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Smarter Charters?

Creating Boston’s Pilot Schools


Bob Pearlman

Smarter Charters? Creating Boston's Pilot Schools is reprinted by permission of the publisher from Clinchy, E., CREATING NEW SCHOOLS: HOW SMALL SCHOOLS ARE CHANGING AMERICAN EDUCATION, (New York: Teachers College Press, copyright 2000 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.), pp. 38-48.

When Ray Budde launched the charter school movement with his seminal work Education by Charter, published in 1988 (Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, Andover, MA), neither Budde nor any other early proponents of charters, including then American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, envisioned that charters would primarily arise exclusively as state sponsored entities through state legislation instead of voluntary efforts by local parents, teachers, and their school districts.

Today, some seven years after Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, the nation’s more than 700 charter schools are almost entirely products of state legislation that bypass what Ted Kolderie of the Minnesota-based Center for Policy Studies calls the “exclusive franchise” of local school boards. Though some state-sponsored charters are formed with local board approval, most bypass it. The result is that most charter schools, while interesting, are marginal to local school districts and local reform efforts, are seen as “hostiles”, and in nearly all cases receive no material or moral support from the local districts where they reside.

Could not an alternative scenario have emerged, as Budde and others envisioned, where local districts, determined to promote educational innovation, would charter local groups of parents and educators to start new schools or to transform existing ones outside the framework of local rules and regulations?

The selection of six teams in Boston to open "pilot schools", or "in-district charter schools", in September, 1994, shows that charters can be realized through district sponsorship as well as state sponsorship. There are now eleven operating pilot schools in Boston. Combined with four state-sponsored charters in the city, Boston has the highest concentration of charter schools of any locality in the country.

How do these “in-district charters” stack up against their state-sponsored brethren? Can authentic charter schools only exist outside the district? This was the question posed by the Panasonic Foundation in its excellent study titled “In-District Charters: The Space Shuttle or a Spruce Goose” (Panasonic Foundation, Strategies, October, Vol. 3, No. 2, October, 1996).

Boston’s "pilot schools" are enabled not by state legislation but instead through the 1994-97 contract between the Boston School Committee and the Boston Teachers Union. That contract called for the creation of up to six pilot schools free of the union contract and school committee rules and regulations during the life of the contract. More pilot schools could be added by the agreement of the two parties.

The contract states that the “Boston Public schools and the Boston Teachers Union are sponsoring the establishment of innovative pilot schools within the Boston Public School system. The purpose of establishing pilot schools is to provide models of educational excellence which will help to foster widespread educational reform throughout all Boston Public Schools.”

The contract further states that the “pilot schools will operate with  average school based per pupil budget, plus a start-up supplement, and will have greatly increased decision-making authority including exemptions from all Union and school Committee work rules.” This is a far reaching stance for both a school committee and a teachers union—it has yet to be duplicated by any other school district in the country.

The Request for Pilot School Proposals (RFP), first issued  in July, 1994, and then re-issued in two additional rounds in 1996, spells out even more clearly the autonomy of pilot schools, citing the major characteristics of pilot schools to be models of innovation, to be replicable, to meet student and staff diversity requirements, to select staff from inside or outside the Boston Public schools without regard to seniority, to be free from Boston Public School and Boston Teachers Union regulations, and to be fiscally autonomous, receiving a lump sum budget that will be equal to the actual numbers of pupils times the average per pupil spending in the BPS. Dissemination requirement.

The RFP invited 3 types of proposals, including New School Pilot Schools,  School-within-School Pilot Schools, and Whole School Pilot Schools. The latter two types, which convert existing schools to pilot school status, require approval by the School Site Council and by 2/3 of the teacher union members at the school. Proposals could come from people and organizations both inside and outside the school district. However, since a major goal of the initiative was to inform the reform process in the district, outside proposers were required to include a Boston principal or teacher as part of their planning team.

Seventeen proposals were received in the first round and six pilots were selected by a joint union and management committee in October, 1994, to start-up in September, 1995. Among the six was the Fenway Middle College High School, a nationally recognized member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Fenway was now faced with the decision to choose between pilot status and becoming a state-sponsored charter school, for which it had already been selected. Fenway’s board, and its school community, struggled with this decision (see  Chapter V). They studied the pros and cons of each and ultimately decided to opt for pilot status because the school’s mission included playing a role in informing the reform of all Boston schools, something that would have been impossible from the vantage point of a state charter school.

