Charter Schools' Chief Advocate

By Parker-Burgard, Don | District Administration, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Charter Schools' Chief Advocate


Parker-Burgard, Don, District Administration


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THIS IS BOTH A HEADY AND A daunting time for charter school proponents. While the Obama administration has given the charter movement its biggest boost ever, having declared that states with caps on the number of charters allowed will not be looked upon favorably when Race to the Top applications are considered, Arne Duncan is counting on the movement's help in turning around 5, 000 of the nation's lowest-performing schools over the next several years. We spoke with Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about the state of the charter school movement today and the challenges that lie ahead.

Q: Arne Duncan said in his speech to the National Alliance's 2009 conference in June, "Charter schools are public schools serving our children with our money. Instead of standing apart, charters should be partnering with districts, sharing lessons and sharing credit." What should charters be doing to create this kind of partnership with local school districts?

NS: The first thing to understand is that about half the charter authorizers in the country are in fact school districts--local school boards, or county school boards, and so forth--so there's already a close relationship between many charter schools and the districts that authorize them. Charter movement people have gotten a little skeptical about the big urge to cooperate more with districts and to share what we do with districts because the resistance, frankly, has usually come from the other side. I think the best quote I've ever heard about this is attributed to Yvonne Chan, the founder of the first conversion charter school in California. She said, "I'm always asked, 'When are we going to see ripples from your innovation?'" and she said, "You can't see ripples if the lake is frozen." I think that makes a very good point--that many districts, even those that have created charter schools, refuse to draw on any lessons learned there.

The Project for School Innovation in Boston, which was actually created by a charter school, is a good example of the two-way street that we ought to see. It brings educators together from the charter schools and from the traditional public school system to share best practices.

What are the characteristics of the school districts that have best negotiated a successful partnership with charter schools?

Leadership is absolutely crucial. A superintendent, school board and other top officials who see charters as a threat to their turf are going to react by calcifying what they're already doing, rather than by trying to respond in a creative way. You see the right kind of response in a number of places. For example, Joel Klein has aggressively courted the best charter operators in the country to come to New York and open schools, and he said that he wants New York to be a Silicon Valley for charter schools. But he's then used the power of their example to motivate reform more broadly throughout the system. Similarly, here in D.C., Michelle Rhee said that the fact there are excellent charter schools in some of the toughest parts of the city is something she can use as an example to her own troops to say that we can't make excuses because of the part of town that kids live in or the baggage they might bring from home.

Do you see pressure being placed on school districts to be more open to charters now that the Obama administration has come out so strongly in their favor?

Most of the administration's effort is directed at the state level rather than at the district level. …

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