Charter schools are like Snoop Dogg, and other reflections from #NCSC16

Travis Pillow

When he first came on the scene, he was in and out of prison, recording freestyles with his cousins in Southern California. But more than two decades after he first made it big, parents no longer fear him. He’s at home in Katy Perry videos and Old Navy commercials.

In this way, longtime school choice advocate Howard Fuller said Snoop Dogg’s trajectory parallels that of charter schools, which celebrated their 25th birthday this week during a national conference in Nashville. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it may have been hard to imagine them breaking into the establishment, but now, for all the political battles they face, they’ve become entrenched.

“We’re heading towards being mainstream,” Fuller said during a discussion of what the charter movement can expect at future big anniversary celebrations. “I hope there’s someone out there, selling mixtapes out of the back of their car.”

In Florida, there are still educators launching innovative, inner-city startup schools on shoe-string budgets, from Orlando to Overtown. But in many cases, they aren’t starting charter schools. They’re starting private schools where students rely on school choice scholarships to cover tuition. The barriers to opening a new charter school are getting higher. Startup funding is harder to come by. While they get less funding per student than charters, these private schools are constrained by fewer regulations.

Fuller said charter schools need an “innovation strategy” that embraces entrepreneurial educators looking to break free from conventional schooling models. In that vein, he added, the school choice movement needs to think about all three sectors of public education — four if you count homeschooling — and how they fit together.

(Fuller also gave an opening speech that brought the house down, in which he called for the movement to refocus its energies on “the poor, disinherited, and dispossessed.”)

Philanthropy only goes so far

The Walton Family Foundation decided to give charters a massive anniversary gift: $250 million for school facilities.

In a speech announcing the Building Equity Initiative, Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said the foundation wants to help educators worry less about real estate, so they can focus on the classroom. Eventually, it hopes to create space in high-performing charter schools for 250,000 more students.

Facilities funding is a huge barrier for new charter schools. The Walton foundation says only one in three states provides facilities funding. And the lack of money for buildings is a huge part of the funding gap between charter and traditional public schools.

Doing the math, foundation’s gift amounts to $1,000 per new charter school seat. The typical Florida public school seldom costs less than $10,000 per student station to build. Costs often climb far higher into the five figures.

Even if charter schools are far more efficient than traditional schools with their construction (and they typically are), an infusion of foundation funding, even a big one like this, won’t solve the problem on its own.

Andre Agassi drove this point home succinctly: “Philanthropy ends when philanthropists run out of money.”

That’s why the former tennis star is working to attract profit-seeking investors to finance charter school construction. And it’s also why the details of the Walton proposal are so interesting. The foundation doesn’t just want to pour money into charter school construction. It hopes to offer low-interest loans, but it also hopes to develop sustainable facilities policies in the jurisdictions where it operates — starting with 17 cities.

Bargaining bin

Among of the topics we covered in Nashville: Charter school collective bargaining agreements.

It looks like the findings discussed this week largely jibe with a study the Center on Reinventing Public Education published in 2011:

When charter schools do unionize, whether by design or as a result of teacher organizing, this analysis suggests that union contracts can be crafted in ways that respect the unique missions and priorities of charter schools, provide teachers with basic protections, and maintain organizational flexibility. When charter schools can negotiate their own contracts, instead of being bound by existing district contracts, the contracts appear more likely to reflect conditions of teaching typically seen in charter schools: that a teacher’s worth is not measured by his or her degrees or “seat time”; that the teaching job is flexible; and that continuation in the job is determined by performance and not merely seniority. In doing so, charter school contracts can provide traditional public schools with valuable illustrations of alternative, reform-minded contract language in areas such as staffing (for example, streamlined tenure provisions), use of time (an untimed “professional day”), and teacher decision-making (formal structures for incorporating “teacher voice”).

Family Maters

Fernando Zulueta, the media-shy CEO of Academica, was on hand to show off students who rack up college credits before they collect high school diplomas from schools the company runs.

Joining him on Tuesday was an entourage of administrators from Academica-affiliated schools, including the”Mater Girls” who started out as teachers or administrators at the original Mater Academy, when it filled three classrooms on the second floor above a Miami-Dade daycare center.

Most of those original hires are still around, serving as administrators in Mater, Pinecrest and Somerset schools in South Florida. And while the company and its affiliated nonprofit networks now run dozens of schools and are beginning to expand outside the state, longtime employees say they haven’t lost the startup feel.

“This is their family,” said Kim Guilarte Gil, who took a job as the original Mater principal at age 26, said of her colleagues. “They’ll do basically whatever it takes.”

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