The six Pilot Schools in Round 1 included the Fenway, the Lyndon Elementary School, the Young Achievers Math and Science Academy (elementary), Health Careers Academy, Downtown Evening Academy, and Pro-Arts Academy. The latter, a collaboration of the six Boston Area arts and music colleges, has delayed its opening until 1998, until it could find suitable facilities. This has now been accomplished with the City of Boston’s acquisition of a state building which formerly housed Boston Latin Academy.

A second round was held in two parts, with the first group selected in May, 1996 for start-up in September, 1996. Opening in the Fall of 1996 were two small high schools, the Multicultural Middle College HS and the Greater Egleston Community High School.

The second part of the second round was selected in October, 1996, to start-up in September, 1997. Two new schools were selected, the Mission School, an elementary school lead by Deborah Meier, and the Harbor School, a middle school lead by  Expeditionary Learning, one of the seven New American School Design teams.

The Making of the Pilot School Initiative

Boston’s in-district charters are unique in this country. What prompted a union and a school district to develop enabling conditions, through a contract agreement, that allows schools to be created and existing schools to opt for a status where they are free of union and school committee rules and regulations?

Boston was well on the road to reform in 1993. The 1989-92 contract between the School Committee and the Boston Teachers Union was a landmark agreement that not only set reform in motion, but additionally cemented a political alliance between the mayor, business community, higher education, school committee, superintendent, and teacher’s union through the second Boston Compact. This contract established voluntary School Based Management/Shared Decision-Making (SBM/SDM) for Boston schools, with the ability for schools to waive any item in school committee rules and regulation and the union contract, and also gave SBM/SDM schools the ability to select incoming teachers through the transfer process without regard for seniority.

This alliance faltered during the recession of the early 1990’s, when then Mayor Raymond Flynn sponsored, and won, legislation to replace the elected school committee with an appointed one. Frustrated by the power of the schools to win budget share during difficult fiscal times and by what he perceived as the slow pace of reform, Flynn appointed a school committee dedicated to take on, and engage in public quarrel with, the superintendent and the union. This stalled the reform developments, but accomplished little else. When Flynn abruptly abandoned the mayor’s post in the Spring of 1993 to become Ambassador to the Vatican, the committee switched gears. Working with then Acting Mayor Thomas Menino, the school committee attempted to develop a reform agenda in collaboration with the superintendent and union.

Like many large urban districts in 1993, Boston was the capital city of a state where charter school legislation was being promulgated and was likely of passage. To many Boston leaders—not just school and union but also business leaders and the mayor— state-sponsored charters represented a threat to the reform of the whole Boston district, particularly if state funds for local school support were diverted from the Boston Public Schools to pay significant per-pupil costs for students in state-sponsored charters located in Boston. Boston wanted to have the ability to sponsor, and finance, innovation in its midst, and didn’t want to lose that capacity.

It took 250 hours of negotiations in the summer of 1993 to negotiate a new reform agenda between the union and the school committee. Usually a school committee sends a lawyer to negotiate, but in an unusual move that was necessary because of the high stakes involved—support for public education was on the line--the superintendent and 3 of 7 school committee members came to the table, along with a mayor’s representative. With Conflict Management, Inc. (CMI), facilitating the negotiations using the techniques of principled negotiations, better known as “collaborative”, “interest-based”, or “win-win” bargaining, the parties delivered an extraordinary agreement that included the creation of pilot schools. (for a description of the CMI process, as utilized previously in the 1989 contract negotiations, see Edward J. Doherty and Laval S. Wilson, The Making of a Contract for Education Reform (PDF), Phi Delta Kappan, June, 1990, pgs. 791-796).

Unfortunately the agreement was expensive and fell victim, in the Fall of 1993, to the heat of an 8-candidate race for a new mayor. When acting mayor Menino was elected as full mayor in November, a one-year agreement was signed and negotiations resumed for a long-term agreement. The pilot schools had to be put off, since they required a multi-year agreement by the parties. However, in a significant step, the parties extended SBM/SDM to all schools, which meant in practice that all schools could establish personnel subcommittees of their school site councils with the power to now select incoming staff through the transfer process without regard to seniority and select new hires by school decision and not by assignment from the central district office.

The successor negotiations bore fruit by June of 1994 in a strikingly new climate. The local economy was moving out of its early 1990 doldrums and the parties of the Boston Compact -- the mayor, business community, higher education, school committee, superintendent, and teachers union -- set new goals (Boston Compact 3) and a strategic action plan that incorporated all the key points in the reform agenda emerging in the contract process. According to Neil Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which acts as the convenor of the compact, Boston’s march toward systemic reform “has been built on the synergy of the Compact and the contract between the school committee and the teachers union.”

