A weekend interview with Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA
Jonathan Hage runs one of Florida's largest charter school chains. He also sat on Gov. Rick Scott's education transition team when Scott took office. Hage influenced changes in Florida charter school law that passed through the state Legislature in the spring, and he continues to push for additional revisions to both law and funding formulas for charters. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about Florida charter school law, the role of charters in the state, and the future of charter schools.
I'd like to start off by asking what you think about the Legislature this year and where they went with the laws and the financing of charter schools.
Well we made some real improvements. They passed two big pieces ... that were very pro. One was the high-performing charter schools bill that made it much easier to replicate the highest performing schools and give them the opportunity to scale and replicate themselves. And the second thing they did is they ensured that the capital outlay for charter schools stayed relatively the same as it was in the past even though the per-student amount has gone down because so many new students have come into the pool. ...
The challenge during the session was that the FTE cuts that were close to 8 percent were disproportionately placed on charter schools because we don't have the offsets that school districts have such as requiring teachers to start paying a portion of their pension in the FRS. That was part of the model in the package for traditional schools. Charter schools for the most part don't participate in that. So they didn't have the offsets that made the potential cuts not quite as heavy for the traditional public schools. The charter public schools saw the full cut, because we're primarily funded by state funding. We don't receive any of the local money.
Did you try to make a pitch for a change on that?
We worked on it. I had some traction. I talked to folks. I know some others did. There is, I think, a couple of problems. One is, there's this overall issue which is that charter schools historically have not received this overall local funding for their facilities. They have some startup grant money that they get, if they are competitive. Not every school gets it. And they get some what they call state funding, charter school capital outlay dollars, which they get after the fourth year. But that amount is combined. It's relatively small compared to traditional schools. A good number is that the average public school student in Florida, with combined federal, state and local funds, is getting about $10,000 per student station, all in. In a public charter school, we're receiving just over $6,000 for that same student. And of course those parents pay tax dollars as well. So we're starting off with a lower starting point. That really is the fundamental issue.
We believe they're starting to be more and more understanding that charter schools do receive less money. And even though there has been this concept that charter schools should do more for less, the question is, how much less -- especially when there are major cuts under way. We are trying to make the case that charter schools should be funded at a more equitable level, and then we wouldn't have any complaints about having equal cuts with everybody else. We believe that charter schools should not get as much per kid as other schools, because we like the idea that we're being more efficient, more frugal. But 30 to 40 percent less is too much of a difference.
Some people would say you don't have a lot of the restrictions that the other public schools have, so you have it easier. You are able to get away with doing things differently, so maybe you don't need as much. ...
Yeah. I think there is some truth to that, to the extent that you look at the actual expenses. There is a general argument, and let's look at the reality of it. Over the past 15 years, charter schools have become more and more regulated, just like public schools. If you look at the legislation that has been passed each year, they have included us in FCAT. They have included us in class size at level 2, even though we're not at level 3. They have included us in all of the teacher requirements for certified teachers. They have included us in the reading, writing, even science scores. They have included us in many of the things for traditional schools. So that argument has lost a lot of its merit because what has happened over time is, there has been a regulatory reloading on charter schools to make them more and more like the traditional schools systems. And the freedoms that we once had, have been limited.
Let me give you an example. Class size was a big debate about should charter schools meet class size for level 3 or level 2. Well, for the last six years that there has been funding for class size from the Legislature, albeit probably not sufficiently, there has not been funding for public charter schools for their construction and their building. Only for their teachers to add to what was the average for the school size. Where a public school might be able to add additional classrooms, transfer kids to not as fully filled schools where they had room, etc. The charter school doesn't have that flexibility because we didn't have the money to build the additional classrooms. So we only got half of the dollars. ... Now we get this complaint, you only have to do level 2 and we have to do level 3. Well, we have always said if you fund us, then we'll comply. That's the same things with most of these issues. The one area where that argument has some merit is in the construction of the facility. The school districts have to meet ... a state code which is more restrictive and more expensive than what is required to build a charter school.
