NEW YORK — When the charter school movement first burst on to the scene, its founders pledged to transform big urban school districts by offering low-income and minority families something they believed was missing: safe, orderly schools with rigorous academics.
But now, several decades later, as the movement has expanded, questions about whether its leaders were fulfilling their original promise to educate vulnerable children better than neighborhood public schools have mounted.
When Richard Buery took over last year as the head of policy at KIPP, the nation’s largest charter network (including six schools in Philadelphia), he began to ask the same questions.
He was used to challenging charter schools after years as a top deputy to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is skeptical of the schools.
Buery, who is Black and grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, noticed that Black and Hispanic students in KIPP schools were sometimes being disciplined too harshly by their white teachers. The network’s high schools had impressive academic results and graduation rates, but their students then struggled in college. And KIPP executives’ relationships with elected officials were fraying.
In response, Buery adopted an unusual strategy: He publicly declared that some of the criticism of KIPP — and the charter movement in general — was merited and announced that KIPP needed to change for it to continue to thrive.
Buery is part of a growing number of charter school executives to acknowledge shortcomings in their schools — partly in an effort to recast their tarnished image and to counteract a growing backlash that threatens the schools’ ability to influence American public education.
Charters schools now serve about 3 million children across the country and have their ardent supporters. But other parents, teachers and students have increasingly voiced frustration with charters, and their protests have been seized by the progressive Democratic politicians who are ascendant in New York and other states.
“The stereotypes of the sector — there’s a reality behind them,” Buery said, referring to criticism of how charters handle discipline, race and politics. “It’s up to us to demonstrate, visibly, that we are better than the stereotype and striving to be better than what we are.”
KIPP’s internal reckoning has coincided with a moment in which New York’s elected officials and Democratic presidential candidates have turned decisively away from the charter movement. Both groups are eager to please their allies in teachers unions, which have consolidated power over the last year.
It remains to be seen whether charters’ attempts to change will be abandoned when the politics shift or whether the new direction will come to redefine the movement.
But as New York’s charters are buffeted by fresh criticism, even the schools’ leaders are broadcasting their mistakes.
Steven Wilson, chief executive of a Brooklyn-based charter school network, Ascend, scrapped his charters’ rigid approach to discipline after he realized his schools were full of unhappy students and tense teachers. “We wanted to blow all that up,” he said. “We wanted to hear students talking, exchanging ideas, taking intellectual risks. And that was largely absent.”
“We need to get our own house stronger and better,” said Doug McCurry, a chief executive at Achievement First, which opened a Brooklyn charter school exclusively for students with disabilities in 2017. The network, McCurry said, cannot be a legitimate alternative to traditional public schools unless it serves all students, including children with special needs.
New York is home to a diverse group of charter leaders, not all of whom agree that changing course is the right way to handle internal criticism and political pressure.
Eva Moskowitz, who runs the city’s largest charter network, Success Academy, has held fast to a model that relies in part on discipline and compliance. That approach has led to extremely high test scores and national accolades — alongside pushback from some families and staff members.
“We listen to our parents, and they overwhelmingly support the high standards we set for student conduct,” said Ann Powell, a spokeswoman for Success. Many of New York’s charter networks, including Success, have long waiting lists of parents eager for a seat for their children.
Eventually, Moskowitz and some other charter school leaders believe, the political pendulum will swing back.
KIPP is still forging ahead with changes — despite, not because of, political headwinds, Buery said.
“I’d hate for anyone to think we’re doing it because of a reaction,” he said. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing.”
The college graduation rate for KIPP alumni is about 35%, above the national average for low-income students but not nearly as high as its founders had envisioned. After years of attempts to help KIPP alumni graduate, the network is proposing new solutions, which it hopes other schools will emulate.
The network has also recently challenged President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, perhaps the nation’s most prominent charter supporter, for reversing an Obama-era policy aimed at reducing racial disparities in discipline.
So far, New York’s progressive politicians seem unconvinced.
“Entreaties by charters to reform themselves are welcome, but I really think reform has to come from the outside,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who introduced a bill this year that would limit public funding for charters and require the schools to enroll more students with disabilities and children learning English.
“We haven’t seen any of the results of those reforms yet,” he added.
But educators at charter schools say the proof is in the classroom.
“It’s not every day you see a principal who looks like me,” said Brandi Vardiman, principal of KIPP STAR, a Harlem elementary school, on a recent morning as she passed pictures of students and teachers in Black Lives Matter shirts. About 70% of STAR’s staff is Black or Hispanic, one of the highest rates of KIPP’s 13 New York schools.
Buery is part of a push to reverse the norm of mostly Black and Hispanic charters in New York being staffed mainly by white teachers. Studies have found that Black students who have even one Black teacher are more likely to go to college than Black students who do not. KIPP hired a chief diversity officer to promote “anti-racist practices.”
Vardiman created a class for students to learn about the Harlem Renaissance and the effects of gentrification on the neighborhood. She rephrased word problems in math classes: “Instead of, ‘Sally went to the store to buy five apples’, it might be instead, ‘Maria went to the bodega to get three avocados.’ ”
After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, Vardiman held an assembly so kindergarten and first-grade students could discuss the shooting on the first day of school.
“It was like, ‘Are we just supposed to ignore this?’ ” she thought.
In Bushwick, Brooklyn, Wilson, of Ascend, walked through one of his network’s schools and remembered when all its classrooms featured a seemingly innocuous but widely feared piece of paper: a green, yellow and red poster resembling a traffic light.
A clip with every student’s name on it would be placed on green at the beginning of the day, to denote good behavior. But if a child called out an answer without raising a hand or fidgeted in their seat, for example, their clip would be moved to yellow, then red.
Ascend, like most charter school networks, embraced a strict set of discipline policies known as “no excuses,” which is based on the idea that punishing minor issues will prevent bigger problems. It wasn’t working.
“The conversation in the bustle of the kids leaving was, ‘What color were you on today?’ ” Wilson said. “Not what did you learn, or what excited you, or what did you discover? We thought this was just tremendously sad.”
Ascend jettisoned its discipline code in 2013. Suspensions for elementary school students have since plummeted by 40% while test scores have risen by about 35 percentage points in English and math.
Though much of the criticism of charters has focused on discipline, even strong supporters have admitted that charter schools have sometimes focused on academic results at the expense of students with disabilities.
“This isn’t just a narrative problem, this is a real problem,” said Lauren Rhim, director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. “In order to change it, you need to acknowledge it.”
Achievement First’s Empower Program, just a few blocks away from Ascend, is trying to prove that charters can excel academically while enrolling more students with disabilities. The school, which opened in 2017, exclusively serves students with special needs.
On a recent morning, Pablo, a partially nonverbal student with autism, bounded into his science class at Empower. His teacher asked him to come into the room again, this time more calmly.
Without missing a beat, Pablo walked out of the classroom and reappeared a moment later. He walked calmly to his desk, where an iPad and a few colorful toys were waiting for him in case he got antsy. (Pablo is being identified by part of his name for privacy reasons.)
For McCurry, the Achievement First executive, the need to create better charter school options for special needs students is personal. McCurry spent months touring dozens of district and private schools for his son, who is autistic.
Last fall, McCurry enrolled him at Empower.