Among the new reforms were the pilot schools, increased parent power on school site councils, waivers of the union contract and school committee rules and regulations adopted by the vote of the school only and not requiring school committee or union approval, the establishment of the Center for Leadership Development, a career ladder for teachers that established the status of lead teacher through peer review and the funding of 300 lead teacher part time jobs annually (at 10% additional pay for 10% additional work) to work on district and school-based reform efforts and professional development.

Thus the pilot school initiative was realized in a context of a broad reform agenda shared by, and sponsored by, all the parties of the Boston Compact. The union was able to support such unusual powers by individual schools due to five year’s experience with as powerful a form of SBM/SDM as has taken place anywhere in the U.S. This experience showed in practice that schools rarely waived union contract provisions. This was not because it was difficult to do but that the real barriers to change, in practice, as perceived by the school site councils, were school committee and central office rules, regulations, and procedures. Giving the power to the schools was, from the union’s view, a safe bet, that only reasonable changes would occur through a reasonable, and democratic, process.

Giving the Pilot Schools the additional freedom to hire teachers from outside the district, and not have to accept current teachers through the transfer process first, was additionally seen by the union as a safe bet, as the district was now hiring 300 new teachers per year. Teachers at existing schools that might be excessed could safely find positions in the regular schools.

State charter school initiatives start from the premise that the district bureaucracy and its bureaucratic twin, the teachers union, are barriers to reform and that their jointly held “exclusive franchise” needs to be broken in order to enable change. But in Boston, through a high level partnership and negotiated reform agenda, both sides agreed to give up its powers over the pilot schools. The partnership gave significant wins to both sides and the confidence to sponsor the pilots. Additionally, the union had years of experience with reform and felt confident that the reforms would lead to reasonable innovations and not impact negatively the jobs and working conditions of the city’s teachers.

Pilot School Implementation Challenges

Like any other major reform, pilot schools require not just enabling legislation but additionally need ongoing district support on a range of issues. In Boston both the district and the union appointed coordinators who worked as partners to support the fledgling start-ups. The union coordinator (the author of this article) acted as an ombudsman, pressuring all sides but especially the central administration, to live up to its commitments. The district coordinator played a major role in finding facilities for the new pilots and coordinated efforts by school district and city departments to renovate these spaces for Fall, 1995, opening.

Boston superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, who was selected as superintendent  in the Fall of 1995, just as the first pilots opened, has called the facilities piece the major challenge of the pilot school initiative. Payzant inherited a multi-million dollar deficit, a significant portion of which was due to  an outlay of nearly $4 million for pilot school renovations. But despite the challenge, Boston has now been able, though leasing, renovations, and new construction, to finance and develop facilities for all but one of its chartered pilot schools. That track record dwarfs that of the state charter school experiments in Massachusetts and other states, where little or no support is given for financing facilities. Every state has numerous examples of projects that died on the failure to acquire facilities and many others who are struggling in inadequate spaces. Several charter schools closed in Arizona this year due to budget problems linked to facilities issues.

From the point of view of the new pilots in the 1995-96 school year, one of the major problems was governance. For all other Boston schools, now SBM/SDM schools, governance was clear—the school site council, composed of the principal, 4-6 teachers, and a number of parents equal to the number of teachers plus the principal, was the governing body. The pilots, however, were free to create any governing body they desired, including a Board of Directors with any composition they desired. They were required, however, to follow the state model under the 1993 Education Reform law of establishing school site councils that were advisory (not governing, as in Boston’s SBM/SDM schools).

At one pilot school the original planning committee, a group of parent leaders, came into conflict with the people who staffed the new school—the principal and the teachers—and the parents who sent their children to the new school. Ongoing mediation was needed to resolve this lack of common vision between the school’s founders and its real-life start-up community.

At another pilot, designed as a teacher-run school with no principal, the teacher management team, composed of three of the school’s founders, came into conflict around curricular and management issues with some of the exemplary teachers they had hired into the school. 

State-sponsored charters encounter the same problems. Start-up planning committees usually encounter their real-life parent and teacher communities only after start-up. Despite the exciting mission articulated in these new school start-ups, and the seeming up front concurrence in that mission and school design by the new staff and parent community that sign on, many questions associated with school organization, curriculum, and governance are likely to emerge during the first few years. Additionally, these start-ups often embrace democratic and participatory governing structures that can prolong these early disputes. Process is the way to build, and rebuild, the new school community, but it can be debilitating on the parties involved.

