Question #1—Do I Want to Create a Charter School?

This is the second of a series of blogs designed to help people interested in establishing new charter schools. 

I was talking the other day with a client and friend who is the Executive Director of a very innovative New York City charter school. We’ve known each other for years and I can vouch that he is dedicated not only to the success of his school and the advancement of his students but also to the growth of the independent charter school movement. We were speaking generally about what makes charter schools successful and eventually the conversation focused on the role of a charter school’s founder and leaders on its eventual success.

My friend stated, and I wholeheartedly agreed, that the distinguishing characteristic of successful independent charter school founders and leaders is that they are “mission-driven.” They were inspired to create their schools based on having a clear vision, boundless enthusiasm and an earnest commitment to transforming the lives of children. They believe in their students, their teachers and their school community. They are confident that their school will provide their students with the tools and skills they need to succeed. Yet they are also practical people who recognize that achieving their mission requires them to develop and implement pragmatic strategies, programs and policies to foster student achievement and build strong schools. 

Indeed, it is a balancing of the aspirational goals of bettering the lives of children and the practical considerations of designing and operating a successful educational corporation that defines a successful charter school founder and leader. If you are considering starting a charter school, then balancing the “aspirational” and the “practical” is something you will need to consider—and perhaps wrestle with—as you chart your course, design your school and prepare your charter application. 

Do you really want to start a charter school? 

I understand that this may seem like a simple question, but wrapped within it are many aspirational and practical issues I’d like us to consider. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with many groups in the “early exploration” or “I have an idea for a new school” phase of developing an independent charter school. Some of these groups were made up of parents and community leaders who felt a strong need for new and effective educational options for their children. Other groups comprised K-12 teachers and/or college professors who wanted to consider ways to use their expertise and experience to help children in non-traditional public school environments. Yet others were affiliated with organizations that served specific, high-need communities (e.g. children with autism, children in foster care, etc.) and wanted to explore opportunities to expand their service by creating charter schools. 

The members of each of these groups asked similar questions. Some were about the charter application process, while others were about the practical elements of developing and operating charter schools. Let’s try to address some of these questions in this blog series.

Why a Charter School? In a recent conversation with the leaders of a successful nonprofit organization seeking to further its mission by establishing a school, I was asked whether it was better to create a charter school or a private school. I thought it was a great question, and it led to a discussion about the pros and cons of developing a charter school. Here’s what we discussed:

  • The bottom line about charter schools, at least as originally designed, is that they have greater flexibility than traditional public schools in exchange for greater accountability. That’s the trade-off. As a new charter school, you will have five years to demonstrate success and earn a new charter renewal. If you cannot do this, you risk immediate closure. 

A number of charter schools I’ve worked with have taken advantage of the opportunities for greater flexibility, including schools like—a) the New York Center for Autism Charter School that serves students with severe disabilities; b) Hellenic Classical Charter School, a Greek-themed school designed and operated in partnership with the Greek Ministry of Education; c) the first charter school established by the Harlem Children’s Zone; d) the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Charter School that is a “last chance” transfer charter high school for over-aged under-credited high school students; and e) the Western New York Maritime Charter School which is a military-themed high school for at-risk youth run in partnership with the U.S. Navy. Over the years, however, the accountability standards to which New York’s charter schools are held have grown increasingly intense. Unlike private schools, charter schools are expected to match or exceed the achievement of traditional public schools in their district and the state for all students and for students in special populations (e.g. students with disabilities and English language learners). 

If you are considering starting a charter school in New York, you’ll have incredible opportunities to do innovative things that help your students achieve.  Please know, however, that if approved you will be held to strict accountability standards with very real consequences. 

  • Charter vs. Private? Here are some of the key differences— 
    • Charter schools are free, no-tuition schools, while most private schools require families to pay tuition. There is no cost to attend a charter school. Charter schools, as public schools, receive public funding, including per-pupil state funding and Title I and other federal entitlement grants. 
    • Charter schools must meet state and federal achievement and learning standards, while most private schools are exempt from these requirements.
    • Charter schools, as public schools, cannot require students to take an entrance exam. Charter schools must establish a lottery each year to select students on a random basis—with only a few exceptions such as a preference for siblings of enrolled students and, if approved by the authorizer, a preference for students with disabilities or English language learners. If you establish a charter school, you are committing to serve all students who want to enroll in your school. 
  • As a charter school, you will receive per-pupil funding from the state and be entitled to Title I and other federal funding. Private schools are not eligible for such funding. Also, in New York State, charter schools are eligible to receive Charter Schools Program grants to support them as they plan and launch their programs. These funds are substantial and can support your efforts to hire staff, secure facilities and implement the countless tasks necessary to start your school.

