Corporations, Chambers, and Charters: How Businesses Can Support High
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The availability of high-quality human talent is the number-one issue facing businesses today. Business leaders increasingly place improving public education at the top of their list of priorities because they believe the education system in the United States fails to produce graduates prepared to compete both locally and in a global economy. Consider the following:
- 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year.
- The United States ranks near the bottom in graduation rates among developed nations.
- Seventy percent of eighth-graders cannot read at grade level.
- In mathematics achievement, the United States ranks 25th out of 30 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
- Achievement gaps persist between students in low-income and high-income communities; nine-year-olds in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.
- Out of every 100 low-income students, fewer than 10 will ultimately graduate from college.
At a time when many students are not graduating from high school prepared for postsecondary education and work, two-thirds of the new jobs being created require advanced training or a college education. Business leaders believe that high-quality education is paramount to America's ability to compete globally. Charter schools, as independently operated public schools, strike many business leaders as one of the most effective ways to have a tangible effect on pre-K through secondary education.
Charter schools began in 1991 with the passing of the nation's first charter law in Minnesota. Charter schools are independent schools designed to provide tuition-free public education choices for parents and students, liberate teachers and administrators from red tape, and allow more innovation in the classroom. In exchange for this flexibility, charter schools accept high accountability, knowing that they can be closed if they fail to live up to their charter.
Today, charter schooling remains one of the nation's most promising efforts to produce more great public schools. Charter schooling has developed a variety of school models that serve the different interests and learning styles of students, and has provided an opportunity to generate successful strategies that can be incorporated and replicated within districts. Of course, many districts reacted warily to the introduction of competition in their areas, but charters have now become a fixture of the public school landscape. Some charter school innovations—including extended learning time, small class and school size, and school-level teacher contracts—are finding their way into district settings. Other places have developed charter-district partnerships, co-locating charter schools with district schools or turning over failing district schools to charter organizations.
Forty states and the District of Columbia now have charter school laws, and about 4,300 schools serve 1.2 million students—about 2% of the public school population. Families continue to clamor for more charter schools, lining up on long wait lists to enroll their children.
In addition to the changes that charter schools can bring to public education, businesses involved with charter schools reap tangible benefits. In the short term, relationships between charter schools and corporations can provide meaningful volunteer opportunities for employees who feel they are a part of something that is making a difference. In the long term, charter schools—with their focus on results—have the potential to produce a better-prepared workforce.
Many charter schools across the country have moved to the forefront in educational achievement, and some are producing astonishing results with traditionally underserved groups of students. The most successful have served as models for new charter schools and, in some areas, spurred innovation in traditional district schools. Still, charter schools face many challenges:
On average, charter schools receive 22% less per student than district- managed schools. Most states do not provide charter schools access to direct capital funding, resulting in charter leaders spending a portion of their operating funds on facilities. Only 15 states provide any support for charter
school facilities, usually a minimal amount.
Some states do not permit charter schools, and the laws of many other states hinder the growth of high-quality, truly independent charter schools by imposing
arbitrary caps on the number of new schools.
The majority of studies that look at change over time find charter schools doing better than their district counterparts, but the quality of charter schools remains uneven. It has proven difficult for those who oversee charter schools to shut down unsuccessful
Although charter schools have gained bipartisan support nationally and in many states, they have also been the subject of fierce political opposition as the sector has grown.
Given both the promise of charter schools and the urgent need to foster higher quality in the charter school sector, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce commissioned this guide to outline how business can support charter schools. This guide captures recent developments in the charter sector and the advice of business leaders, leading donors, and partners on how businesspeople and chamber leaders can support high-quality charter schools, both in their local communities and on a national scale. Private philanthropy has been investing in the charter school movement from the beginning. This guide builds on the lessons philanthropists (including successful business leaders) have learned that will be particularly applicable to the business community.
Further, the guide provides real-world examples of how businesses and chambers of commerce have supported charter schools. Businesses will find information throughout the guide not only on corporate financial giving, but also on developing meaningful partnerships and volunteer opportunities with schools, creating a welcoming policy environment for charters, and leveraging the skills and talents employees already possess for the benefit of charter public education.
This guide does not offer a simple recipe for all to follow. Instead, it provides a menu of possibilities that readers can choose from and adapt to their own circumstances and capacity. It is important to consider that although most charter schools are independent, stand-alone schools, the charter sector is a large and interconnected system. The figure below highlights a few key players in the charter sector: national support and advocacy organizations, state and regional support organizations and authorizers, individual charter schools, and charter management organizations that open schools under a brand. Your corporation or chamber can become involved in any part of the charter sector and should choose the area that will best leverage your resources.
Before we consider options for charter support strategies, an important caution must be given to business leaders seeking to support charter schools: The charter school landscape differs vastly from state to state and from school to school. New supporters, especially those who are targeting a specific city or state, must first take time to learn about this landscape. Business leaders must investigate the state's charter law, if the state has one. Charter schools should be examined to ensure that the program has proven results or, if new, is based on sound research that increases the possibility of success.