A problem encountered by all the pilot schools was negotiating its annual budget with the school department. Despite clear agreement in the contract that the pilot schools were to be “fiscally autonomous” the school department, despite good intentions, found it difficult to translate that pledge into reality and set up the budget and purchasing systems that insured “autonomy”. Particularly difficult for the department was defining the per-pupil budget for the pilot schools. In regular schools, per-pupil budget is typically 60-70% of the district per-pupil budget. The rest is expended centrally, some for central administration, some for non school-based district expenditures (special education residential placements, insurance, etc.), and some for centrally expended school-based costs (employee benefits, utilities, transportation, etc.).

Little progress was made in Boston’s first three pilot school years in defining what the pilot schools could receive as per-pupil budgets. Representatives from the pilot schools, the school district, and the union met for over a year as the Fiscal Autonomy Working Group and made recommendations. But while the administration remained flexible and did much to increase the per-pupil pilot school budgets, little progress was made, until just recently, on setting up the systems for increased autonomy for the pilot schools and for increased school-site budgeting autonomy in all the districts regular schools, as called for under SBM/SDM.

Lessons for school districts

Boston’s pilot school initiative is now four years old. Five pilots are in their fourth year of operation, two are in their third year, two opened in the Fall of 1997, and two more opened in the Fall of 1998. One of those opening in the Fall of 1998 was the Boston Arts Academy, a collaboration of six arts and music colleges in Boston that was originally selected in the first round but delayed opening until a proper facility could be secured. 

The Arts Academy illustrates one of the successes of the pilot school innovation--the attraction of talented and highly capable design teams to develop and manage the new schools. This talent includes one of America’s foremost educational innovators (Deborah Meier), a New American School Design Team (Expeditionary Learning), a consortium of colleges, and a school cited by the U.S. Department of Education as one of ten New American High Schools (Fenway). Charters in Massachusetts and elsewhere have, of course, attracted quality leaders, but not in the same percentage level as has Boston. This is perhaps due to several factors: 1. the district and union’s joint support for the initiative; 2. the district’s involvement in solving the facilities puzzle by taking responsibility for securing and renovating appropriate sites; and 3) the opportunity for the innovators to influence reform developments in the district..

If imitation is flattery, then another success is the fact that the pilot schools were the model for the state’s second round charter legislation to increase the number of charter schools in the state. Like many other states, the initial charter school legislation in Massachusetts capped the number of charter schools at 25. The new legislation, passed in June, 1997, increased the number of charters from 25 to 50, but went beyond its original “district bypass” strategy when it reserved up to 13 of the expansion slots for “Horace Mann” schools, modeled after the Boston pilots, in that they require the agreement of the local school district and the local teacher’s union affiliate to support the proposal by an existing school to take on the charter status while remaining within the district.

Another critical benefit of the pilot school initiative, recognized by all the pilots, is the freedom to select staff from inside or outside the district, and to “de-select” staff and return them to the regular system.

Lessons for states

States may want to follow the Massachusetts example and institute some form of Horace Mann approach. This would allow for both state-sponsored charters and “in-district charters”. In Massachusetts the new round of charter school proposals in the Fall of 1997, to be selected at the end of February, 1998, drew 48 state-sponsored (Commonwealth Schools) and 13 “in-district” (Horace Mann Schools) proposals. The Horace Mann proposals included several quality district partnerships involving business, government, higher education, and unions.

While many state charter laws , like that of California, require charter proposers to get local school board approval, the new Massachusetts approach differs markedly in that it retains state-sponsorship (bypass) and constructively engages local partnerships for “in-district” charters

States, however, may want to go further than just creating enabling legislation and drive the development of “in-district charters” by offering incentives through grants for start-up, including design, planning, and funds for equipment.

Boston’s example shows how far it is possible for a district and a union to go in sponsoring innovative new schools. Such a development, when it occurs, surpasses significantly the impact of state-sponsored charter schools, in that the “in-district charters” inform, and help drive, the local school reform process. By contrast, state-sponsored charters often are marginalized by the limits of state support and the hostility of local school districts. Lack of state funds for capital financing to build facilities and lack of support and promotion by local educational districts often result in charter schools that fill exotic niches (home schooling, school dropouts, small alternative schools, etc.) but have little impact on reform developments in large urban districts or in the state.

Limitations of the pilot school model

But there are definitely limitations to the pilot model. First, it is difficult to get a union and a district to collaborate on such an innovation, in that it requires both to give up their rules and regulations with the concurrence of their constituencies. This is demonstrated by the fact that, to date, San Diego is the only district in the U.S. that  has copied it, though it was seriously discussed in many, including Minneapolis and New York City. San Diego adopted it in 1998 through a Memorandum of Understanding between the union and the school board allowing for up to 3 pilot schools, starting with a K-12 cluster.

