Use federal Charter Schools Program dollars to get innovative with high schools

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For decades, the federal government’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) grants have funded the creation, replication, and expansion of high-quality charter schools. More than half of the nation’s states have been awarded grants since 2009, and some of the highest performing charter networks in the country—including IDEA Public Schools, Success Academy, and KIPP—have also received awards.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a spending bill that includes $440 million for CSP, an increase of $40 million and the highest-ever funding level for the program. The increase has been celebrated by charter school proponents, and rightfully so; CSP funds are indispensable for states looking to grow their sectors, and there are dozens of charter management organizations (CMOs) that would benefit greatly from additional funding.

But as advocates, charter networks, and state leaders gear up to apply for a piece of the pie, they would be wise to consider creating new and innovative charter high schools instead of just replicating the usual suspects. Without a doubt, the CMOs and state programs that have been funded in the past deserved their awards. They earned their reputations by educating traditionally underserved students really well, and the more of them we have, the better.

But many of these same organizations have also recognized that their alumni are getting into but not necessarily through college, as defined by earning a four-year bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation. This is not a charter-only problem. Thousands of students who graduate from traditional public schools also drop out of college before earning a degree. Nor is it a college-only problem. Significant majorities of employers have reported that recent high school graduates arrive in the workplace with gaps in their preparation.

In short, a significant chunk of our high school graduates are struggling to bridge the gap between secondary school and college or career. The good news is that lots of smart and committed people are pouring time, energy, and talent into re-thinking high school and student supports as a means of addressing these challenges. A few of the nation’s top charter networks, for example, have banded together to launch a campaign that aims to better support students after they leave high school. Higher education institutions are paying more attention to how best to support first-generation and low-income students. And businesses are partnering with schools and local governments to close the skills gap.

But there’s still plenty of work to be done—and plenty of room at the table for charters. In fact, the charter model is particularly conducive to the kinds of innovative approaches that could transform high school. For instance, in most states, charters aren’t bound by specific teacher licensure requirements. That gives school leaders the flexibility to hire staffers who have specific knowledge and skills but might not have the right kind of certification. And because charters are typically free from union contract mandates, they also have scheduling flexibility. Leaders can opt for longer school days and years, forgo traditional measurements of seat-time, or offer additional academic opportunities in the summer or on weekends. Although these would be key components of any type of innovative high school, there are two school models in particular that would especially benefit from these additional flexibilities: early college high schools and career and technical education (CTE) schools.

The former allow students to simultaneously earn their diploma and college credit. They share some similarities with dual-credit programs, but there are some major and important differences. Aside from amassing transferable college credits that will save students and their families thousands of dollars in the long run, these schools offer a host of additional built-in benefits, including teachers with high expectations, exposure to peers with similar aspirations, and a “safe” place to explore college-level material. Research shows that early college high school students are significantly more likely to enroll in post-secondary education and earn a degree than their peers, and that the model improves outcomes for first-generation students, low-income students, English language learners, and students of color. These results are the kind of success that charter leaders strive for, and scheduling flexibility would allow early college high schools to give students even more time to earn credits. (Check out DECA High for an example of what a high-performing early college charter high school can offer students.)

CTE schools, on the other hand, integrate traditional academic subjects that are aligned to a state’s standards with technical and job-specific skills, hands-on training, and real work experience. Although CTE has previously been labeled as “blue-collar stuff” best left for kids who aren’t on a college path, students in today’s programs earn industry-recognized credentials that place them in good-paying jobs and on the path toward earning associate and bachelor’s degrees. Research shows that students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages. Although there are already a few charter schools focused on CTE, there’s room for plenty more—especially since charters’ hiring flexibility would allow school leaders to hire industry professionals who otherwise wouldn’t be permitted to teach.

For fans of both models, there’s no need to pick just one. They could build on Robert Schwartz’s ideas and create a career-focused early college charter, for example. Such a school would offer students the best of both worlds—transferable college credit and job skills and training—and could follow in the footsteps of schools like P-TECH in New York City and Wake Early College in North Carolina.

Many states and traditional districts already operate early college high schools, CTE programs, or a combination of both. As always, charter advocates should consider current landscapes, needs, and partnership opportunities before rushing to create new schools. But the charter model’s innate flexibility, the positive results from early college and CTE models, and an increase in federal CSP funding should give charter advocates the push they need to start expanding their focus into newer, more innovative areas.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.