The Charter School Application Process–Let’s talk a little about the New York State charter school application process. While the New York State Charter School Laws recognizes four charter school authorizers1, only two are empowered to approve new charter schools. The New York State Education Department’s Charter Schools Office (SED) and the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute (CSI) oversee new charter school application rounds each year. If you want to create a new charter school, you will need to select either SED or CSI as your preferred authorizer. 

When selecting the charter school authorizer to which you want to apply, you’ll want to examine each carefully. Fortunately, both SED and CSI have prepared and posted online exhaustive information and materials to help you navigate the charter school application process and distinguish between them. New York’s charter authorizers have consistently been ranked among the best charter authorizers in the country, largely because of the excellence of their charter application and charter renewal processes. If you are considering creating a new charter school, I strongly encourage you to visit the following websites:

Developing Your Charter School—Generally, when we work with a group seeking to apply to create a charter school, we begin by discussing the group’s motivation to develop a charter school. Applying to establish a charter school is very hard. Actually operating an effective charter school is much, much harder. It’s very important that everyone on the charter school development team is absolutely, positively committed to doing the hard work needed to launching a charter school.

After that, the real work begins. Typically, my JPS Solutions partners and I engage the charter school development team in a Guided Inquiry Process to help them define and present their objectives, programs and plans. Specifically, we facilitate dialogues to help you design your school and prepare a charter school application that addresses all of the charter authorizer’s requirements. Among the questions we consider are: 

  • What is the make-up of your Applicant Team? Does your Applicant Team have the skills and experience you need? If not, how can you recruit new Applicant Team members?
    • How is your Applicant Team working together to develop you charter school?
    • How are you using each Applicant Team member’s unique skills and experience to support your charter school?
  • What is the make-up of your Founding Board?  Does your Founding Board have the skills and experience you need? If not, do you have a targeted Board recruitment strategy? Also, what is your plan to ensure that the Board exercises its governance responsibilities effectively?
  • What is your school’s mission? What is your vision? What is the difference you believe your school will make in your students and/or community? 
  • Who will you serve? In serious detail, what do you expect your student population will look like? How will you recruit your students? 
  • How will you serve your students? What will you do differently from the local school district schools? How will this make a difference?
  • Which charter school authorizer will you select? 
    • We strongly suggest that, as you make your selection, you reach out to and talk with representatives of each authorizer and that you speak with other charter school leaders to learn from their experiences.
  • Is the community supportive of your charter school? Can you demonstrate this community support? 
  • Have you given the community opportunities for input in the design of your proposed school’? How have you documented this input?
  • Are you affiliated with a Management Organization or Partner Organization? What will the Partnership Agreement or Memorandum of Agreement look like?
  • What is your school’s academic program? How will you meet the accountability standards of your authorizer and New York State?
  • How will you help all students—including English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities—achieve high standards? What is your plan to meet the accountability standards established by the state and by your proposed charter school authorizer? 
  • What are your plans regarding school culture and discipline?
  • Most importantly, how are you defining “success?” How will you know you are achieving it? What must you achieve by the end of Year One? By the middle of your charter term? By the end of your charter term? 

Your responses to these questions will help to establish the framework of your charter school’s programs, governance and operations. Furthermore, the information gathered from these dialogues enable us to help you design your school and prepare your charter application. By answering the Guided Inquiry questions honestly and thoughtfully, you will build a foundation that ensures that your charter school will start on the right foot. 

If, after considering these questions, you still want to create a charter school, then Bravo! You are about to embark on a real adventure—one that will make a positive change in the lives of many, many kids.  This blog will try to help you at every step of the charter school development and application process

Looking forward to the next time we connect. We’ll talk about how to develop a solid Applicant Team and a great Founding Board. Take care. 

Wayne D. Jones is a partner at JPS Solutions, LLC, an educational consulting firm that has worked with charter schools for more than 15 years. Wayne developed successful charter applications for independent charter schools throughout New York State, and he helped charter schools and charter school support organizations secure millions of dollars in grants. He also helped more than a dozen charter schools secure charter renewals. Wayne and his JPS Solutions partners recently joined forces with several distinguished charter school advisors to provide Essential Charter School Services, which provides comprehensive consulting and technical assistance to help charter schools succeed.

1The New York State Board of Regents/New York State Education Department’s Charter Schools Office (SED)), the New York State University Board of Trustees/the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute (CSI), the New York City Department of Education Department of Education (NYC DOE) and the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS). While NYC DOE and BPS oversee charter schools that they approved prior to the most recent Charter Schools Law, only SED and CSI are currently authorized to approve new charter schools.