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NEA Policy on Charter Schools


Statement Adopted by the 2001 Representative Assembly



NEA Resolution A-1 expresses NEA's strong belief "that public educational opportunities for every American must be preserved and strengthened." Consistent with this belief, NEA "supports innovation in public education," NEA Resolution A-29, including education reform mechanisms that promote decentralized and shared decision making, diverse educational offerings, and the removal of onerous administrative requirements. The core assumptions that inform the charter school (1) concept -- i.e., innovation, autonomy, and accountability -- indicate that charter schools have the potential to facilitate these reforms, and be positive change agents by developing new and creative methods of teaching and learning that can be replicated in mainstream public schools. Whether charter schools in fact will fulfill this potential -- or instead simply relieve the pressure for genuine reform, and provide a gateway for further privatization -- depends on how the charter schools are designed and implemented.

This Policy Statement sets forth certain criteria that NEA believes should be used to determine whether a charter school law -- and the charter schools that are established pursuant to that law -- are acceptable.(2) For purposes of discussion, these criteria are grouped into three categories, relating to (1) the granting of charters, (2) the design and operation of the charter schools themselves, and (3) certain core organizational values of NEA that apply to all educational programs in all contexts.(3)

Criteria


1. The Granting of Charters

a. In order for charter schools to fulfill their intended purposes, they should be designed to (1) serve as experimental laboratories for field-testing curricular and instructional innovations, with an eye to whether those innovations can be incorporated into "mainstream" public schools, or (2) provide educational alternatives for students who cannot adequately be served in mainstream public schools. It follows from these purposes that a charter should be granted only if the proposed charter school intends to offer students an educational experience that is qualitatively different from what is available to them in mainstream public schools, and not simply to provide a "choice" for parents who may be dissatisfied with the education that their children are receiving in mainstream public schools.

b. Local school boards are in the best position to evaluate charter school applications for educational management capacity and related purposes, determine how a charter school will impact mainstream public schools, establish procedures to maximize the cross-pollination of ideas, and monitor the operation of charter schools on an ongoing basis. Accordingly, applications for charters should be made to the relevant local school board, which in the first instance should have the authority to grant or deny the application. The procedure that is followed in this regard should be characterized by openness, and there should be adequate opportunity for members of the community, education employees, and other interested parties to have input-preferably through a public hearing on the application.

The decision of the local school board to grant or deny a charter school application should be subject to appeal to a state education agency, but the purpose of the appeal should not simply be to second-guess the educational judgment of the local school board. The burden should be on the appellant to demonstrate that the local school board did not have reasonable grounds for its decision, and acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner.

The process outlined above also should be used with regard to decisions involving the renewal or revocation of an existing charter.

c. Because a charter school application should be judged more on the basis of what it says than on the basis of who says it, there should be few a priori restrictions on eligibility to receive a charter. The chartering agency should have broad discretion to grant a charter to any responsible group or entity that meets the relevant prerequisites, including a group of parents, a team of teachers, a community organization, a college or university, a union, etc. There should, however, be certain categorical prohibitions:

1. Private for-profit entities should not be eligible to receive a charter. Because for-profit entities have a financial obligation to their shareholders, which requires them to build a profit margin into their calculations, and because they typically lack roots in the local community, such entities should not have independent authority over the operation of a public school. Charter schools should have a limited right to contract with for-profit entities to provide management and other services-but only to the same extent, and under the same circumstances, as mainstream public schools.

2. There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet.(4) Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.

3. Although mainstream public schools should be eligible to convert to charter schools if they meet the relevant prerequisites, private school conversions should be prohibited. The net effect of such conversions is all too often simply the use of public money to pay for private school education. In those instances where private school conversions are allowed, there should be rigorous safeguards to ensure that the conversion to a charter school is done in more than name only. The chartering agency should direct its attention to the student body, the governing board, and the educational program of the proposed charter school, and determine the extent to which they will differ from their counterparts in the pre-conversion private school. This is a fact-specific inquiry that must take place on a case-by-case basis, but a private school that converts to a charter school at the very least should not be permitted to give a preference to its former students in admission. Particularly careful scrutiny should be given to the application of any private school with a prior religious affiliation to be sure that the principle of church/state separation is not violated.(5)

d. Consistent with the purpose of charter schools as experimental laboratories, charters should be of limited duration so that the results of the experiment can be assessed. If the goals of the charter are being met, it can be renewed; if they are not, the charter can be revoked. Although a shorter or longer duration may be appropriate in particular circumstances, five years appears to reflect an appropriate balance between accountability, the opportunity for innovation to take hold, and the capital investment that often is necessary to start a charter school.

The charter holder should not be immune from scrutiny for the period of the charter. Because the public education that is provided to children is involved, the charter school should be monitored on a continuing basis, and should be subject to modification or closure at any time if the children or the public interest is placed at risk.

2. The Design and Operation of Charter Schools

a. In order to achieve their intended educational outcomes, it may be necessary
for charter schools to be freed from some of the requirements that apply to mainstream public schools, and have increased autonomy in regard to such matters as curriculum, instruction, staffing, budget, internal organization, calendar, and schedule. In other areas, however, the status of charter schools as public schools and the strictures of accountability should predominate, and in these areas they should be subject to the same local and state statutory and administrative requirements as mainstream public schools. This would include, among other things, requirements dealing with health and safety, public records and meetings, licensure/certification of teachers and other employees, finance and auditing, student assessment, civil rights, and labor relations.