New York City has been the national success story in promoting the creation of more than 50 new small and innovative schools during the past 4 years. Despite some interesting exceptions regarding personnel selection, however, these schools otherwise operate mostly within the union contract and school board regulations. An attempt last year by the union and the school board to negotiate a plan to create “public charter schools” has yet to be realized (see Sherman , Chapter Fourteen).

In Cincinnati the pressure of Ohio’s new 1998 charter school law has provoked serious interest by the Cincinnati School Board and Teachers Union in creating “Internal Charter” schools.

Second, school districts are hard pressed to set up the budgetary and personnel systems that insure autonomy to in-district charters or to the SBM/SDM schools that also desire it. Such a development comes up against the flexibility that districts and unions often need, legitimately, to deal centrally with certain difficult budget and personnel issues. A balance is possible, in a systems sense, but not easily developed.

In the new state charter round last November four of the original five Boston pilot schools opted to apply for the state Horace Mann status. These schools cited as a rational their need for “greater budget autonomy” and “additional administrative flexibility” re staffing, contracting, hiring, purchasing, and paperwork. While the state initiative represents an endorsement of the Boston model of “district-sponsored charters”, this move to state Horace Mann status by some of the Boston pilots can be viewed as a tacit criticism of the pilot school model, i.e. the failure of the district to set up the fiscal systems needed for full autonomy by the schools.

In Boston’s case, however, the challenge of Horace Mann status has led recently to a significant agreement on increased budget autonomy for all the pilot schools in the next school year.

Third, in-district charters have lots of start-up problems, like all new schools, particularly in change management and governance. These schools need help to plan, implement, and reflect upon their innovations. A district, and a superintendent,  needs to do more than enable the development of pilot schools—it needs to give leadership and support to the process and articulate clearly its role in the reform strategy of the district.

Fourth, the in-district charter model works well for enlisting new schools, but has been ineffective in recruiting existing schools to opt for Whole School Pilot Status. As with SBM/SDM waivers of  district and union contract rules and regulations, a supermajority vote by 2/3 of the teachers, a majority of the parents, and the concurrence of the principal is required for Whole School Pilot School Status. Only 1 of 11 Boston pilot schools, the Fenway, was able to get the 2/3 vote. Fenway at the time of the vote had only 12 teachers, making it about 1/5 the size of even the smallest Boston district high schools.

Of course, this is not surprising. Even a vote by a smaller supermajority, or even a majority, might be difficult to get. Whole School Change, or a total restructuring of the school, may be unappealing to teachers who were assigned to the school not because of a common vision but randomly. And giving up a union contract is clearly perceived by many teachers as giving up an insurance policy. Teachers may not be union loyalists, but ask them to give up their insurance policy of contractual rights and they balk.

This is true not just in the Boston experience, but also in the many schools across the country involved in the Coalition of Essential Schools and in the many urban jurisdictions where existing schools are being supported by their districts to work with the New American School Design teams.

In Boston this is now a significant issue. The district and the union committed to high school restructuring in the latest contract agreement (1997-2000) and have launched a joint task force to develop and implement this initiative. While a majority of a school faculty may opt for the redesign of a school, achieving a supermajority vote is difficult and it is unreasonable to require a 2 to 1 majority in order to go forward. Boston should experiment with a lower supermajority vote (58% or 60%), or some other enabling option (including reconstitution and start-up), in order to spur some high school re-design. Otherwise, such innovations will be limited to small start-ups.

Finally, what’s crucial for both state-sponsored and in-district charter school initiatives is not just the existence of a capped number of innovative schools but also the ongoing process for creating them. Teachers, and other parties, need an open door to get their act together and create new entities. To Boston’s credit, the new contract leaves open the door for the district and the union to get together at any time during the life of the contract, as they did in the Spring and Fall of 1996, and open up a new round of pilot proposals.

Are pilot schools smarter charters than state-sponsored charters? Boston’s pilot school initiative has its limitations, as does every state’s charter school initiatives. But in Boston the now three-fold set of charter school enabling processes—pilots, state-sponsored charters, and state-enabled Horace Mann schools—have lead to perhaps the largest and most interesting concentration of charter schools in the nation.

Bob Pearlman is the President of the Autodesk Foundation, an educational foundation in San Rafael, CA. He formerly served as the Coordinator of Educational Reform Initiatives for the Boston Teachers Union and was involved in the negotiation of and implementation of the Boston pilot school initiative.