Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 6
Teacher's aide Valarie Person works with 6th graders from left, Dehvin Lowe, Chloe Bales, and
Sean Thompson, at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, an independent charter in New York City.
By Arianna Prothero
Students dressed in uniforms standing in
military-straight lines under a dangling line of
college pennants. An ethos of "no excuses" for
low academic achievement.
That, perhaps, is the most popular notion of
what makes a charter school. And that's because a relatively small number of charter networks-KIPP, Success Academy, and YES Prep
to name a few-dominate the sector in ways
that over the last decade or so have shaped the
national debates and policy agendas around
But that dominance, say some charter school
supporters, has to change.
To do that, a group of independent charter
schools and some founders of the 25-year-old
charter movement are organizing efforts to
muscle their way back into the spotlight. An inaugural national gathering of leaders in independent charters is on tap next month in New
York, and its organizers are hoping the event
will spawn a new national organization to represent their specific interests.
But the bigger, more important challenge for
independent charters, supporters say, will be
to shift the public perception of the "franchise"
charter school model that they argue is undermining the sector and get back to the movement's roots: creating innovative schools that
serve as education laboratories.
"We believe that the ideas are on our side,"
said Steve Zimmerman, the co-director of the
Coalition of Community Charter Schools. "If the
choice is just between a poor-performing district
school, and a no-excuses charter school, that's a
false choice. Our schools offer real choices."
What Is an Independent Charter?
Independent charter schools-sometimes
referred to as "mom and pop" charters-are
the oldest type of charter and they remain the
most common. But with the rapid growth over
the last decade in networks such as KIPP that
draw vast resources from deep-pocketed philanthropists, their market share has been steadily
shrinking. Without that same financial heft
or the megaphone that comes with operating
multiple schools serving thousands of students,
independent charter operators say it's hard to
get their message out.
But what, exactly, counts as an independent
The 5-year-old Brooklyn Urban Garden
School, a middle school of about 300 students,
is the epitome of an independent charter.
Created by a group of community members in
the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn,
the impetus for the school was twofold: Parents
believed there weren't enough middle schools in
the community. And those that did exist weren't
very diverse. BUGS, as the school is affectionately called, set out to provide a new option for
middle school and to be diverse. It has no racial
majority and serves a large proportion of students with special needs. Environmental and
economic sustainability are also infused into all
parts of BUGS' curriculum.
Although there's now a high demand among
families for a spot in BUGS, the school has
struggled to compete for facilities and philanthropy dollars in a city that is home to many of
the biggest and highest-performing networks.
"Funders seem to really want to support
scalability ... it's sexier and they're looking, of
course, to leverage their dollars," said Susan
Tenner, one of BUGS' co-founders. "Rather than
investing in a school like ours, which is an innovative pilot, or a lab if you will, they would
rather see something that's finished, and has
been proven, and is being replicated."
Charter school networks run sophisticated
operations, often managing more schools
than the average-sized school district. Success
Academy in New York City has more than
40 schools. KIPP, the nation's largest charter
school network, has more than 200 schools scattered across the country.
The share of charter schools that belong to
large management organizations, which can
be both for-profit and not-for-profit, has grown
from about 31 percent of all charters in 2010 to
40 percent in 2017, according to data from the
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Independent charter schools, on the other
hand, represented 69 percent of all charters in
2010 but only 60 percent today.
Most of that growth for network charters
has come from charter management organizations, or CMOs, which are nonprofit and include
many of the country's highest-profile charter
networks. Their fast expansion-they now include over a quarter of all charter schools-has
been fueled by billions of dollars from the federal government and wealthy philanthropists
such as Eli Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who
made his money from home building and insurance businesses, and the heirs of Sam Walton,
the founder of Walmart.
Funders have shifted their philanthropy
6 | EDUCATION WEEK | October 4, 2017 | www.edweek.org
Photos by Alex Flynn for Education Week
Independent Charters Aim
To Elevate Their Status
dollars over time from implementing new
charter laws in states and seeding new
schools to funding networks, said Nina Rees,
the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
But she doesn't see the growth of networks
as threatening the existence of independent
"We're not at a place where one can take
over the other because [the charter sector is
only] about 6 percent of the total education
market," said Rees.
Advantages of a Network
But the large networks do dominate many
of the debates and conversations around charter schools. When critics, particularly teachers'
unions, say charter schools focus too much on
testing, have overly strict discipline policies and
student suspension rates, and are less diverse
than traditional district schools, they're generally talking about charter management organizations, said Zimmerman.
But independent charters are painted with
that same broad brush, he said.