A related consequence of the fact that charter schools are public schools is that the teachers and educational support professionals who work in those schools should be public employees-and, as such, should have the same constitutional and statutory rights as other similarly situated public employees. This should be the case regardless of who holds the charter or manages the school on a day-to-day basis, although a private for-profit entity that has a management contract with a charter school should be allowed to use its own employees to provide the management services called for under the contract.

b. According to the definition of a "public school" contained in the "NEA Policy Statement Regarding Privatization and Subcontracting Programs" that was adopted by the 2000 NEA Representative Assembly, one of the essential characteristics of a public school is "that, subject to reasonable pedagogically-based distinctions, [it] provides access to all resident students." It follows from this definition that students should not be charged tuition or required to pay a fee in order to attend charter schools. Moreover, because all students must be afforded an opportunity to attend a mainstream public school, students should not involuntarily be assigned to attend charter schools.

Charter schools should have some discretion in selecting or rejecting students. Like magnet and other specialty public schools, they should be allowed to serve an identified target population, such as at-risk students, students with a particular academic emphasis or interest, students with certain disabilities, and students from one educational level as opposed to others (i.e., elementary, middle or high school). But, again like mainstream public schools, there should be no screening of students on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, English-language proficiency, family income, athletic ability, special needs, parental participation in school affairs, intellectual potential, academic achievement, or what it costs to educate particular students. Nor should charter schools be allowed to screen students indirectly. Thus, for example, no would-be student should be denied the opportunity to attend a charter school because the school is unwilling to make adequate arrangements for his or her transportation.

c. A charter school is unlikely to be successful unless the participants in the educational experiment are committed to its goals and objectives-and this is true for employees as well as students. For this reason-and because no employee should be required to work in an environment that he or she finds unacceptable-employment at charter schools should be voluntary. In the case of public school conversions, any employees at the public school who do not support the conversion should be afforded an opportunity to transfer to a comparable position at another mainstream public school.

d. Charter schools should not disproportionately divert resources from mainstream public schools. The funding formula should provide a charter school with the same amount of money for its students that would be required to educate the same mix of students in a mainstream public school. Inherent in this formula would be adjustments to reflect cost differences between elementary and secondary school students, students with disabilities and other special needs, at-risk students, etc.

Applicants who seek a charter to start a new school-as opposed to a mainstream public school or an existing private school that seeks to convert to a charter school-may need to acquire a building and make other capital expenditures. A charter should not be granted unless the chartering agency is satisfied that adequate start-up resources will be available. The host school districts should not be required to provide additional money from their regular budgets to fund these capital expenditures, inasmuch as this would mean that the charter schools are disproportionately diverting resources from mainstream public schools. Nor is it particularly desirable for the additional money to come from the regular budgets of the charter schools, since this might result in their day-to-day operations being underfunded. An attempt should be made to obtain money to cover these start-up costs from some outside funding source (e.g., private non-profit foundations or the federal government).

3. NEA's Core Organizational Values

a. NEA Resolution F-5 provides that "the attainment and exercise of collective bargaining rights are essential to the promotion of education employee and student needs in society." Consistent with this fundamental principle, charter schools should be subject to the same public sector labor relations statutes as mainstream public schools, and charter school employees should have the same collective bargaining rights-under both state law and local practice-as their counterparts in mainstream public schools.

There is no single "best" answer to the question of how charter school employees should relate to mainstream public school employees in terms of bargaining unit structure and collective bargaining agreement coverage-i.e., whether charter school employees automatically should be included in the same bargaining unit as other employees in the relevant school district and be covered by the same collective bargaining agreement, with the right to request "waivers" that could be agreed to by the union and the school district to address the charter school's site-specific issues, or whether they should have the right to form separate bargaining units and negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements. This determination should be made on a case-by-case basis in the same manner that other decisions as to bargaining unit structure are made under the relevant labor relations statute.

b. NEA traditionally-and vigorously-has supported the principle of separation of church and state. If public funds are made available for unrestricted use by sectarian private schools-i.e., private schools that are affiliated with a religious group, institution, or organization, and that include a religious component in their educational programs-the wall of separation is breached. Sectarian private schools, therefore, should be ineligible to become charter schools, and particularly careful scrutiny should be given to charter school applications from purportedly "secular" private schools with a prior religious affiliation. This prohibition should not prevent a religiously-affiliated institution-such as a college or university-from obtaining a charter for a school that is housed in a separate facility that has no religious trappings, and that offers an educational program that is purely secular in nature.

Conclusion


As indicated at the outset of this Policy Statement, charter schools have the potential to impact positively, or negatively, on public education-and this in turn will depend on how such schools are designed and operated. In the final analysis, whether any particular charter school law-and the charter schools that are established pursuant to that law-passes muster must be determined on a case-by-case basis after considering all of the relevant factors. The criteria set forth in this Policy Statement are designed to provide an analytical framework that can be used in making that determination.

 

1 As used in this Policy Statement, the term "charter school" means a publicly-funded elementary or secondary school, that has been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results.

2 It would be preferable if all of the criteria were included in a charter school law, but that is not essential. As long as the law does not provide otherwise, a requirement could be imposed by the implementing regulations or the chartering agency itself. In the final analysis, the determinative question is whether a particular charter school meets the criteria.

3 These criteria are set forth in summary terms. The underlying analysis, and a more complete statement of the rationale for the positions taken , are contained in the accompanying Report of the NEA Special Committee on Charter Schools. The Report also discusses many of the subsidiary points that are relevant in applying the criteria.

4 The latter point is intended as an interim position. Online charter schools cannot be viewed in isolation, but are part of a broader question involving distance-learning in general. NEA intends to establish a special committee to address this broader question, and the position taken in this Policy Statement regarding online charter schools will be revisited by the special committee on distance learning.

5 If private school conversions are allowed, there should be an additional categorical prohibition against granting charters to sectarian private schools. See discussion below.