We don't believe that we should receive all of the same funding that a traditional school receives for a building that doesn't cost as much. And we're not asking for that. But we do believe that the public charter schools that have proven themselves to be successful, that have a long term lease or a bond that they have to pay for their buildings on, that they should receive comparable funds for the costs of those buildings so they are serving those students in a high-quality building and not just a storefront. ... These parents expect the schools to be high quality just like they would if they were sitting in a traditional public school.
A lot of people say, critics mostly, that charter schools are simply private schools paid for with public money, that you all don't face the same problems -- even the selection of students, although I know there are lotteries. But I hear that. People believe that. How do you counter these arguments or how do you respond to them?
Yeah. The debate has become polarized around assumptions that unfortunately don't have a lot of fact behind them. SO here's a couple of facts that can be verified and we can document. One is that charter schools don't select their students. By the law we must have an open enrollment process. Anyone can apply. And the process when we have more applicants than seats is a lottery without preferences, except for those preferences where siblings or military families, which aren't different from other schools. We don't cream kids. In fact, more and more what has happened over the last 10 years, based on DOE data, is that charter schools are serving a greater percentage of minority students, that we're serving more and more students with special needs. In fact, you'll see more charter schools opening up for kids with autism, kids with severe disabilities. And the reason is, you go back to the culture. The charter school was built around a small learning culture with a board that is individual for the school and a focus on the students. They wouldn't have been created or even exist if they weren't successful. ...
I like the idea that charter schools are accountable, that they succeed by performing with their students, and they get shut down if they don't. So it's just not factually correct to say charter schools cream schools or take the best. ... Charter schools are meeting a need. And not all charter schools, and I'm not going to make a case for this, are doing a great job nor should they all be looked at the equally. One of the problems is, when there's a poor performing charter school it gets the front page ... and everybody looks at it and goes, Oh, that's charter schools in general. What people don't realize is, just like in traditional schools, there's a vast array of difference.
I've seen two different types of failures in charter schools. One is the financial failure. ... The other side of that is the academically failing charter schools. ...
Here's the thing. Nationally, the statistics show that the first reason that charter schools fail, actually, is financial. The second reason is academic. That's interesting, because you would think it would be academic first. I think that is because educators that traditionally start charter schools are well intended but not necessarily expert on the financial issues ... and running what is a multimillion-dollar business. The second area of academics. ... Not everyone who starts a charter school should be running one, and not all of them are successful. There is some of that innovation and experimentation that has gone on in the charter school world over the past 15 years. Some of that is good, because it has helped us, the entire school system, improve. ... But on the other hand, I think it is time for charter schools to elevate to the next level. I think that is why the Legislative session was important, with the high performing charter school bill. The concept was that it's no longer acceptable just to be a charter school. That's not good enough. Now we want to take the best charter schools, like you saw in the documentary Waiting for Superman ... Those top schools, just like the top magnet schools and the top private schools, are the ones we want to start replicating across the board and try to find ways to create more of those and shut down the poor performers.
With the extended contracts, doesn't that make it so the charter schools then have less responsibility to the school districts in which they are operating? That's what district people seem to believe.
They think that. But here's the reality. They know they have the right under the law, even with the high-performing charter schools, to shut them down if they don't meet the contractual obligations any given year. Charter contracts are not a guarantee of operation for 15 years. They are only an opportunity to perform for 15 years so they can go out to get leases and financing to build schools like traditional public schools do. ... Here they start out with less money, they're supposed to go out and get a building that meets at least state building standards. And yet they don't have the ability to finance. It kind of puts them in a Catch-22. They don't have the funding and they don't have the position to go out to the market. ... If they don't perform, they can lose their high-performing charter school status and they can actually be shut down. That's still a higher standard than traditional public schools meet. It's still lower funding, and we're accountable to a level that other schools aren't in that parents still have to choose to come to our school, they can leave if they don't like it, and we can be shut down if we're not performing. To me, that's a good public policy. ... Yes, there's definitely complaints about charter schools. I find they come in two categories. One is from those who are sort of envious of our freedom, or the flexibility they have. ... And secondly those that don't understand still that charter schools are challenging themselves with the issues that traditional schools are, that they are public schools, that they accept all kids and that at the end of the day they can be held to this accountability standard that most schools aren't held to.
