Whitmire: New Report Shows Surging Charter Enrollment, But Could Breakthroughs Be the Prelude to a Backlash?

In a new report likely to stir paranoia among superintendents and teachers unions, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools lays out rising charter school enrollment trends: Today, 14 communities across the country have at least 30 percent of their students in charters, up from only one — New Orleans — a decade ago.

There are two very different ways of looking at this development. Let’s start with what I will characterize as the “positive” narrative.

At the 30 percent level, superintendents now finally have an incentive to approach charters to coordinate issues such as transportation, special education and unused school buildings.

Also, the 30 percent mark is where some urban districts reach out to charters as collaborators, a move that’s creating better schools in cities such as Denver. Even more promising collaborations, with charters as true partners, are unfolding in places such as the Spring Branch schools in Houston.

This also means more cities are on the verge of reaching the 50-50 balance of charter/traditional schools that appears to have prompted positive changes on both sides of the equation in Washington D.C., where all families now use a common application process, making life far easier for parents. That somewhat friendly competition between the two sides is a major reason why Washington is the fastest- improving urban district in the country.  

Finally, with tens of thousands of students still on charter school wait lists, the momentum appears to be firmly on the side of charters. With that kind of tailwind, perhaps in the near future we’ll see more New Orleans-style urban districts where 93 percent of the students attend charters, much to their academic advantage.

Maybe that could happen, or maybe this enrollment surge means we’re entering an era where the downhill sledding for charter schools is about to get a whole lot bumpier.

Allow me to get down-home about this. My father grew up on a farm in North Carolina. When I was young, we would spend a full summer visiting my grandmother on that farm, nestled up against the French Broad River. One day my father decided to teach me a country boy tactic for getting rid of a hornet’s nest: Get a long stick, wrap newspaper around one end, ignite the paper and hold it next to the mouth of the nest. In theory, the hornets’ wings burn off as they fly out.

For maybe a minute my father’s ploy worked — until the newspaper burned out and the angry hornets kept buzzing out of the nest. We ran like hell. Hey, I guess it worked once when he was a kid. 

Today, the easy gains for charters have already been made — while the new new thing-ness of charters burned newspaper-bright. That’s over. Now it’s time to face the angry hornets. 

Superintendents are getting a lot savvier about stopping charters, the teachers unions have made charters their top target and the Democratic Party, which helped launch charters, appears to be turning against them as the party moves leftward. 

President Hillary Clinton, should that happen, won’t champion charters as President Obama has. That deal has already been cut with an early endorsement by the teachers unions. 

And while a Republican president might favor charter schools, a Republican-dominated Congress would leap at the chance to sever federal roles in education, including the federal Charter School Program that has played a huge role in growing the top-performing charters.

Plus, there are myriad of ways the charter school movement itself may expose its own Achilles’ heel: Allowing hundreds of substandard charter schools to stay in business, giving critics easy targets.

It’s not hard to witness the burgeoning pushback against charters, especially in cities where charter enrollment approaches that 30 percent mark. Take Los Angeles, where more than 151,000 students attend charters, the most of any city. Those students make up 23 percent of enrollment.

Not surprisingly, the hornets streamed out recently when a draft plan by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and others to invest $490 million in L.A. charter expansions leaked to the press. That would mean half of L.A. students attending charters.

Immediately, the L.A. school board president and union chief lashed out, launching a push to have the board formally reject the Broad plan.

 “We see this as a beginning step in taking on unaccountable billionaires and for investing in our (traditional public) schools,” Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, told the L.A. Times.

To justify its anti-charter campaign, the union chose the same language picked by Hillary Clinton: That charters don’t serve the “highest-needs” kids.

Factually, that criticism falls short in many ways. But pointing that out is about as relevant as disputing “birthers” about where President Obama was born. It’s not about facts; it’s about a focus group-tested argument that sounds right to a targeted group of voters. Expect to hear more of that argument in the months ahead.

So which of these two visions is more likely? 

At this moment, the negative narrative on this enrollment report feels more likely. The politics are just rolling in that direction. I hope I’m wrong, mostly because the alternative vision of where this charter enrollment could lead is pretty positive.

A recent (and under-noticed) report from the Fordham Institute looked at cities where a “detente” between charters and district schools had been achieved, in some cases to the great benefit of students. Denver and Washington offer the best examples.

In Denver, a mayor, superintendent and school board moved in unison to create a unique triad of schools: traditional district-run schools, “innovation” schools with the freedom to try new approaches, and charter schools. For poor and minority students, the biggest gains have come from charter expansions, often made by closing a failing traditional school and replacing it with a high- performing charter.

Concluded the report: “If the district stays the course, continuing to replace failing schools with high-quality offerings (including charters), it could become the first in the country to achieve through a district-led effort the kind of transformation that New Orleans witnessed as a consequence of state-mandated action following a massive hurricane.”

The most important word in that conclusion is “if.” All it would take is one shift in the school board engineered by the teachers union there, which is angry about swapping in (non-union) charters, to bring that experiment to a halt.

Washington is the city to watch for examples of what can happen when the charter/district sectors reach parity, even beyond the healthy competition and shared-school application process. Currently, the two sides are warily weighing further cooperation: transportation, data sharing and job recruiting.

Charter advocates balk at handing over authority to decide where new schools will get launched – the coordination most desired by Kaya Henderson, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. But given the number of unused DCPS schools that never get handed over to charters, and the number of still-failing DCPS schools that are prime candidates for charter takeovers, D.C. seems like the ideal location to try out a New Orleans-style schools CEO, who decides what is best for students in both systems.

Another possibility: giving Henderson authority to launch her own charters. That would shake things up.

Those developments, however, depend on a positive playout of where this is all headed. I just wish I could shake my instinct that we’re about to experience the negative trajectory. I can hear the hornets buzzing now.

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