This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the 1991 introduction of charter schools in the United States. While the discourse surrounding charter schools has long been hotly debated and multifaceted, these past few years have produced conversations that were louder and more hostile. From the demographics of school and organizational leadership to the data on student retention and success, the discussion surrounding the successes and controversies of charter schools has not slowed down since they were introduced.
I am an alumna of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)—specifically, KIPP Diamond Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, which is one of the first charter schools in that city. About a decade after my first day at KIPP Diamond Academy, I graduated from college and started my very first job—working at the very school network where I was once a student, as a policy associate at the KIPP Foundation. The things I learned while at this job will always stick with me. For the two years I worked at the KIPP Foundation, I started and led coalitions, kick-started student and parent advocacy groups, and spent numerous hours advocating for funding from legislators. The experience taught me about our country’s education system, how charter schools fit in the equation, and who was driving and participating in most education policy conversations.
In this role, I was surrounded by people who prioritized alumni voices. I was able to play an integral role at the Foundation, contributing to organizational strategy and long-term success planning. I spent over a year in a bubble of bliss until I realized that the position that I was in was actually rare; and that the experience and recommendations of charter school alumni nationwide were either non-existent or reduced to what advocates would call trauma porn. I either heard from alums who loved their charter school and that’s all they ever talked about, or conversely, alums who hated their experience and would rather not even discuss it. Rarely did I notice a significant number of people acknowledge their nuanced experience then go on to provide recommendations for charter school leaders or policymakers. I questioned this, and very naively initially thought alumni needed to take initiative, recognize their power, and become speakers of their own reality. This was until I realized that structures were very much in place that would prevent individuals from doing so—unlike my experience at the Foundation, alumni were rarely considered experts at the table, and more often than not, were never even invited into the room.
There is no better group of stakeholders to lead improvements and innovation for policy than the people who lived the experience—the people whose lives would have been changed, whether marginally or significantly, by such changes.
In an effort to address this major gap between who is shaping policy and who is impacted by it, I launched a national anonymous survey for charter school alumni, asking about their experiences and their recommendations for improvements. I reached out to charter school networks, advocates, researchers, supporters, opponents, parents, students, and communities to conduct outreach. The compiled survey asked about their school choice, their experiences, and the impact these experiences had. I read through hundreds of responses on a variety of issues and after a lengthy verification process, Next100 ended up with 315 verified responses, from a diverse group of charter school alumni from around the country. My findings from both qualitative and quantitative data from alumni proved something education advocates—and charter school students and alumni—have known for a long time: it’s complicated.
My findings from both qualitative and quantitative data from alumni proved something education advocates—and charter school students and alumni—have known for a long time: it’s complicated.
In order to ensure results that painted a nuanced picture of respondents’ experiences and recommendations, we collected both quantitative data and qualitative data. The survey therefore consisted of multiple choice, dropdown, and short answer questions. The survey questions and the distribution of the survey itself were all administered by Next100 through the Typeform platform. We asked a total of twenty-six questions—fourteen quantitative and twelve qualitative.
We announced the survey and the general project via the Next100 website, social media amplification, and by contacting individual networks. The survey opened on July 13, 2020 and remained open for two weeks, until July 27, 2020. In an effort to recognize each person’s time and participation, we offered $15 virtual gift cards to each respondent. We encouraged contacts to send the survey to their networks and asked charter school networks to forward to their alumni. Likely because the survey was both open to the public and offered financial compensation, we received a lot of spam, fake, and duplicate responses. In an effort to ensure respondents were both real people and charter school alumni, Roquel Crutcher, Next100 policy entrepreneur, and Daniel Edelman, Next100 associate director, underwent a lengthy verification process (outlined below). This verification process ultimately reduced the size of the sample from 749 to 315.
In terms of reviewing results, we analyzed all results disaggregated by race, location, and age; but where there were not substantial differences between groups, we did not include the information below.
