2010 National Charter School Facilities Institute: Keynote Address, Scott Pearson, U.S. Department of Education

National Charter School Resource Center
30 Jun, 2010

Thank you, and welcome to the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Facilities Institute. My name is Scott Pearson. I oversee the charter schools program for the US Department of Education and am the deputy in our Office of Innovation and Improvement, where the charter schools program lives. I think that speaks volumes about how we think about charter schools.  Innovation and Improvement. Charters as a key source of innovation in American education. And charters as an important strategy for improving the quality of American education.     Think about it. Can you imagine goals at once more challenging and more important to our country? Closing the achievement gap. Reclaiming the lead in college graduation rates that we lost more than 20 years ago. Discovering more effective – and more efficient – ways of educating our children. Ensuring that all children receive an excellent education – irrespective of their zip code or their race. 


Charters have the potential to help us reach all of these goals. There are many reasons for this – the freedom to innovate, the power of choice. But none are more important than you, the people in this room. It is your energy, your ideas, your passion, your courage to embark on a difficult journey, and your commitment to children, to equal opportunity for all, and to quality public education that will ultimately determine whether this experiment we call charter schools lives up to its promise or fails. Because more than anything else, the charter model opens the doors of public education to entrepreneurial and civic energy of our citizens. This civic energy, the voluntary bonding  together to tackle our problems, large and small, is a feature of America that has been observed since before our nation’s founding by writers like Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Toqueville, and Jane Addams. This civic energy makes charters a source of great hope for American education.

I need to add that charters are not the only source of new ideas and reform. A week doesn’t go by without our receive a letter accusing the Secretary of Education and the Department of Education of basing our entire school reform strategy on charter schools.This is pure BS, which, as Rahm Emmanuel helpfully translated last week, stands for “baseless”. Our charter schools program accounts for less than 1% of our total spending on K-12 education. The four pillars of our department’s reform strategy – data, teachers, standards, and school turnarounds apply to all schools, not just charters.  Applicants to our Race to the Top competition could win up to 500 points, of which just 40 were related to charter schools.

But ultimately the importance of charter schools to our reform agenda will depend on one thing – how charters perform. If charter schools were consistently outperforming the district school down the street, why wouldn’t we double down, and double down again. But if charters consistently open, and underperform the district schools, why bother? Secretary Duncan has said repeatedly that he doesn’t support all charter schools – but he’s a passionate supporter of great charter schools.

Of course the situation is complicated. We have among the 5,000 charter schools in the US some of the brightest stars in the American public education. Schools like the Harlem Success Academy in New York, Amistad Academy in New Haven , CT, and YES College Prep in Houston, whose low income, black and brown children are scoring higher on the New York state tests than children from Scarsdale.   These guys have actually closed the achievement gap. And in doing so, they not only benefit their students. They benefit all students, by showing us that these results are possible. The conversation in every school serving disadvantaged kids changes from “we’re not sure if this is possible” to “what do we need to do?”    Imagine walking up to a door that you aren’t sure is locked.  You try to open it and it doesn’t budge. What do you do?  You conclude that the door is locked and walk away. But what if somebody tells you that the door is definitely not locked. Now wiggle the door knob. You put your foot against the wall and tug.  You do what it takes to open that door.   Schools like Harlem Success Academy and Locke Charter School here in Chicago are telling us all that the door is not locked.  The impact of that can’t be overstated.

We also have among the 5,000 charters some of the worst schools in the country.   Schools that are producing abysmal academic results; schools that have inept or at times fraudulent financial management;  schools that neglect life-safety issues; schools that quietly advise the parent of a disabled child they’d  be better served at the school down the street.  Every time one of these schools implodes, or worse yet continues year after year failing its students and serving as exhibit A for charter opponents, the charter movement is weakened.

So what do you get when you put it together?  We have a growing number of specific studies that show tremendous results from charters. Recent studies of Boston charter schools, or New York City charter schools, and of KIPP middle schools have all shown significant gains over matched pair students in district schools. But the most comprehensive national studies of charter schools show, on the whole, “no effect” on academic results. Some are better, some are worse, a lot are the same. “No effect”. Now we see charters overall excelling in other areas.  First, parents and kids love them. That’s why we estimate over 300,000 kids on wait lists for charter schools. And there is good evidence that charter schools have higher graduation rates and college attendance rates. Charter schools do better after their first year. They seem to do better with disadvantaged kids than with middle class and affluent ones. But despite these pockets of success, we can’t explain away the “no effect on the whole” conclusion. Nor should we. We need to confront it head on as a movement.

 Remember, the promise of charters has always been higher accountability for greater autonomy. Charters are, and should be, held not to the same standard, but to a higher standard. And so we need to commit ourselves that five years from now, charter school on the whole will outperform district schools.

So what are we doing about it at the federal level?

First of all, we’re trying to understand the problem better. One of the most important conclusions is that areas with strong authorizing tend to produce better charters.   This means authorizers who do a few things really well. They are effective at screening new applicants, and at times they help new applicants improve their plans and program before opening. They are fair but tough-minded about closing down or non-renewing the low-performing ones – even those that have supportive parents willing to vocally advocate to give the school a second chance. And finally, they closely monitor the charters year by year, so that problems are caught when they are small and fixable, rather than big and fatal.

