Building a great city charter sector

Here follows the second entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

If I were made omnipotent for a day and charged with creating a single high-performing city charter sector, my playbook would probably look similar to that of other charter supporters…but with one major exception.

Here’s what I’d do based on the lessons of the last two decades.

Acquire as much educator talent as possible

No system of schools can thrive without the best teachers and school leaders. New York City (during its Klein-era heyday), Boston, and New Orleans have been magnets for talents, and they’ve benefitted accordingly. National organizations such as Teach For America and TNTP have been indispensable educator pipelines in leading cities, and a number of homegrown initiatives have also been valuable.

Recruit and build high-quality school operators

Blessedly, we finally have a critical mass of organizations that can start and operate high-performing, high-poverty urban schools. Cities with outstanding CMOs such as KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First have a huge head start. These organizations reliably develop and scale successful schools. But there are still too few of these national operators, and it would be understandable if a city were to balk at the idea of having a public school system comprised entirely of “outside” operators. Great charter school incubators like those in New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis are showing how new schools can be developed by local educators.

Develop a vibrant nonprofit support ecosystem

In cities with thriving charter sectors, we see a nonprofit support ecosystem growing in parallel—the best examples are in Boston, NYC, and Washington, D.C. The ecosystem is typically made up of human-capital organizations, incubators, facilities supports, advocacy groups, technical-assistance providers, and more. Great schools need these kinds of partners.

Ensure reform-minded philanthropy

The best charter cities have the support of national and local funders who invest strategically. They help schools cover start-up costs, get and keep the best teachers and leaders, launch new programs, and much more. Every city has private donors; what matters is the philanthropic community’s willingness to boldly invest in new schools, excelling schools, and the organizations that support them.

Make sure that no great school worries about facilities

More than 20 years in, the charter sector in most places still has to worry about acquiring buildings. In leading cities, government and nongovernment entities help great charters find and pay for space. Joel Klein famously made district facilities available to great charters in NYC. In some cities, district-charter compacts have made more buildings accessible to operators. Want more great charter seats? Never allow a lack of facilities stand in the way.

Nurture the create-replicate-close-repeat ethic

The leading cities embrace a regular process of starting new schools that match the ever-changing needs of families, growing the best schools so they can serve more kids, and shuttering failing schools. This continuous cycle increases the number of high-quality seats, which is the ultimate goal. This depends on high-quality authorizing and a smart citywide new-schools strategy. When done right, like in NYC and NOLA, the results can be outstanding.

Get policy right

A great state charter law is essential to developing a great city charter sector. In order for all of the above to take root, charters must be fairly funded, have control over their budgets and staffing, have freedom from unnecessary constraints, be held publicly accountable by great authorizers, and more.


I suspect most charter observers will agree with much of the above. While I think these elements are necessary, I’m convinced that they are insufficient. The last, and possibly most important characteristic—and this is where I part ways with many reformers—is that the charter sector must be kept as far away from the district as possible.

It is not a coincidence that the Massachusetts charter law makes the state (not the district) the charter authorizer and that this authorizer is exceptional. Or that the D.C. Public Charter School Board (another great authorizer) operates free of DCPS. Or that the Recovery School District, not the Orleans Parish School Board, dominates the New Orleans landscape. Or that Memphis attracted great operators after the creation of the Achievement School District. Or that mayoral control plus a nondistrict authorizer enabled NYC to set the pace.

It’s also not a coincidence that the School District of Philadelphia is the only authorizer in the City of Brotherly Love and its best operators have been forbidden from growing. Or that Chicago Public Schools, the only authorizer in the Windy City, has made facilities inaccessible to charters for the next 40 years.


In the leading cities, chartering is not viewed as subsidiary to the district, an appendage of the district, or beholden to the district. Where chartering is thriving—in numbers and results—it is a separate sector of public education, free from the dysfunction of the failed urban district.