The Looming Disaster of a Charter Conversion

The charter school initiative, if approved, would create a time bomb that would seriously threaten Seattle Public Schools.

The threat doesn't come from the possibility of a charter school organization creating a school in Seattle - at least not if they get their own building. The threat comes from the possibility of a conversion.

A conversion occurs when a majority (50% plus 1) of either the teachers or the families at a school request conversion to a charter. If that were to happen at an attendance area school, then the school would become, essentially, an option school. The attendance area boundaries all around the school would have to change to cover the converted school's attendance area so that every student had an attendance area school.

There is no school in Seattle that has any excess capacity to speak of. Any addition to the attendance area of any school - particularly one of this scale - would result in the instant overcrowding of the school to something like 130-150% of capacity. And that's at a school in an area with just ordinary capacity management headaches. In the crowded parts of town it would be MUCH worse. Imagine if View Ridge converted and every one of those students had to be granted guaranteed assignment to a different attendance area school in the northeast.

And don't presume that the students would be distributed roughly the same. Charter schools don't have geo-zones. Any student from anywhere in the District has an equal chance at assignment. The students who enroll at the converted charter would not necessarily come from the same area as the school's former attendance area. They would come from all over the district.

Even the conversion of an option school could represent a capacity management nightmare for the District. As a charter, Thornton Creek could set their own maximum enrollment.

How likely is a conversion? If I were a charter school management organization it would be my preferred path. If the charter management company can engineer a conversion, then they don't have to find space for a a school or pay any rent for it. That's a HUGE savings right there. Also, if they do a conversion, they can expect to retain a lot of the school's current students. That's a lot easier than recruiting from scratch. Particularly at the upper grades when students aren't as quick to change schools.

How could they engineer a conversion? I see two methods.

1) Start a campaign within a school among either the teachers or the families or both to convince them to sign the conversion petition. The conversion side will be well-organized and well-resourced. The opposition will not be.

2) Recruit families for the school and then target an undersubscribed school. If you could find 300 families ready to subscribe to your charter high school, you could have them all enroll their kids at Rainier Beach and carry an election. There were less than 400 students enrolled at RBHS this year. Similarly, Madrona K-8 had about 330 students, so a charter that could gather about 300 K-8 student subscribers could take over that school as easily.

If Rainier Beach were converted to a charter, the District would have only Franklin and Garfield as attendance area high schools for all of Seattle south of downtown and east of the Duwamish. There's not enough room in these schools for all of those students.


Anonymous said…
I could totally see that happening at an option school like Jane Adams K-8 who doesn't want to move or an option school that is tired of having its program messed with by the district.

Eric B said…
Strictly speaking, students can come from anywhere in the state, not just anywhere in the district. So a conversion in the north-ish end might pull students in from Shoreline. Conversion charters can set their own capacity, but they are required to accommodate as many of the pre-conversion students as want to stay. That doesn't mean that the new charter couldn't bring in policies that tend to encourage some pre-conversion students to leave.

The campaign among parents would be pretty easy. The new charter will have a real math curriculum, adequate funding for teacher's aides and a counselor, and direct a large percentage of funds to the classroom.

It'd be awfully hard to argue against that, and I think it would be completely doable from a financial point of view.
Charlie Mas said…
Ah, yes. A lot of the option schools don't feel much loyalty towards the District.

If Jane Addams, for example, decided to become a conversion charter, the District couldn't force that school out of its building.

Pinehurst, if it became a conversion charter, would no longer have to worry about annual threats of closure.

Thornton Creek, if it became a conversion charter, wouldn't have to grow any bigger than it wanted to be.

Southshore is operated under an MOU with LEV, a charter promoting organization. I'm sure LEV would like to see it convert. It would look a bit hypocritical otherwise.

NOVA could convert to a charter and then the District couldn't move them out of Meany and couldn't force them back to Mann.

Here's an interesting question: if The Center School became a charter, would the District have to continue paying the rent on that space at Seattle Center?
"Any student from anywhere in the District has an equal chance at assignment."

Any student from ANY district can get in so, depending on the popularity of the program, it could be Bellevue, Highline, etc.

I keep getting these naysayers "it couldn't happen at a high-mid-performing school" and I smile. You cannot know what is happening at every school or what teachers (a decidedly smaller group than parents) might be swayed by. Some seem to think that just because a school is high-performing, the teachers are all happy. What a shock that will be.

And the reason, as Charlie states, is that besides expansion, the number ONE issue for charters is facilities and getting access to district buildings.

I also think South Shore is ripe for a conversion takeover and bye, bye $75M building.

Why else would it be in the initiative?

Why else would the initiative have any district building up for sale or lease at or below market value to charters? Or even ANY building, public or private, that has space rents to charters at or below market value?

They need facilities and they need them desperately.

And ask yourself why this conversion would be the ONLY one in the ENTIRE country with a "teachers OR parents" clause? Easier takeover.
Anonymous said…
Charlie, in a conversion situation, who bears the cost of getting the students to the school, do you know?

I assume they'd either:
1. need to get their own transportation
2. they'd take a school bus (for elem and k-8).

If they take the bus, do the charters have their own bus contract, schedules etc. or is this another thing SPS will be paying for(such as building maintenance) that will won't be paid for since the $ follows the child to the charter.

