School districts, state boards of education and other entities that authorize charter schools have the critical task of deciding how much autonomy to grant charters—and sometimes that means less freedom, not more, says Greg Richmond, who spearheaded the charter movement in Chicago Public Schools. He resigned two years ago to head a national group of institutions that approve and oversee charters. Richmond talked with Associate Editor Sarah Karp about the lessons learned from the charter movement.
CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley are supportive of charters. Is that unusual?
What does that mean for charters here?
Far and away it’s a good thing. The fact that they exist and are generally high-quality can be traced back to that support, in a way that you don’t see in cities where the district opposes charters. So the people running them spend time fighting political battles rather than working to improve the quality of their school.
Also, charters [here] simply get treated better on a day-to-day basis. So if a [school-related] tragedy happens, CPS sends counselors for your students. That’s rare. In most other cities the system will just say, “You’re not our problem.”
Do Chicago’s charters have more autonomy than charters elsewhere?
No. Actually, one could make the case that the close relationship between the district and charters in Chicago has resulted in less autonomy. An example of that goes back to the first year. Schools were doing their own thing, including [in] keeping attendance. Somebody asked me, “What’s the enrollment and attendance at these charters so far?” I figured I’d call the schools, but after two weeks I still didn’t have an answer from some of them. So we said, “Sorry, but you’re going to have to keep track of students using our attendance system.” This ended up telling us not just about attendance, but who the students are. For instance, are they eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch? So Chicago charter schools ended up having less autonomy than, say, a school in Michigan. But the result was it worked better.
Have charters been able to negotiate for more resources over time?
Yes and no. A big challenge has been facilities. When charter schools started here they were completely on their own finding a building, which meant they ended up in vacated, rundown Catholic schools. The good news is that under Arne Duncan, charters are getting more access to district facilities. The bad news is that those come at great expense, and often with loss of autonomy. Some simply decided it’s not worth it. They’d rather have the rundown, vacated building than put up with all the costs and regulations that go along with being in a district building.
You mentioned that political conservatives who at first thought that schools could be done inexpensively now realize, because of the charter movement, that schools need more money. Are there other lessons for public education?
Some conservatives supported charters as a variation on vouchers. In some states that’s how it played out. In Arizona and Texas they hand charters out like they were vouchers—”You want to start a school? Here you go.” There’s very little public oversight. History is showing us that hasn’t worked very well. Way too many people were approved that shouldn’t have been, and started schools that were low-quality, had bad financial management—sometimes outright fraud.
Talk a little bit about private fundraising.
It certainly is a cost to [charters] to pursue all those private dollars. But the benefits are enormous. [Compared] to 10, 20 years ago, you have much greater civic and philanthropic involvement in public education. If charters didn’t exist, a lot of these foundations would just put their money and time somewhere else. And with Renaissance 2010, you see corporations getting involved. It’s bringing more, volunteers, dollars and commitment into public education. And that can only be a good thing.