Demographics of Respondents
Our respondents were all charter school alumni, defined as previous attendees of a charter school, for either elementary, middle, or high school. In an effort to gather and validate complete representation, when assessing the demographics of alumni, we allowed all respondents to self-identify, rather than choosing from limited multiple choice answers, and to be completely open-ended in their responses. This allowed for a lot of flexibility, and for respondents to share their true self when answering questions in terms of their race/ethnicity, age, type of school, and location. However, we did have to do some categorization in terms of coding respondents’ answers to synthesize and analyze the data. Below are explanations for the categorizations we made.
Age of Respondents
Over 80 percent of all respondents were between the ages of 17 and 23 years old, with the most common age being 18 years old. After age 24, overall numbers of alumni respondents decreased tremendously, showing a particular urgency in alumni who have just finished high school, are in college, or have just finished college. We had a total of forty alumni, or 19 percent of respondents, who were over age 24.
Race/Ethnicity of Respondents
Participants self-identified their races in many ways; for the sake of reporting, we’ve categorized self-identified races and ethnicities into six categories:
- Black: People who self-identified as African, Caribbean, African-American, or Afro-Latinx. Twenty-nine percent of respondents identified as Black.
- Indigenous: People who self-identified as Indigenous or Native American. One percent of respondents identified as Indigenous.
- Latinx/Hispanic: People who self-identified as Mexican, Puerto-Rican, Hispanic, or Latina/Latino/Latinx. Fifty-nine percent of respondents identified as Latinx/Hispanic.
- Asian: People who self-identified as Asian, Chinese, or Japanese. Three percent identified as Asian.
- White: People who self-identified as White. Five percent of respondents identified as White.
- Multiracial: People who self-identified as either two or more of the above races/ethnicities, biracial or multiracial. Two percent of respondents identified as multiracial.
Overall, respondents attended a variety of different types of charter schools. The experiences for charter school students and alumni greatly vary depending on multiple factors. Considering leadership demographics, community engagement, and amount of time operating, the type of school attended could make the world of a difference. As a result, we’ve categorized the type of school attended into three groups based primarily on size:
- Large, multi-state charters: These charter school systems are networks of over ten charter schools, and typically span multiple localities or states. Large charters usually have capacity to create leadership teams outside of schools. These networks are sometimes identified as charter management organizations (CMOs).
- Mid-size charters: These charter school systems consist of over three schools, and typically within a single state.
- Small charter/mom and pop: These charter school systems consist of just one to three schools.
About 85 percent of respondents were from a large charter, which I believe is in part due to significant outreach among such organizations to their alumni. Because of the pandemic, we leaned heavily on both the internet and personal networks to distribute our survey. Large charters not only have influential platforms with significant followings; they’re also most likely to have alumni groups and listservs, making it easier to conduct outreach.
Geographic Location of Respondents
Most respondents to the survey were alums of large charters, and most were located in the places where these schools are situated. Chicago and New York City together brought in the highest percentage of respondents—25 percent—due to large numbers of respondents from KIPP and Noble Network of Charter Schools. Twenty-five percent of respondents were from Texas, with 16 percent from Rio Grande Valley (IDEA), and 7 percent from Houston and Rochester (KIPP, IDEA, and Rochester Academy), respectively.
In putting together the survey, we were interested in getting alumni perspectives on why they and their families selected their charter schools, the experiences they had at their schools, and the experiences they have had since. We decided to ask pointed questions and allow for both closed and open-ended responses. This allowed us to get specific answers to our questions and also more detailed stories and context to inform recommendations.
The first question most people usually ask charter school alumni or parents is: Why? Researching a charter school or submitting an application for a lottery is energy a parent doesn’t have to expend to enroll their child in school. Public school districts are theoretically set up to make attending school simple—enroll in the school closest to your home and send your child there. You are promised a slot. So why go through the charter school process instead?
We offered respondents six choices to explain why they and their family ultimately chose their charter school: location, curriculum, programmatic structure, quality, safety, and discipline, as well as an open-ended category. With this question and many others, we allowed everyone to choose as many of the provided reasons as they wanted, in recognition that often, these decisions are multi-faceted. Though the numbers were steady across the board, the top three responses were quality (59 percent), curriculum (56 percent), and discipline (50 percent).
