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Something that can be said for districts

By Len Rieser on Feb 11, 2010 12:09 PM

Off the track?  In our rush to create schools that will go it alone, without district supervision, we may be setting ourselves up for problems. 

To the blizzard (oh, just a word that came to mind) of questions being asked on these pages about the Renaissance School plan, I’d like to add a legal worry. It has to do with the enthusiasm for spinning schools off to become charters or “contract” schools, operated by private managers. 

One can say lots of justifiably critical things about school districts, and about this one in particular. But to those who believe the response to failures by this (or any) school district should be to remove schools from its control, I suggest some caution.

One thing that school districts can do, and can even do well, is make sure that schools meet basic legal requirements, such as rules related to serving students with disabilities, meeting the needs of English language learners, treating students fairly in disciplinary situations, and so forth.  That's not to say, by any means, that this district has always done a good job in those areas. But when we compare the job that the District does (or, better yet, could do if it worked at it) with what sometimes happens when schools are left to oversee themselves, we may start to wish we had the District back.

A new study from the University of Colorado reports that, nationally, charter schools operated by education management organizations are more racially and economically segregative, serve lower proportions of children with disabilities, and enroll fewer English language learners than the schools in their districts.  The study doesn’t offer an explanation, but I think one factor may be that there was no longer a school district in the picture to enforce the rules.

I don’t have figures on the extent to which existing charters in Philadelphia enroll students with disabilities and ELLs – but I’ve certainly heard of schools that cut corners, or worse, on one or both counts. And as for discipline, I could cite quite a few instances in which charters have been quick to permanently expel students (“he can always go back to a regular public school”) for behavior that, in a District-operated school, would have resulted in a less drastic penalty and, perhaps, a much-needed referral for special services

So, you’re thinking, these problems won’t arise in Philly-Renaissance-charter schools, because one of the ground rules is that they will be composed of the same children who attended the school B. R. (Before Renaissance). Maybe that’s right, and maybe it’ll still be true a year from now. Or maybe, once they assume control, some charter managers will start to operate in ways that gradually change the composition of the school – by permanently expelling students for minor offenses, by limiting special education services (or counseling families to take their child elsewhere), by not keeping up with the demand for programs for English language learners, and so forth.

This isn’t about bashing charters or private operators. I know some great ones. Nor is it about whether schools should have more autonomy -- in general, I think they should.  But I also know that, when no one is looking to see whether rules are being followed, there will always be people who find it convenient to bend – or ignore – those rules. So I worry about the rush to completely remove schools from District control. When it comes to fundamental legal requirements, it can be helpful to have someone keeping an eye on things.

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Comments (6)

Submitted by Joe C (not verified) on February 11, 2010 1:52 pm

Great post, but I wonder what can be done to help alleviate these potential difficulties. We talked about this at a recent TAG meeting ( and one idea was to have exit surveys for parents when a student leaves the school (either voluntarily or involuntarily). I agree 100% with your point, but there has to be some way to make sure this stuff doesn't happen. I welcome thoughts on how that can be done.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2010 7:46 pm

Great article! When schools can use methods to select desirable or siphon out undesirable students it creates a segregated system. The reality is that this happens in some of our Philadelphia Charter Schools. If we expand that system will schools move around the students who need the most amount of support or services?

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on February 11, 2010 10:09 pm

Great post, Mr. Rieser. I am a teacher in a regular Philly public school, and I know from experience that most charters (not all) do not do a very good job with students who need IEPs or other educational help. It will be very interesting to see how long the outside operators that take over Philly schools take before they start to turf the "problematic" (in their minds IEP, ELL, and ES) students. My guess is it will not be long. The way charter schools frame this so as to not get into trouble is to say things like "We came to an agreement with the parents that this was not the best place for the child." Then the child goes to the neighborhood school, AND the charter keeps the money for the year. The takeover artists will probably play the same game.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 12, 2010 7:56 pm

Guess the grass is always greener. There are charters made in response to deficient ESL programs as a main reason for forming.

If Charters take over a school, they should be required to take in the local population. I thought the Mastery Charter School runs this way, it's a good school from the visits that I've made there. Is there something behind the scenes there, such as administrators "nudging" out the ESL / ELL / disabled students?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2010 7:46 am

Statistically, many charters admit as many or more special education students than any special admit school in the city and some charters have the same of higher percentage of special ed. than neighborhood schools. English Language Learners are concentrated in neighborhood schools with larger immigrant populations. Are there charter schools playing games with the lottery (e.g. Lab Charter School)? Sure, but, not all.

I agree - if a school becomes a charter, it should take the same students who were at the neighborhood school. That said, charters should be provided with the same per pupil spending as the SDP - not 20% less per pupil. This is not a level playing field.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 13, 2010 12:05 pm

Chester Charter gets $23,000 per special ed. student and $8,000 per general population, but spend most of their special ed. funds on anything, but special ed. kids. That was in the Inquirer piece on them. They also have the highest paid administration and one of the lowest paid teaching staffs (whoo have to pay for alot of things out of their own pocket).

Special admit schools do screen out potential problems. That's nothing new and why many public schools get frustrated when they hear about them all the time. With the same student population as special admit schools public schools could also do alot better.

As for the word "some", there is alot of room underneath that word. Are we talking about 2% vs. 97% of charters admit more special ed. than general public schools? Some is vague.

Lotteries are only one method to screen out problem students. Just the exlcusionary nature of chaters will attract some parents who are willing to do the extra work to get their kids in. They attract a different batch of parents compared to public schools which have parents that can't even show up for the report cards. It's time to make all schools something more than an alternative babysitting service.

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