To distinguish themselves and raise their profile, Zimmerman is helping organize the first of
what he hopes to be an annual national conference for independent charter schools, taking
place in New York City in mid-October.
The conference is bringing in independent
charter school representatives from 25 states,
as well as several of the people who hatched the
idea for the first charter school law in Minnesota 25 years ago.
Among them is Joe Nathan, the director of
the Center for School Change. He said that although he anticipated the rise of networks of
charter schools, the sector looks very different
today from what he predicted.
He expected more teacher-led charter schools
to be up and running and a more robust exchange of ideas and solutions between districts
and charter schools.
"We want to make it a priority that we have
David Kelly and Iyonna Green, both 6th graders
at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, tend to the
school's garden last month. Founded by
community members, the charter focuses on
greater collaboration between districts and
charters," he said.
Despite their position that independent charters represent the original intent of the charter
school movement, both Nathan and Zimmerman say many charter school networks do a
good job of educating disadvantaged students.
And part of the success of the network model
is because it's an effective one, said Tenner, the
co-founder of BUGS. Running a stand-alone
charter, she's keenly aware of the benefits of belonging to a charter management organization.
There's a central office to handle human resources. Operators can offer more competitive
pay and benefits to teachers. And they have lots
of experience launching new schools and can
easily meet the goals for academic achievement
and fiscal responsibility set out in their charter
contracts and expected from their authorizer.
(BUGS tries to tap into that expertise by having representatives from a couple of the large
networks sit on its board.)
But Tenner said she wouldn't trade those conveniences for the connection she feels her school
has with its community.
"The disadvantage to being a stand-alone
charter school is the resources," she said. "But
the other side of that is that we are even more
responsive to our community needs and student's needs because we are not accountable to
a larger system."
Coverage of how parents work with educators,
community leaders, and policymakers to make
informed decisions about their children's education
is supported by a grant from the Walton Family
Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week
retains sole editorial control over the content of
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - October 4, 2017
Education Week - October 2, 2017
States Are Making It Easier To Transfer Teacher Licenses
Union Fees Again Reach High Court
Education Advisers Say White House Has Ignored Them
News in Brief
Independent Charters Aim to Elevate Their Status
In Devastated Puerto Rico, Reopening of Schools Is Far Off
Are Selectivity and Diversity Competing Goals for Teaching?
Teachers Found to Miss More Work In Regular Schools Than in Charters
Math, Reading Hurdles Drawing Joint Scrutiny
Growing Numbers of States Embrace Career Education
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: From Theory to Practice, Hurdles for Personalized Learning
New SAT Results Hard to Gauge
K-12 Budget Woes Dog States As School Year Advances
DeVos Expounds on Policy In One-on-One Interview
DeVos Gives Schools Options On Handling of Sexual Assault
Watch List: High Court, 2017-18 Term
Scenes From DeVos’ ‘Rethink School’ Tour
State ESSA Plans: One-Stop Guide
Arts Education: A Look Ahead Researchers, professors, and practitioners make their case for the future of the discipline
Susan Riley: The ‘A’ in STEAM Completes the Puzzle
Jay P. Greene: Arts Integration Is a Sucker’s Game
Howard Gardner & Ellen Winner: We Still Have So Much More to Learn
Emily Gasoi & Sonya Robbins Hoffmann: For the Future, Arts Assessment Is Indispensable
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Mariale Hardiman: Asking the Right Questions for a Creative Future
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Education Advisers Say White House Has Ignored Them
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 2
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 3
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Report Roundup
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 5
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Independent Charters Aim to Elevate Their Status
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - In Devastated Puerto Rico, Reopening of Schools Is Far Off
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Teachers Found to Miss More Work In Regular Schools Than in Charters
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Math, Reading Hurdles Drawing Joint Scrutiny
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Growing Numbers of States Embrace Career Education
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: From Theory to Practice, Hurdles for Personalized Learning
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - New SAT Results Hard to Gauge
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 13
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - DeVos Expounds on Policy In One-on-One Interview
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - DeVos Gives Schools Options On Handling of Sexual Assault
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Watch List: High Court, 2017-18 Term
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 17
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Scenes From DeVos’ ‘Rethink School’ Tour
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 19
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - State ESSA Plans: One-Stop Guide
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 21
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Susan Riley: The ‘A’ in STEAM Completes the Puzzle
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Jay P. Greene: Arts Integration Is a Sucker’s Game
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Emily Gasoi & Sonya Robbins Hoffmann: For the Future, Arts Assessment Is Indispensable
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Letters
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - 27
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - Mariale Hardiman: Asking the Right Questions for a Creative Future
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - CW1
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - CW2
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - CW3
Education Week - October 4, 2017 - CW4