The Charter Mystique

I have about as complicated a relationship with charter schools as you can imagine.  Of course the most obvious connection is my experience as a principal of a charter high school in San Francisco (and a fine school at that, I might add).  Many of the educators and friends I admire are heavily involved and invested in the success and spread of charter schools.  Certainly there are students and communities who have benefited from access to high quality charter options.

Yet I remain skeptical.

And the purpose of this post isn’t to engage in a breakdown of my skepticism.  I’ve largely avoided the topic of charter schools in my blog posts since I run the risk of upsetting people I care about regardless of what I have to say.  Charters are not without political implications.  “Don’t go there, Daniel” is a phrase that’s reverberating in my mind.  Even my wife and I can get into a good old-fashioned debate (dare I say argument) about where it’s best to send our kids to school.

So, it’s with a bit of caution that I dig in to a conversation about some of the reasons why families would leave their neighborhood, district-run public school for a charter option.  This is particularly salient in my current role as a district administrator in Santa Ana, where we are seeing an influx of charter school options and petitions for new schools.  Like I said, it’s a tricky topic for me and I’m not without my biases.

Regardless, here are three aspects of charter school enrollment that have been bouncing around my head lately.  It’s hardly an exhaustive list, but hopefully opens a door into understanding the current and future role charters might play in the educational landscape.

Elitism

Whether or not we care to admit it, as parents we often seek out exclusivity for our kids.  Top ballet instructor in the city?  Yes, please.  Access to a program for gifted students?  Where do I sign up?  When it comes to our children, we want the best.  The needs of other people’s children fall into the periphery.  That desire to secure excellence for our children drives what is being reported as an ever-growing effort on the part of middle and upper-class families to acquire whatever training and education we can get for our children to have a competitive edge.  The opportunity gap is widening, thanks in large part to well-intentioned parenting.

Charters play to that sense of elitism.  Big time.  From official marketing to subtle ways schools talk about themselves and their programming, the idea is to give parents and families a sense that space is limited, and that the increased demand is proof of a better program.

Now, a true charter advocate would call this critique nonsense – of course parents choose what they perceive as the better choice.  That’s the entire policy intent behind charter legislation.

Yet scarcity is a powerful asset and it is actively used by many charters to manipulate demand.  If my school with a capacity of 2000 students only enrolls 1800, and your 400-seat charter down the road has 500 kids trying to attend, which school is actually the one in higher demand?  We might describe my large high school as “under enrolled” or suffering “flagging demand,” while our charter neighbor touts lottery admissions and waiting lists.  Scarcity drives enrollment energy and shapes the vocabulary we use to talk about different school choices.

I’m not sure how a large comprehensive public school can flip the elitist script.  These institutions are sitting ducks, as they can’t help but be large and inclusive.  “Everybody gets in” is not a particularly strong marketing campaign with parents who don’t see “everybody” as a comparable advantage.

Every Student Counts

Charters don’t take kids for granted.  I don’t mean that in it’s traditional, euphemistic sense.  Rather, the charter school is never the default option for enrollment, and therefore, the school understands that you have to convince every student who enrolls to come to the school.  It should come as no surprise then that charters expend a tremendous amount of resources and energy in their marketing.  When I became a charter principal myself, one of the aspects of my job that I simply hadn’t anticipated was the amount of time I would spend with potential students.  I spent at least a night or two each week in the fall at enrollment fairs and parent meetings.  We made individualized follow up phone calls.  I walked neighborhoods and even knocked on doors.

This focus on enrollment is further incentivized by the economics of public education, which again, most teachers and administrators in district schools don’t appreciate as fully as do charter operators.  If I’m an elementary school that receives $8,000 a year for a student, I should recognize that losing just one kid results in a loss of nearly $50,000 for my school over the course of that student’s elementary school experience.  That’s a HUGE amount of money.

Of course this type of personal attention is not lost on students and families who are considering a switch to a charter school. For some, it may be a refreshing change from what they’ve experienced at their neighborhood school.  It feels like the charter school just cares a lot more.  If a potential parent called my charter school for information, I always called back the same day. It was that important.  This is certainly not because I somehow liked my charter kids more than I do my district students – the system just doesn’t incentivize my time interacting with potential students.  The same could be said at all levels of the organization.  In a charter school, if an office manager can’t figure out how to be inviting and helpful to every potential student who walks through the door, he or she doesn’t last long.

To illustrate the point, just last week I was in a conversation with some of my district colleagues about our marketing efforts and found myself critiquing our district website.  It’s not that our website doesn’t have an inviting presentation or lacks important information.  It just values sharing information and directing traffic over driving enrollment.  In my charter school, you could navigate to the application from every single page of the website.  It was a constant option, and it was carefully curated.  As the leader of a charter school, I knew every parent comment posted on Great Schools, and when a not-so-positive comment appeared you can bet I was reaching out to my PTA to get some new positive comments generated.  I was constantly attending to our public perception and encouraging enrollment.  You couldn’t turn that off.

But believe me, charters struggle just like any district-run school to provide personalized attention once the student is enrolled.  In fact, I believe it is a serious miscalculation to equate a personalized recruitment experience with a more personalized classroom experience.

Mission-driven

Every school has a mission statement.  It likely is hanging somewhere in the front office and is peppered with flowery language about lifelong learners and preparation for success.  It’s mostly garbage.

It isn’t garbage because its authors aren’t well intentioned.  It isn’t garbage because what it says wouldn’t be nice if it were true.  It’s garbage because the organization is not entirely committed to aligning itself to the mission in any concrete or measurable way.

In this regard, charters are often different, especially the good ones.

Strong schools in general, regardless of their governance structure, understand the importance of deliberately infusing the mission into the daily work of the school.  And they understand the importance of walking potential students and families from the aspirations of the mission statement to measurable data.  The organization aspires to hold itself accountable for what it says it values most.  Charter schools as a movement seem to understand this better than the rest of us.

This is why charters can be so effective as brand-managers and recruiters.  They aren’t branding an educational program, they are offering their perspective on the purpose of education, with a program to match.  That is a powerful recipe for connecting with families – as you feel like you have something substantial to offer.  There’s some evangelism to it.

Of course that means the opposite statement can be true – charter schools tend to undervalue the things they don’t aspire to in their mission statement.  Vocational education?  Not typically interested.  Remedial support?  Only to a certain extent.  Special education?  Well, yes, we offer that, but it’s not our forte, and especially not if you happen to have a severe disability.  At some point, the welcome mat is replaced by a conversation about finding a school that’s a good fit.  Yes, 100% of your graduates go on to college, but let’s not forget that the ones who weren’t “college-bound” left a long time ago (or never came in the first place).  This is a common critique of charters, and some charter operators are quite open about it.  It’s coded in the language, but it’s there.  “We want families to have options,” or even more simply, “go somewhere else if you don’t like it.”

Like I said, my relationship with charter schools is complicated.

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