fit for parents seeking tuition-free options beyond their child’s assigned public school. But as the number of charter schools grew, one type emerged that immediately appealed to those students who were the least well served in their assigned public schools. Urban charter schools with missions to offer a high-quality education to disadvantaged students were life rafts for students in failing inner-city public schools. Not surprisingly, the demand for them was, and still is, very high. Although many urban districts were challenged with managing enrollment losses many years prior to the arrival of charter schools, a steady migration of students to these tuition-free alternatives to district schools compounded the challenge.
A recent convening sponsored by CRPE brought together researchers and policy advocates to discuss what could be done to help these districts adjust to the reality that parents want better public schools for their children than their districts offer, and they will choose high-quality charter schools when they can. At this convening we discussed why so many of our cities struggle to provide a quality education for their families. Many urban districts are dealing with fiscal problems that began decades ago when unsustainable commitments were made to teacher pensions and building schools. Honoring these commitments depends on ever-growing enrollment and steady increases in the number of teachers, which hasn’t been the reality. Parents (who could) started abandoning urban school districts long before the arrival of charter schools and the impact of these commitments has, in some cases, led to pending fiscal disaster.
More importantly, we discussed how those of us who advocate for charter schools could help construct solutions that would address the difficulty of declining enrollment without harming students and families. The obvious solution is to provide more high-quality schools from which parents can choose so that the children of those parents who are unable to move out of the district get the education they deserve. A major benefit of this strategy is that it could entice those who could move, to stay. That said, many at this convening concluded that it might make sense to artificially slow the growth of charter schools to give failing districts time to adjust. I respectfully disagree.
Forcing new charter schools to sit on the bench while the traditional public schools in their district “catch up” suggests that charter schools are the problem when, in fact, for parents and students, they’re the solution. There are policy solutions, both fiscal and educational, that can address the legacy costs these districts can no longer afford. These solutions can be crafted in ways that don’t further limit the high-quality public school options available to parents.
One example of this is implementing a unified enrollment system that requires all parents to choose their top three or five schools from all public schools in the district—traditional or charter. Quite honestly, most parents don’t care if the name of the school is “Oak Lawn Elementary” or “Oak Lawn Charter School,” as long as it’s a good fit for their child. Common application systems reduce the “us vs. them” problem and provide a platform for parents to engage and give feedback on the schools in their district. And when parents feel they have more viable options, they’ll stay. The textbook example of this is in D.C., which has seen growth for several years in the number of students attending both charter and district public schools.
Susan Aud Pendergrass is vice president of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.