Robin Talks to Justin About Messy Stuff: Part I

Robin Lake runs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake’s research focuses on special education, charter schools, innovation, and a host of other issues. Today on the blog, I talk to Lake about the contentious issue of “charter backfill.” It is an issue that both demands significant nuance and exposes divisions within the charter community. I have embedded in this post a report focused on the issue; the embedding was hard to do in a visually satisfying way, but I opted for transparency over style. This is the first interview in what will be a series of conversations with Lake about some of the most complex, messy issues in education today. 

Robin: It’s a beautiful day in Seattle.

Me: That’s hard for me to believe. Explain this issue of charter backfill to me.

Robin: So the backfill question is about whether charter schools should take students either mid year, after the start of the school year, or at later grades besides the charter’s established entry grades. For example, an entry grade would be 9th grade for high school. Some charter schools do this, while others don’t. They’re increasingly being criticized when they don’t, because those schools can end up with empty seats, through attrition, and kids don’t have access to them if those schools don’t “backfill.” It’s an equity issue. Districts don’t have a choice and have to take those kids. For those reasons, the issue is heating up.

Me: It seems like positions on this issue are dividing folks within the charter school world? Am I right? Why is that happening?

Robin: There is a lot of division. Democracy Builders just came out with a report assessing how many empty seats are in New York City’s charter schools. There are more than 2,500 at any given time, and they’re arguing that this isn’t morally or ethically okay. [Success Academy Charter Schools CEO] Eva Moskowitz has argued that schools should not have to take students midyear. So it is an internal debate for the charter sector. It’s a bit of an identity crisis that we’re seeing, with some folks still seeing charter schools as an escape valve from struggling districts, with others seeing them as a viable replacement for districts.

Me: Where do you stand?

Robin: (Laughter.) Well, look, I think that charter schools are whatever we want them to be in different places. They’re a creature of a public contract. In some cities, an escape valve might be all that’s needed. But in most cities the problems are so large and systemic, and charters could fill a much bigger need.  If charter schools can take more students midyear and address some of these challenges, why not? It’s part of their public purpose.

Me: Critics of your position say, “Well hey, this is the exact stuff we were trying to get away from when we started charter schools. We wanted autonomy.”

Robin: First, this doesn’t have to impinge on charter autonomy. Democracy Prep, a charter in New York City, has asked other charters to adopt a voluntary midyear acceptance policy. And they’re asking other schools to be more transparent about why they aren’t doing that. That’s just an easy win for charters. There can be policies that are sensitive to school’s needs. I don’t think anyone is calling for a blanket requirement that all charters backfill. There are lots of ways to design policies so that schools aren’t hurt. I think that autonomy is only good if it’s creating good results. Autonomy for its own sake is meaningless, if you’re trying to provide a public service. One big question is whether it is true that being asked to take kids midyear is problematic for the other kids in that school, which is what Moskowitz has argued.

Me: Let’s say someone doesn’t want to take kids midyear and backfill empty seats? Why is that problematic?

Robin: At the very least, it gives people good reason to assert that results that those schools achieve don’t hold in the real world. Folks will come up with all kinds of reasons to say that high performing charters couldn’t possibly be getting the results they’re getting. I think it behooves the charter sector to get in front of that.

Me: Are there places where we’re seeing real shifts on policy around this?

Robin: I don’t think that many cities have a required backfill policy. Denver may? New Orleans might? Those two cities have common enrollment policies between charters and the district, and when you have a common enrollment system, somebody has to take kids midyear. There’s little alternative to charters in New Orleans, so they’ve had to grapple with this. The ideal situation is when a district and charters come together to work things out, outside of a policy environment. You’re working together on solutions that make sense.

Me: Are there pre-conditions or contextual things that make this kind of collaboration easier?

Robin: Yes, I think that cities that are most successful see it as a two way street. It’s not just a question of having charter schools take on more system responsibility, with special education or backfill. But the district is also willing to provide resources and the supports to make sure that they can be successful in doing so. That’s a start. Shared responsibility and shared resources. And then there’s the question of trust. There is just goodwill toward working together and solving problems in places that make this work. That takes a long time to create, especially in cities where there are a lot of charters. It takes real leadership on both sides.

Me: What are the resources that make it easier for a charter to play ball?

Robin: On backfill, I’m not sure there’s a resource argument to be made. But maybe taking kids midyear means those children have potential to be disruptive to culture and they need counseling services to get on track more quickly. That’s definitely the case around special education, which is a much longer conversation.

Me: Which we’re planning on having next week!

Robin: We are looking at how private schools deal with backfill. Lots of private schools will take kids after entry points that are established. We’re trying to see what they’ve learned. One thing that’ s just interesting on the financial incentive question is that one reason that charter schools can’t afford to take kids midyear is that they’re heavily supported by philanthropy. That’s not true for all charters, but a lot of the best ones get philanthropic support for slow, intentional growth. Some philanthropies are discouraging backfill, and we have to deal with that.

Me: Is this really about the right to a seat in a school?

Robin: I don’t know if this happens, but I worry that charter schools may sometimes accept a kid midyear as long as it’s not a “disruptive” kid, while other kids with more challenging behaviors wouldn’t get that access. That’s a huge equity problem.

Me: Who are you guys working with to get this right?

Robin: Where charter schools are 20-40% of schools in a city, they have to deal with these issues. I’m hearing it in most big cities with charter schools. People are starting to noodle about it. We need some good solutions.

Me: I was just talking to someone who authorizes charter schools the other day, and I think my point to her was, “You can’t advocate for increased market share for a generation and then abdicate responsibility once you start creeping up on having the majority of the kids in a city.”

Robin: There’s a little bit of a belief in charter schools that we should just “let the chips fall where they may.”

I don’t think the idea there is, “We don’t care about these issues.”

The belief is something more like, “We weren’t designed to solve these issues.” And they’re right. The charter sector was not designed to solve all of these issues. The issues are, in a lot of ways, the mark of successful growth. It’s much more far reaching than anyone imagined, I think.