The charter bears the cost but it's a mixed bag around the country if they provide transportation or not. The initiative is silent on this issue but does say at one point that the charter can contract with the district if they want.

They could not, unless they contracted with the district, allow their students to use district transportation.

It's fairly vague on how that would all work out but the charter would have to pay.

I also have to say that if we have charters come in, Banda will likely have too much on his plate for anyone to have much in the way of expectations.

On the other hand, it might cause BEX IV to pass more easily as people vote for the last capital levy they WON'T have to share with charters. After that, less money for district buildings (both in operations and capital).
Anonymous said…
The teachers in a building would never go for conversion, simply because they would NEVER give up their union.

I really dont think we have anything to worry about with this issue.

"Could be wrong, but don't think so"
Could be wrong, how then do you explain the thousands of charter schools in existence where, yes, teachers gave up their union?

Yes, they'd give it up for the right assurances.

FYI to all, here's a link with a chart for existing parent trigger laws. Note, it has never been used successfully anywhere due to court challenges.
Jan said…
Could be wrong: I don't have a clue how this has worked in other states -- but when you think of the number of seasoned teachers being hounded out of schools on trumped up PIPs, the number of teachers who want to teach using better pedagological approaches, and better materials, than those supported by the District, the number of teachers who are sick of "fidelity of implementation," getting dinged in reviews for not having "today's goal" written on the white board, or having their time wasted (and intelligence insulted) by what passes for district provided professional development -- well, if the teachers are the ones "converting" the school, they can simply write better rules for themselves, right? No one says they HAVE to invite KIPP or Green Dot in. And some of those rules might be GREAT for our kids -- and some might not be. But neither we nor, maybe, the parents of kids who go there will have any say in how the school runs.

The teachers at Bryant? Lowell? Why wouldn't they be willing to "give up" union membership in order to get a decent shot at following their profession, as the union has done nothing for most of them in any case?

Here's another thought -- what if the first three proposals through the door are RBHS, Franklin and GHS? What if the first 8 proposals are the eight comprehensive SSD high schools? There is nothing in here that requires any of the charter authorizers to acknowledge, care about, etc. ANY prudent use of available public assets.
Anonymous said…
If you "give up" union membership, you may be faced with something more like this:'firing_day'_at_the_charter_school
(sorry iPad doesn't do links)

I know several teachers in AZ and UT who jumped ship from public to charter based on the promise of more autonomy, etc. The last one is headed back to a public school district next year - all the rest already went back - and now are all fervent union supporters. It seems life on the other side wasn't so great. Workload, lack of support from admin, issues with getting paid, false promises, no specialists/no breaks - the list goes on and on. While some of the issues were the same in both places (I.e. Lack of support from admin), at least they had some job protection and basic rights in the public schools. One of my friends was in a school where kids ate lunch in the classroom with her and then she had to take them out to recess and stay with them - no recess monitors, no duty-free lunch - in fact no breaks at all unless one of the other teachers watched her class while she ran to the bathroom. When she questioned this, she was fired.
Most of the charter school teachers she met were not certified or had gone through some type of alternate program - they didn't know anything else, nor could they be hired in the public school system.

Here's a great article suggesting how charters might do better by their teachers, pretty hilarious.
Anonymous said…
OMG - they had to do "research" to find those things out?
We are doomed.

Maureen said…
Would anything prevent veteran teachers from voting for conversion, then retiring from SPS and collecting pensions and then being rehired by the charter to teach at the converted school? Does anything require the conversion charter admin to actually hire the original teachers (however they voted)?
Charlie Mas said…
Thank you, Jan, for scaring the stuffing right out of me.

"what if the first three proposals through the door are RBHS, Franklin and GHS? What if the first 8 proposals are the eight comprehensive SSD high schools? There is nothing in here that requires any of the charter authorizers to acknowledge, care about, etc. ANY prudent use of available public assets."

This thought makes my blood run cold, and it is completely possible.
Charlie Mas said…
Thank you, Maureen, for envisioning a scenario even more devious than one I could imagine.
Maureen, the conversion charter says little about what happens after the school gets taken over. I suspect if it was via a teacher petition that yes, the teachers might have some guarantee of a job from the charter. Is that legal? I don't know.

The only thing is that a conversion school HAS to keep any and all previous students who want to remain.

I'm going to write a separate thread on this issue as it certainly has many facets as to why a charter would want to take over an existing school.
Jan said…
I have worried some more. Besides the calamitous effects of conversion on a neighborhood based assignment system, what are the issues for programs. For example, perhaps Pinehurst teachers will apply for charter status for their beloved program -- ignored by the District. But wait! What if they don't. And what if 200 new families "show up" there next year, patiently "wait" and then vote to convert the entire school to some sort of a KIPP school, complete with uniforms, "no excuses" discipline, lots of direct instruction, and a very rigid curriculum. I think the crux of my worry is that there is no protection at all for program placement. A charter could take over Graham Hill and boot out Montessori -- or take over Beacon Hill, and get rid of language immersion (neither of these seems likely). But what if a charter group wanted GHS, but didn't want to supply an APP program? Or ONLY wanted to supply a gifted program -- leaving all of the other kids no reasonable way to stay? We not only have a population (butts in seats) displacement problem. The current legislation leaves every program in the district (but in particular any program that is "small" in relation to the total school population) totally vulnerable to being kicked out, with no process whatsoever.

This is bad legislation.

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