Interestingly, those top three categories that recipients selected in answering this question of “Why?” are arguably the most controversial topics when discussing charter schools. As opposed to most district schools, charter schools have the flexibility to create and identify their own curricula. Charters can also create their own discipline practices and policies. Flexibility is one of the core tenets of charter schools, but has also been the source of controversy. Based on our results, one can conclude that parents and students are choosing charter schools for their perception of their quality and innovation, their flexibility with curricula, and the practices that these schools provide in these areas.
We also asked alumni about their overall experiences at their charter schools. Sixty-four percent of respondents said their experience was “mostly positive” and 28 percent responded “somewhat positive.” Just 6 percent of respondents deemed their experience “somewhat negative,” and around 2 percent of respondents said their experience was “mostly negative.” In other words, the vast majority of alumni responding to this survey reflected on a fairly positive charter school experience.
Because charter schools are frequently compared to district schools, we asked alumni if this experience felt “different” than their neighborhood school, whether a school they attended before or a school a sibling attended. Seventy-eight percent of alumni said their school was different; 73 percent mentioned this difference was either mostly or somewhat positive. In a recollection of experience, one alumni stated, “My experience was great because when I first entered my first charter school, I was behind several grades and was severely academically challenged. The public school system failed me, but charter schools lifted me up and helped me to exceed my grade average.” On the flip side, one alumni stated, “I think charter schools should be more transparent about their policies from the beginning. Having schools run like businesses leads to a lot of issues with accountability.” Our results also demonstrated that there are alumni who believe their charter school directly influenced their short-term opportunities and long-term successes. Over 80 percent of alumni stated their school stayed in contact with them after they left their school to stay updated and provide resources.
We asked alumni if they could change their decision, would they have attended a different school. Seventy-three percent said they would not, 11 percent said they would, and 16 percent said they were not sure. In response to another question, 73 percent of respondents said the difference between their school versus a district school was a positive one, showing that the vast majority of the respondents to the survey felt that whatever the challenges, they are grateful for their experience. At the same time, alumni were clear that they wanted to make their schools better in any way they can. And there are also alumni who believe there were deep rooted issues in their charter schools and that these schools should be held accountable. Alumni gave narratives and called for a change, which we highlight in our recommendations below.
Discipline is one of the most hot button topics surrounding charter schools. There tends to be more flexibility at charter schools; there is also a lot of push back on practices, which we heard in our survey.
Only about half—48 percent—of alumni believe the discipline practices at their school were fair, with the other 52 percent believing practices were either not fair or some variation of this sentiment. The difference in opinion when it comes to discipline practices varied by age, with 89 percent of alumni over the age of 25 who now believe discipline practices were fair as opposed to almost 80 percent of alumni under the age of 25 who believe practices were unfair.
One interpretation of these results is that older alumni tend to look back on experiences and believe a tough love approach is warranted, while younger alumni with fresher memories may see such discipline practices as excessive. Alternatively, it is possible that perceptions of what is appropriate in terms of discipline have changed over time, with older individuals having different expectations than they may have had when they were younger. For example, an alumnus in their late 20s shared, “I believe that discipline practices in the school should be a lot stricter than what they are because I believe discipline is what helps shape a person into doing the right things in life.” On the other hand, one respondent recommended “Straying away from punishment and focusing more on how to deal with situations in a healthier way would be so much better for the students not just for when incidents happen but for long term reasons as well.”
When asked about personal experiences with discipline practices, 58 percent of alumni said they don’t believe they were disciplined unfairly in comparison, to 27 percent of respondents who said they were, and 14 percent said they were unsure. So while over half of respondents believe discipline practices were unfair, the majority of respondents don’t recall personally being disciplined unfairly.
