Recently, we sat down with James Merriman, the chief executive of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, to talk about the politics and policies of charter schools in New York City.
What is a simple definition of a charter school?
A charter school is a public school and, like all public schools, is tuition-free, non-sectarian, admits all comers, and is publicly funded. It differs from other public schools in how it is governed. A charter school is governed by an independent board of trustees, whereas traditional public schools are governed by an elected board, or in the case of
Why do you believe that charter schools are good for public education?Chartering is a governance reform and not a pedagogical reform, so there is nothing about charters that say they are going to be good. But because of their autonomy, they allow great educators to single-mindedly organize themselves around improving student achievement and providing students a first rate education. These educators are able to create a school community that is, to the maximum extent possible, able to serve the students who are enrolled in the school.
You keep mentioning autonomy – which is a buzzword in the Department of Education in general these days. Usually when you hear the word “autonomy," it is quickly followed by a reference to accountability. Who makes sure that charter school leaders – especially down the road when the founders move on and new leadership takes the helm – are accountable?Accountability isn’t tied to a specific individual – it is tied to a school. As the founders move on, the accountability measures that the authorizers have set up remain in place.
Are authorizing organizations doing a good enough job keeping schools accountable?New York State overall has had a good record in authorizing, but I would add the State University of New York has taken the lead in setting high standards for the measures that schools must meet, and taking action when schools haven’t met those measures, including closing eight of them across the state. [Merriman is the former Executive Director of the Charter Schools Institute at SUNY.]
So you think authorizers should shut charter schools that aren’t doing well? It is not a pleasant part of an authorizer’s job, but I believe it is part of the authorizer’s job - and is part of the district’s job - that when things are not going well, something has to change. In the charter school world, that means closing schools down.
Do you think that charter schools will remain a political hot rod?
Charters are very political because they are outside of the system and when they are successful, as they are in
One of the most frustrating things is that people just don’t understand how much energy charter schools have brought to public education, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide in private philanthropy. No one is going to say that they are the silver bullet, but would you really rather a system where every principal says, ‘I don’t have the autonomy to do what I need to?'
What is the biggest challenge facing charter schools?
The biggest challenge is ensuring a pipeline of great school leaders and the highest quality teachers. I don’t think anyone has one comprehensive solution. What has to happen is that teaching attracts ever more qualified people, and that process is likely to be evolutionary and not revolutionary. In the charter sector specifically, we are seeing some hopeful signs that leaders are being developed from within the sector.
The second biggest challenge is facilities. Charter schools aren’t provided with public funding for facilities. If you asked me what has been the impetus for growth in charters and why have they attracted quality educators to
There are several charter “chains” in
The great thing about charter schools is there is diversity, and there is room for a lot of models. I think we will continue to see charter schools that, over time, replicate and create networks to take advantage of the economies of scale, as well as formal structures to share best practices, but there is also room for great individual schools. After all, almost every network of charter schools started from an individual school.
Many charter schools are staffed by relatively young teachers and administrators, and some of these educators plan on pursuing other careers after teaching for a few years. How does this effect the charter movement?
The only answer to that question that matters is whether those schools are getting results for the children, and if they are able to sustain that success over time. I suspect that we are looking at some degree of transformation of the profession, which mirrors the larger trends in employment mobility in the economy as a whole.
Are you saying that a high turn over rate doesn’t matter? Yes. If I were to visit a school where teachers were turning over year after year after year, and test scores were low, and it was a bad place for children, I would look at turnover rate as casualty, but is a high turnover rate by itself bad? No.
Many people believe that charter schools “cream” better students away from public schools and aren’t representative of the general population, since parents have to sign up for the lottery. Do you believe the population at charters is different than the general population?
This claim is always made and is not substantiated by any data. No one has ever shown that, in fact, charter schools as a whole have a different student population, nor do I find it persuasive that the act of filling out an application means that those parents who do care about their child’s education more than those who choose not to. You see it both ways. You see parents, who are extremely motivated and involved, sign up for lotteries, but you also see parents whose children are struggling in their present school and are desperate to find something that works. And as every parent knows, a motivated parent does not make a child easier to educate.
Can charter schools serve all students?
Yes. I think the charter model is potentially applicable to students that, up til now, most charters have not served, including the most severely disabled. And we are starting to see models for that, including the autism charter school and the
How good of a job do charter schools do reaching out to families that don’t speak English? Do they translate everything that goes home like regular public schools?
I don’t think they have to translate everything. They are getting better at reaching out, but not having a large back office at
Recently, there have been questions raised on whether charter schools have actually begun serving a less needy population – fewer students classified as English language learners, qualifying for free lunch and needing special education services. Why do you think this is? I don’t think that it is true. The free and reduced price lunch numbers are nearly equal – they are indistinguishable.
There are definitely fewer students learning English in charter schools. Why do you think?That is clearly happening. Parents choose whether to fill out an application slip to a charter. It is unclear to me why the number of ELL students is lower in charters. We know we need to do a better job of outreach to those communities.
Nobody – not the district or the Center for Charter Schools – thinks that we are doing a good enough job serving ELLs. At the same time, I hope that nobody thinks that the district has done a stellar job of educating ELLs. We have all fallen down.
Obviously – and I don’t think explains the entire amount – charter schools have three main entry points, kindergarten, 5th grade, and 9th grade, although there aren’t a lot of charter high schools, yet. Students learning English are immigrants and come in at different times, which can explain some of the disparity.
Is this something that should be considered if the charter school law is revised? Umm. It could be.
So, is one of the reasons that charters are able to be successful that they don’t have to take new students midyear and at every grade? It is probably something that charters do have the opportunity to do – and some of them do them let student students in mid-year and others don’t.
Are charter schools supposed to serve disadvantaged or at-risk populations? The law directs authorizers of charter schools to provide a preference for those schools that are targeted for serving students that are at risk of academic failure, and in fact, provide a mechanism so that their enrollment can provide a preference for students who are at risk of academic failure. A number of charter schools have taken advantage of that proposition.How many? Oh, I don’t know off the top of my head. Brighter Choice, which is in
Should more schools make provisions in their lottery policies to increase the number of students from underserved populations in the school?Charters are already serving underserved populations, by virtue of the community school districts within which they are located and with their popularity among parents who are impoverished, they already have a high number of students who are in risk of academic failure. But we always welcome specifically targeting students who are at risk.
The Center, for instance, is exploring ways that we can work with District 79 [the district that provides alternative programs for high school students] to open charter schools that serve the specific populations that District 79 serves.
Our research shows that less than 1 percent of the charter school population is homeless, or transitionally housed, whereas this group makes up about 5 percent of the general population. Do you think the charter school admissions cycle – with lotteries in April – makes it more challenging for those in transitional housing to participate? With students who have very high mobility rates, it is likely that the way that the law specifies that charter schools hold lotteries may make it more difficult for students in transitional situations.
Should the law change then? It is certainly something to look at. My sense is – and I don’t know a lot about this – but it is going to be hard for one charter school to serve that population, as opposed to the district, which can move students from school to school. You can’t create that same mobility within an individual charter school. Charter schools have a specific placement and location, by their nature.