February 16, 2011

New report examines promises, pitfalls of charter school autonomy

News and Information

Charter schools use their freedom from traditional school district mandates to operate in innovative ways. But budget woes, huge administrative demands and expectations of  what a school “should look like” tend to pull the schools back to traditional practice, a new report states.

This report, from the UWs Center on Reinventing Public Education, offers optimism that charter schools are well positioned to answer President Obamas call for public schools to innovate. But it also cautions that traditional regulatory structures and weaknesses in capacity must be addressed if such schools are to fully meet the challenge of innovation.

Based on a four-year study of the teachers, leaders, and academic programs in charter schools in six states, Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success observes that “autonomy only creates the opportunity for high-quality schools, it by no means guarantees it.”

Author Betheny Gross, a researcher at the center, argues that autonomy makes it possible for charter schools to:

  • Organize themselves around mission, not a collection of individual teacher or parent preferences.
  • Develop programs that serve diverse student interests and needs (e.g., those of immigrant children, returning dropout students, or ethnic minority students in impoverished neighborhoods).
  • Increase disadvantaged students access to college prep programs.
  • Give principals real power to lead, with more control over staffing, budgets, curriculum, and programs.
  • Enter into new teacher compacts that emphasize professional development linked to the schools mission and give teachers substantial influence in the classroom and the school.
  • Turn on a dime. The combination of a focused mission, strong leaders, a committed team, and an informal structure allows charter schools to assess how they are doing and quickly change direction when they feel they are off course.

However, increased autonomy brings new challenges. The study found that school leaders take on sweeping responsibilities that many are ill prepared to handle. Too often, their governing boards receive minimal training and offer little help. And retaining a stable staff can be difficult in urban charter schools with high-needs students. Operating with informal structures, charter schools become highly dependent on maintaining trusting relationships between teachers and leaders.

The report also identifies missed opportunities. Many charter schools look similar to district-run schools in their design, curriculum and classroom practice. Charter schools also mimic their traditional counterparts in administrative structure and planning, as well as compensation.

To help charter schools put their autonomy to best use, the report includes recommendations for policymakers. Specifically:

  • Expand charter-specific training programs to help more school leaders and governing boards overcome inevitable challenges.
  • Encourage the creation of more charter school support organizations that unburden leaders of administrative functions such as payroll, accounting, or facilities leasing.
  • Make state charter school funding allocations more predictable in order to minimize the uncertainty that keeps schools from trying bold new approaches to compensation, budgeting, and staffing.
  • Offer flexibility in teacher certification rules and ensure that charter schools can operate outside district collective bargaining agreements in order to explore new staffing models.
  • Encourage all charter school staff agreements to include basic protections for teachers.

Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success is the final report in a series of studies produced by the Inside Charter Schools initiative, part of the National Charter School Research Project. The studies are available at www.crpe.org.