Another really interesting insight about performance comes from some analysis done by the California Charter Schools Association. They gave every school in the state a quality score, taking into account not only performance on state tests, but also the background of the kids at the school. Then they divided the schools into deciles – the top 10% , the next 10%, etc. Finally they looked at where charters fell in these deciles. They found that charter schools were overrepresented in both the highest and the lowest deciles. To generalize, charters in California tend to be really good, or really poor, with fewer in the middle.

This again calls for strong authorizing. Having the systems to identify low performance fairly, and the will to close these schools in the face of political opposition, is critical.

Here’s the problem with authorizing. There are hundreds and hundreds of authorizers and their structure, and quality, varies from state to state.  Some are big organizations focused on authorizing. They build systems and structures to do their job well.   Many are local school districts – some big, some tiny, required by law to be authorizers whether they want to or not. Their quality ranges from great to terrible.

We recognize that authorizing is basically a state and local issue. But we think there is a role for the federal government, and that is to shine a light on good and bad authorizing. Today there is no national database of authorizing decisions.  We don’t know which authorizers greenlighted which schools? And we don’t know when schools come up for renewal what the decision was. Of course this is known in the local community, but it’s not collected nationally. So we are working hard to build a database that will track all of these authorizer decisions across the country, and will allow everyone to see if a particular authorizer is approving schools that always end up underperforming, or is renewing charter schools that are among the worst performing in the state. When this database is complete, and made public, we think it will help focus attention on authorizers and encourage them all to raise the bar on their performance.

We’ve talked about closing down the bad ones. We are also focused on helping the very best charter schools replicate and grow. 

The federal charter schools program will spend $256 million this year. Most of that money goes to states who then make grants to open new charter schools. I suspect many in this room have received one of these grants.  Most of these grants go to new startups. This is important as a source of new talent and new ideas. But for the first time we are running a national competition focused on the very best of the proven operators. We want to find these high-quality operators and give them money to expand and replicate their great schools. So grow the top and shut down the bottom. Those are two legs of the stool.

The third leg is support and assistance, to help all charters with their most significant issues. And that’s where this conference comes in. When we talk with charter operators two issues always rise to the top of their list of struggles: facilities and special education. We’ll be doing a lot more around special education in the coming year. It’s a big deal and most charters don’t educate students with disabilities at the rate of district schools. But this conference is part of our effort to help charters address facilities issues.

Most research on facilities finds that the quality of the facility is not correlated with academic results.  But there is no good research on facilities in charter schools.  I suspect that when there is, it will show that facilities can have a huge impact on the quality and viability of the charter school. That’s because facilities for charters are about so much more than the building. It’s about often not knowing where you will be located until the last minute, which makes it so difficult to attract and retain kids.  It’s about the executive director spending 60% of her time in crisis mode trying to figure out where you’ll be housed next year, instead of focusing on teaching and learning.  It’s about spending 20% of your budget on facilities when the district schools’ building costs are covered by bond levies. It’s about frequent moves across great distances that can cause high attrition and discontinuities.  It’s about having no gym, no field, no theater or no place to meet. It’s about being turned down for any loan longer than the term of your charter, or being considered a poor credit risk by bankers unfamiliar with charter schools. It’s about needing to be a bond expert and a general contractor on top of being a great educator.

I know this first hand. The CMO I helped found had to shut down one of its schools because the district moved it three times in three years in a deliberate and successful effort to kill the school.  None of this CMOs remaining four schools have proper gyms. One is located next to the most murderous block of California. And this is in a state that most rate as among the tops for its charter facilities policies.   So I know the bad , believe me  – but I also have seen the good. One school has, after six years of patient relationship building, just partnered with the district on a successful bond measure that will fund a new building.  Another was able to borrow $1 million on good terms to expand their campus.  What I’ve seen most of all is that there are no easy solutions.  Each school is its own case that almost always requires creativity, perseverance, at times sophistication, and, frankly, sometimes a lot of luck.

We can’t give you answers at this conference. But what we hope to do is provide you with tools and resources that you can use to find your own answers. We hope to turn this into web-based lessons that we can customize for each state, to help provide even more tailored assistance.

I’m willing to bet that almost none of you got involved in charter schools because you cared about construction, or real estate, or bond financing.  Some of the larger or better funded charter organizations are fortunate to be able to hire staff that is passionate about these things. But others need to make “facilities manager” the 7th or 20th hat you wear. Whatever  your situation, we all realize that you can’t have a school without a building, and you can’t have a stable school without a permanent home.  We understand your situation, and we hope this seminar helps.   We know we may not get it exactly right, so please fill out the evaluations at the end so that we can make this even better next time. I want to extend a special thank you to Learning Point Associates, our partner in the National Charter School Resource Center, for organizing this conference.

I love getting together with other charter school operators because almost all of us got into this for the same reason.  We believe in kids. We care about social justice.  We want to improve public education.  We are willing to take on extraordinary challenges.  We are entrepreneurs, creators, and doers. It’s the best of this country applied to our very toughest challenges.

I hope today is valuable to you, and I wish you the very best of success as you work to change public education for the better.