Alumni gave very specific examples of what they considered unfair discipline practices, such as the following:
The practice of requiring uniforms is damaging to lower-income families and the strict guidance has resulted in some questionable practices. Some students have reported requests for students to apply sharpie to their shoes to make them all black, and others have been forced to wear socks all day or go home and miss instruction…There are initiatives like keeping spare uniform pieces in the nurse[‘s] office or offering hand me down programs but all of this is a band aid of the larger issue that keeping a brand takes priority over family needs.
Another alum gave multiple examples of such practices:
We are always monitored. They check lockers without us knowing. They do random classroom checks. They have to know who’s in the bathroom. You’ll get in trouble if you just stand up. You can’t have a hair tie on your wrist. You have to do homework or else you’ll stay after school for a long period of time depending on day. You can easily get a detention. If you slouch, you’ll get a demerit. If you put you[r] hand on your face, you’ll get a demerit. If you wear a coat inside the building, you’ll get a demerit. My encounter with [the disciplinary system] was in freshman year when I was wearing small hoop earrings. The disciplinary took out a quarter to measure if it’s not big enough to earn a demerit. I thought it was ridiculous, that was a rule.
Discipline was clearly a tough topic for all parties involved, but alumni were clear that they wanted fair practices; they gave specific recommendations for schools, including requiring student input on policies and practices. One respondent said:
I would recommend disciplinarians to actually take the time to sit down with students and figure out why students’ behavior is the way it is instead of scolding them or in a way threatening them with more demerits/consequences. I would think 9/10 [times] if a student is getting into constant trouble, the student is either going through something at home or has personal issues in which [they] would need help from social workers or psychologists. If disciplinarians think it’s something to deal with personal or behavioral issues that they cannot handle, they should have students speak to social workers. However in order to do that, schools need to have more than just two social workers. Overall, these disciplinarians/teachers need to be trained better and take that extra step of listening to what’s going on with students who are in constant trouble and stop giving unnecessary demerits.
Alongside discipline is the issue of the demographics of teachers and leaders. The correlations between the race of teachers and discipline practices have been researched for decades, showing that where there is teacher diversity and students see themselves in the classroom, they perform better and have better social emotional development. While researchers have been studying this issue, alumni gave direct experiences that mirror this research, and make the case for more diversity amongst educators. One respondent said:
I was in a school with people who identified similarly to me, as BIPOC, but did not see that reflected in the staff or in the policies. Additionally, so many of the policies and just the way the [redacted] system worked directly targeted women, black and brown students of color, and non-binary students. And it took years and a public article on the superintendent [name redacted] for changes to FINALLY be made. I was a student who did well at my charter, but that spoke more to my ability to conform than how well [name redacted] did in supporting students.
Charter schools are no exception to the broader conversation surrounding teacher and leadership diversity. There is a consistent clear connection made between teacher diversity and the comfort and success of students. Charter schools have more flexibility than others to create programs, target communities for recruitment, hire diverse faculty/staff, and provide training to teachers in order to ensure diversity and culturally responsive teaching. Alumni notice this flexibility, and in this survey, they asked for more from their schools.
Postsecondary and Alumni Support
After successfully completing their program, charter school students are often told they will have additional support to continue either postsecondary education or career support. Because of the flexibility in programming, schools often have the ability to create and enrich programs that center their students. Networks like KIPP, IDEA, and Noble are well known for college counseling programs—all of which support their students after graduation. Eighty-three percent of all respondents noted that their schools stayed in contact with them and/or helped after their departure. Forty-eight percent of respondents said their school was somewhat helpful to their success, with 30 percent of that group going further to say that their charter school was the most helpful entity compared to any other entity in their lives.
At the same time, alumni asked for more support with a range of post-secondary opportunities. Charter schools tend to push for their students to attend college—and while college can be the right choice for many students, it is also true that Black students in particular are burdened the most from student debt, and that attending college without completing a degree can lead to some very challenging debt situations. While most of the alumni indicated that they appreciate every amount of support they receive from their schools, they also understand that in order for this goal to be realistic long-term, there has to be more thought given to what is right for students and financial constraints. One respondent made this clear by stating:
There needs to be a conversation on how to increase support post graduation and creating financial opportunities for college students so that they can graduate from college with lower amounts of loans. Also encourage students to apply for graduate school and work to be individuals who are making decisions in the political realm.
