What responsibility do public charter schools have to the neighborhoods where they are located? As the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, which advocates for schools to be hubs of their community where everyone belongs, works together, and thrives, I have been considering this question for a while now.
It came into even sharper focus as I reviewed the latest report from the National Association of Public Charter Schools. The report shows that charter penetration continues to increase in cities across the country “with 14 districts now having 30 percent or more of their students enrolled in charter schools. In more than 160 districts, at least 10 percent of students attend charter public schools.”
In Washington, D.C., where charters now serve 44 percent of students, the disconnect between school and neighborhood was illustrated starkly in a recent Washington Post story: “Less than a third of the 1,600 students who live [in the city’s Promise Neighborhood] attend neighborhood schools; the rest are enrolled in 184 others, scattered across a city that has embraced school choice more than almost any other.”
Even though charter schools are privately run, leaders in the charter community emphasize that they are technically public schools. This demands that we ask ourselves what “public” truly means in the charter context. Viewed narrowly, a charter school is a public school because it receives public funds to educate children, tuition free, and because it is subject to some testing and anti-discrimination laws.
But public schools have historically played a much larger role in our society, a role that can also be served—or not served—by charter schools. Americans typically see public schools as part of their neighborhood’s fabric. The school is a place where the community gathers for athletic events, adult education, and arts and cultural activities; to support one another; or to address pressing community problems. One need only look at the response to the tornado that destroyed schools in Joplin, Mo., to know that this vision remains vibrant across much of our nation. Indeed, schools are among the places where our society nurtures social capital—the networks and relationships that the distinguished scholar Robert Putnam has noted are so important to a civil society and the success of our most vulnerable young people.
The ideal of the neighborhood school has, it should be noted, never been implemented in a form that we as a nation should hold up uncritically. Segregation in our housing and our schools, for instance, challenges the idea of a healthy neighborhood, and our schools are more segregated today than before the Brown v. Board desegregation decision. We continue, moreover, to deny schools the supports they would need if we hope to educate children and youth for whom poverty, violence, and inequity are a part of their daily experience.
For community development leaders who see schools as a key institutions in their efforts to revitalize neighborhoods, it is important to look closely at the role of charter schools. This closer look starts by seeking an understanding of several important aspects of the charter school movement.
One major concern is that charter schools—with some important exceptions—focus on individual students, seeing their neighborhoods as something to overcome rather than strengthen. There is a strong emphasis on choice, with limited, if any concern about community. In considering this issue, it is helpful to distinguish between schools created and run by people in a community and schools run by large charter management organizations (CMOs), with headquarters often located far from the school communities.
Individual charter schools that are part of CMOs have sometimes reached out to the community in their planning process and offered amenities that involve the community, including, for example, a dog walking park, a dental clinic, and use of fields for community purposes. Others have worked with neighborhood businesses to address safety issues. There is, therefore, nothing preventing these CMO-run schools from being strong community actors.
Other charter schools have been organized by community-based organizations, which view better education as one facet of the neighborhood improvement work. And yet, city-wide lottery rules rarely allow these schools to give priority to children living in that neighborhood, though the strongest of these schools do extensive neighborhood outreach to encourage children to apply, and the schools can be designed to focus on their neighborhoods in other ways.
A second major concern is that the rise of charters has contributed to major conflicts about school closures. Charters run by external organizations with few roots in the community have often led to empty seats in regular public schools and ultimately to extensive school closures.
The recent hunger strike over the reopening of Dyett High School epitomizes this conflict. Parents and community residents, frustrated by the closure of their school, used the hunger strike to advocate for a neighborhood-based public school that would be run as a regular Chicago Public School. They saw charter schools across the city as unresponsive to the needs and concerns of their neighborhoods. They understood that their schools needed to get better, but they wanted a voice in what happened in their neighborhoods.
Charters, moreover, are not necessarily better, even if test scores are the only outcome being examined. The overall body of high-quality research finds that test-score outcomes of charter schools have a distribution very similar to the distribution of non-charter public schools. There are charters performing well and charters performing poorly, but on average they are performing about the same.
It is also important to understand that charters, as suggested by the former American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, began as vehicles for innovation that would help us learn how to improve the entire education system. That focus on innovation, what Ted Kolderie describes as “chartering’s comparative advantage,” has given way to advocacy for more charter schools with little substantive community participation. The effort by wealthy philanthropists and their allies in Los Angeles to make 50 percent of all schools charters in the next five to seven years highlights that thrust. There is significant controversy in L.A. about the impact of that plan on regular public schools.
Given the vital role that public schools play in our communities and our democracy and the highly conflicted charter schools environment, here are some questions that community development leaders and others concerned with public education should be asking about charter schools. Philanthropy has a particularly important role in addressing these questions.
- Citizen Participation: What role should neighborhood residents have in reviewing the applications of charter school operators to start schools in their neighborhoods? What influence should their views be given over operator selection? What power should residents have to prod charter schools to function as resources to the neighborhood? What is the role of community development organizations in supporting neighborhood participation in decisions about charter schools?
- Framework for Charters and Community Interaction: Is there a set of principles that can be put in place to influence charter authorizers and charter support organizations to define expected interaction between the charter school and its neighborhood and ensure that the school serves as a resource to the neighborhood? Such a framework might include stipulations with regard to enrollment of students from the neighborhood rather than city-wide, community use of school grounds, and access to school facilities for public purposes, e.g., adult education, community events, health services.
- Research: We do not know enough about the present relationship between charter schools and neighborhoods. What are charter schools doing to support neighborhood development? What do families, residents, and community groups think about the role of charter schools? Are students thriving in charter schools in the communities where place-based initiatives are operating? What roles are place-based initiatives playing in the development and oversight of charter schools?
- Strengthening Regular Public Schools: Despite the penetration of charters in cities, charters only educate about 6 percent of children in the United States. This argues that the community development field must play a larger role in advocating for more effective public schools. What role can place-based leaders play in strengthening all public schools? How can schools be more deeply linked to their communities through strategies like community schools? (See articles Above the Fray and Schools that Support Students’ Whole Lives) How can the autonomy that is so valued in charter schools and present in some “pilot school” strategies in local school districts be offered to more regular public schools? What support can community development groups offer to families, residents, and other community groups working for better public schools?
In the future there are likely to be a number of different types of schools: neighborhood public schools, magnet schools, schools that focus on career and technical education, and charter schools. All of these schools should be held to high standards of performance, and they need to have deep ties to the people and organizations in the neighborhoods where they live and work. We can, and I believe we must, do both to sustain the social fabric of our country.