Last week, the Fordham Institute released an extensive study identifying what it calls, “charter school deserts.” Charter school deserts are defined as three or more contiguous census tracts with poverty rates greater than 20 percent and that also lack charter schools. These areas contain the populations that could benefit the most from school choice and these are also the students that most charter schools were designed to serve.
Most states that permit charter schools have at least one charter school desert, with most states having an average of 10.8.
The conclusion of the study is that there are large parts of nearly every state that could benefit from charter school expansion into charter deserts. They conclude that funders, operators, and policymakers should roll up their sleeves and begin the process of rekindling charter growth in these areas.
While the report is correct to suggest that these areas where charter schools could have the greatest impact should be the focus of advocates and charter school leaders, the solutions are not as simple as the report proposes. Instead of rushing out to “irrigate” as the study tells us, a more measured and deliberate approach might be warranted.
The danger in rekindling charter school numbers by propping up new charters on hurried, shaky foundations, is a string of poor-quality charters that don’t fully serve the students or that fail entirely. This could have a devastating effect on the reputation of charter schools nationwide.
Instead, we would offer that there are ways to shore up charter school models in these underserved areas. With a good deal of forethought and planning, some of the risks might be mitigated and the result would be better quality charter schools with the potential for longevity?
- First, charter schools require volunteers to create a planning committee that will produce a written charter that is submitted for authorizer approval. These volunteers would presumably come from the neighborhoods that the school will serve. That committee, assuming the charter is approved, has to become a volunteer board. With that said, there are various requirements for the configuration of the board (e.g., someone with a finance background, educators, etc.), both initially and continuing throughout the lifecycle of the school. Finding individuals to fill these roles may be challenging in mid-/high-poverty regions outside the metro areas. The first thing to consider is how leadership plans to attract the talent necessary to create and sustain the school?
- Second, the trade-off for having the flexibility of a charter school is the tremendous academic and financial compliance expected by the authorizers. The charter school is given flexibility in general, but they have to meet the standards of their charter deliverables, and they also must meet other requirements (e.g., test scores), just like a traditional public school. The second question is how to remain fiscally and academically compliant, given that the school is starting in an area that is likely to have unique funding and academic challenges.
- Finally, the three main reasons for failures of charter schools are also endemic to trying to get a charter school going in a high-poverty area:
- Lack of a strong school leader, if the area cannot attract one.
- Serving high-risk students without the demanding academic programs that are needed, with costly items such as intensive small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring.
- Having a child-centered curriculum that doesn’t set the bar high enough for advancements in test scores. There may be a tendency to stray away from the basics that are desperately needed in this environment, while attempting a curriculum that isn’t conducive to student needs.
Taking all of these factors into consideration would be an excellent step on the path to offering academic choices to the students in America’s “charter school deserts.” The barriers to entry for at-risk areas are many. To ignore that fact would only yield well-intentioned charters built on sand.
What this report allows us to do is begin tackling the issue of how to create educational opportunities in these areas, but to do so with full awareness of the obstacles that will likely arise, and with clearly articulated strategies for dealing with those problems. What we need is collaboration, novel incubation concepts from the ground up, and expert help to fill in the gaps in committee/ board resources. We need a pipeline of strong, experienced leaders who have a track record of steering schools in high-poverty areas and solid plans to close the achievement gap for these students as quickly as possible, using methods that have proven themselves to be useful at doing so.
With careful planning and attention focused on the challenges, not just the opportunities, we can begin to bring relief to the areas of our country that are most desperate for options and opportunities. With collaboration and foresight, these obstacles can be overcome and the potential suggested in the study realized.