The Post-Experience Impact
Charter schools disproportionately serve students of color, which is sometimes a choice made by charter school leadership. Students from any type of school typically have a moment after leaving when they realize their experience was a unique one, with 78 percent feeling that their charter school was different from their neighborhood district school. Because parents and students have to make a choice to enroll in charter schools, this realization is reflective of that. Alumni highlighted this, including in the following response:
My view on education changed and I started to understand the importance of education, not just for all people but especially for people of color. When I started to examine how the school system in predominantly white neighborhoods looked, compared to how they looked in neighborhoods of people of color, I began to value education. I started to believe that through education, it would empower me to be something great! I started to understand that education is not the same for all people, because children of color are not getting the quality of education that other children are receiving.
Simply put, students of color need that extra support, and they need this support due to the fact that they were born into an unfair system. Ninety-five percent of all survey respondents were of color—and given that the majority of alumni reported positive experiences, they believe their schools tried to cater to their unique community.
We believe a strong measure of how much someone liked their school is whether or not they would send their own child there. We therefore asked alumni if they would enroll their child in their charter school. Sixty-seven percent said they would enroll their child in their school, 13 percent said they would not, and 20 percent said they are not sure right now. With over half of alumni stating they would put their child through a similar educational experience to their own, they should have a meaningful impact on any changes in charter schools moving forward.
Overall, the majority of the alumni in the survey made it clear that their experiences at their charter schools were positive, and ultimately they would recommend their schools. Along the way, practices were put in place—particularly around disciplinary practices—that they would want to change, but ultimately, the majority of respondents would not choose a different path if they were given the opportunity.
The primary reason for starting this project was to address the perceived issue that alumni’s voices were not being centered and prioritized in conversations surrounding charter schools. We asked alumni about this: Whether they felt their voices were being heard in national conversations surrounding charter schools. Their responses were fairly equally split: 50 percent said no, and 50 percent said yes. While we had originally expected that a higher percentage of alumni would feel excluded from these conversations, it is significant that half of alumni don’t feel heard in a conversation that is fundamentally about their experience—and is one of the most heated conversations in educational equity today.
That half of alumni do feel heard and that alumni were split in answering this question makes clear another significant and broader finding from this survey: charter school alumni are not a monolith. That fact alone proves that conversations must include and prioritize them. Unless we understand the complexities of every issue from those who are actually impacted, we won’t be able to make the best policy or strategic decisions.
Charter school alumni are not a monolith.
Ultimately, there should be no reason why decisions, whether around policy, practice or strategy, should ever be made without the consultation and perspective of the people most impacted. In the case of charter schools, it is entirely possible to create structures that make alumni voice critical and permanent—as is evidenced by the half of our respondents that already feel their voices are prioritized in policy discussions. Whether through board seats, advisory councils, staff, or mentorship programs, charters have the ability to empower, listen to and amplify alumni voices—and they absolutely should. Alumni voices will make these conversations—and these schools—more effective.
In that vein, this survey has indicated that while alumni overall express satisfaction with their educational experiences, they also point out obvious inequities. Alumni vocalized that they were content with not attending a district school, but they also point out pain points in attending a charter school. There are both positives and negatives; things to keep and things to change. We asked hundreds of alumni what they’d recommend for the effectiveness of charter schools. Below are a consolidated list of recommendations from alumni, by alumni, for their charter schools:
- Alumni voice: CMOs and individual schools must prioritize alumni seats on decision making groups, like boards of directors. Charter schools should add one alum for every five members on a board of directors. All administrators, leaders, and teachers should become advocates for alumni inclusion.