The issue of the small vs. large often comes up. You as a larger group can have efficiencies you can build in. But that somehow seems to fall outside of what was the original idea of local people coming together and forming a school for local needs. How do you say this isn't just becoming a big business?
That's a fair point. Because there is an evolution. It definitely has evolved in ways that no one including myself who were in it from the beginning [expected]. I think the evolution is different but not necessarily bad or good. The difference is that the local field of charter schools is still the heartbeat of why they exist. They have this very localized effort with parents, teachers, instructional models. They all have what is the custom need of that community in mind. If they don't do that they are not successful. I don't think anyone is going to end up going to a Walmart for charter schools. On the other hand, there definitely has been some evolution toward organizations like mine and others who had to design our schools' back end office, support and systems and technology and other things we put in these schools in the most cost-efficient manner, because we don't get as much funds. We're finding ways to be innovative, and just like any other area in American life there is benefits to scale in creating something that can be applied to many different schools. It's a good thing. School districts have benefited forever, quite frankly, from their scale. But they have also suffered from scale when they get too big. So I think there is a good balance. ...
Do you find when there are lots of stories about, say, Imagine, all over the country that are critical of their model and things of that nature, does that hurt the general overall effort of charter schools?
I think what you find is that it works when they don't necessarily get the next charter application or the approval. I am not speaking just specifically of Imagine, but of anyone. If their track record gets sullied or if there is a reputation that goes with them that they are not performing, then these districts share the information and in the next time they go in, they won't get approved. I think this is another reason why the high performing charter school bill is good. Because if you are not a high performing charter school, now the districts have some measurement. They didn't have anything before. You could have come in and had a track record that was pretty poor, and we could have come in with a track record that was pretty good, and we would have been treated the same way as someone who had a poor performance records. Now districts will be able to say, Hey, they're high performing, you're not and we're not going to approve you. ...
Will that hurt newcomers?
It only hurts them if they don't have the ability to show that they've either done it before or that they are willing to live by a standard where they are willing to earn a high performing status. They still have the ability to get in. Look, it's not as if we haven't got 15 years of experience now to see what is working and what's not. At what point do you say within a movement, it's not just all startups anymore. We need to understand there's some success, there's some research out there that is proven. Let's take that research and scale that. Let's not just say every single charter that comes in, whether you've been performing for ten years successfully or you're a startup with a good idea, that you're treated the same way. That was the intent behind the law as I saw it evolving and why we supported it. ...
I know you served on the governor's transition team. Do you know of anything coming down the pike as far as charter schools for the coming year, something that didn't get done that you still see as needing to get done?
I think the big issue that has to still be discussed ... is what is the appropriate funding level for charter schools as compared to traditional schools. My position on that and my advice is that charter schools should receive less, but not disproportionately less than their cost. One of the reasons I mentioned earlier that charter schools fail is economics. Some of that economics is a lack of experience. Some of it is, quite frankly, a lack of money to pay for the program that the school is running. They're a small school with maybe 200 kids, and they can't afford the overhead. ... We're looking at that.
I think our advice would also be to ensure that the high performing charter school law has its real, intended effect of making sure that good schools get replicated, that those who haven't earned it have a good chance, but that the bar is high. And that, quite frankly, something that is missing in this debate that I support is, we need to help school districts run down and shut down low performers. It's time for the charter school community itself to self regulate, to stand up even against our friends and say, Hey, if you're not doing a great job after a few years and you've been given that opportunity and support, then you know what? You're probably in the wrong business. You need to find some other business to be in because these are kids lives. We don't have the opportunity to get it right after we fail them. ....