THE BLOG
10/21/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Top Charter Networks Becoming District-Size

By Richard Whitmire

More than twenty years ago when charter schools first got launched in Minnesota no one envisioned that one day we would see charter management networks growing to resemble medium-size school districts. But it has happened.

Recently New York City-based Success Academy Charter Schools got green lighted to open 14 more schools over the next two years, bringing the network to 50 schools serving 16,300 students. Success Academy's rapid expansion doesn't appear to undercut quality: Even students in freshly opened schools turn in impressive academic results.

Regardless of your personal opinion of charter schools versus traditional schools, that's remarkable.

Success Academy is hardly the largest of the high performing charter network operators. By 2020, KIPP plans to serve 120,000 students in multiple states. Texas-based IDEA charter schools are on track to serve 40,000 students by then. In that same year, Houston-based YES Prep anticipates serving over 20,000 students in Texas and other states. Others include Uplift, Mastery, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and Noble.

Thankfully, only the best charter networks were allowed to grow to this size. These are all operators able to open schools that catch kids up with roughly a year-and-a-half of learning for every year spent in the classroom -- an achievement required for the mostly low-income and minority students they serve.

There are several reasons why these charter networks can scale up with quality, starting with their ability to attract some of the nation's brightest college graduates as teachers. Many of those teachers move on to other careers, but they stay long enough to make a difference. Another reason: Establishing a common classroom culture in these schools falls somewhere between an obsession and an art form.

In addition, these schools are key innovators in blended learning, where digital learning gets woven into traditional instruction. Finally, the charters lead the way in working on a problem they helped expose: the college dropout rates among low-income students.

Is this the end of public education as we know it?

Probably not. First, charters are public schools, just independently operated. If you judge schools by what parents are demanding, the bigger worry is that these top charter groups don't have enough seats to offer. Take Success Academy as an example. For the current year, the network says it received 16,000 applications for fewer than 3,000 open seats.

Still, the rapid expansion of these networks warrants a debate. Overall, these charter schools don't serve as many special education students as regular districts. And there's no denying they pull money from districts, which then struggle to downsize to meet diminished demand. No surprise then that many superintendents team up with union leaders to fight the expansion of these mostly non-union schools.

Fortunately, a few traditional school leaders see the potential in working with the charters. In Denver, for example, the school system invited several locally-developed charters into their buildings, an innovation that has led to academic gains for Denver students. In the Spring Branch district in Houston, a superintendent uses an infusion of KIPP and YES Prep schools as a lever to re-invent the entire way that district operates.

Tennessee created an "academic achievement district" that welcomes the nation's best charter groups into that state to turn around troubled schools. In Washington D.C., where nearly half the students attend charter schools, the competition between the charters and regular student benefits students on both sides.

In New Orleans, nearly all students now attend charter schools, a development that has been bumpy but produces clear academic gains for the students there and gets smoother every year. Neerav Kingsland, who formerly ran New Schools for New Orleans, argues that the New Orleans model should be copied nationally: New Orleans sets the rules for the national charters - a common application process/common expulsion practice, while the national charter groups keep their special classroom culture. "You keep the governance local, which is important, but the school operations go national."

In some ways, the growth of the big charter operators should ease tensions. For the first time they are big enough to take in their fair share of special needs students. Usually, compact deals struck with districts spell that out.

But in other ways, that growth only worsens tensions as superintendents worried about competition fight their growth. The recent refusal by the Massachusetts Senate to lift the cap on charter schools - despite the fact that their state has the highest performing charter schools in the country -- illustrates that problem.

Not all charter growth is positive. There are scores of charter schools out there failing to get a year-and-a-half of student growth. Some don't even come close, which raises the question of why authorizers aren't moving faster to either shut them down or replace them with higher performing charters. If charter authorizers hesitate to correct their failures, then the authorizers themselves need to be held accountable.

But the growth of high performing single charters, as well as these larger CMOs such as IDEA, KIPP and Uncommon Schools, should be welcomed, not stonewalled or smeared with conspiracy theories about "privatizing" education. These charters are successfully educating thousands of students destined to fail in traditional neighborhood schools.

Let's hope the tensions ease, and that Denver becomes the model for the future. When districts and top charter operators collaborate, kids win.
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Richard Whitmire is author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

This commentary first appeared in Hechinger Report.