- Discipline: Discipline practices at charter schools must be culturally competent, fair, and restorative. Individual schools need an annual review process for rules and discipline practices that include both a current student and an alum. Practices must:
- Move away from prioritizing punishment and instead prioritize healing, understanding, and fixing;
- Consider consequences that fit actions, and not a blanket system that may not distinguish circumstances that require extra attention. For example, a uniform violation that may be as a result of circumstances should not have the same punishment as an offense that is more harmful to the school culture or learning.
- Educator Diversity: Prioritize both finding educators that mirror the community’s demographic makeup and providing culturally competent training for all teachers regardless of their race and ethnicity.
- Student supports: School leadership must prioritize and provide mental health support as a response to issues. Networks, CMOs, and individual schools must increase student access to nurses and social workers.
- Homework: Teachers should be encouraged to decrease homework load and ensure instead an understanding of the work and value to overall learning.
- Curriculum: Schools should use their flexibility to focus on utilizing instructional materials that match the cultural, racial, and ethnic background of the students they serve. Curricula should include more Latinx authors, more Black culture, and more Indigenous teachings.
- Zoom Out of Test Prep Focus: School leaders must allow teachers to cut back on the time spent on strict assessment prep so that they can instead ensure students are learning skills that are needed for life beyond test prep.
- Extracurricular and Enrichment: Prioritize the parts of school beyond academics that highlight social development, such as sports, arts, and meditation.
- Enrollment: Create an enrollment system that is 100 percent fair—if a school is using a lottery system with a sibling preference, clearly lay out what the siblings policy is and stick to it.
In addition to identifying survey respondents’ recommendations for schools, as a charter school alum myself, I am also including my own recommendations for policymakers at various levels, some of which I’ve previously written about:
- Include alumni feedback in charter reauthorization decisions: Generally, charter schools are required to provide an annual report to their authorizers. Going forward, authorizers should require charters to include a section in each annual report that centers alumni voice, experience, and recommendations for the next year in order to receive authorization. This would ensure schools are gaining insight to their policies and practices from the perspective of former students.
- Provide mental health support to students and prioritize mental health support in discipline: State and federal funds exist for schools and networks to provide different types of non-academic student support. They are not enough. Policymakers should allocate more funds to schools so that they have the resources to provide mental health support. So many alumni in the survey spoke about the need for discipline to not only feel punitive, but include mental health support. Funds that directly support mental health could help address student needs in this and other ways.
- Increase diversity on charter school boards: The Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) is a federal program that distributes funds to new and existing high performing charter schools. Charter schools receiving funds under this program must abide by CSP policies. In order to push for community involvement and equity, the federal government should require in CSP that the demographics of leaders and boards of charter schools actually reflect the communities they serve. Additionally, at the state level, authorizers—who give charter schools their authorization to operate—should not approve a charter if it has not built a diverse board that reflects the communities.
- Restrict enrollment practices that harm the community: CSP also requires schools to report on data about school performance. To address the growing concerns of who charter schools serve, CSP should require charter schools that receive funds to report on enrollment and retention of all students by student group (race, age, disability status, etc), and restrict or deny CSP funding to charters that cherry pick easy-to-serve students or expel students who are harder to serve. Schools and networks that follow this practice could again be restricted by states and authorizers, making it impossible to receive federal funding.
While charter schools have more flexibility and innovation, district schools also serve disadvantaged students. As we consider the right policies, practices, accountability and student support for charter schools, we must be clear that any and all requirements and measurements of charter schools must mirror those of district schools. All children—regardless of the schools they attend—deserve well-vetted, supportive classrooms, culture, educators, and leaders.
The largest lesson here is that this conversation isn’t simple. Where charter schools have flexibility, district schools tend to be limited. Where district schools have support, charter schools have the ability to innovate. In each, alumni voices should be centered. This project was proof that alumni want their voices to be heard, and many are working to achieve this reality. The conversation around charter schools, innovation in schools and defying our traditional model isn’t simple. However, our best chance at navigating its complexities is centering the voices of the people most impacted in the policy discourse: students and alumni.