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Florida and the charter school ‘cool kids club’

There's no "secret sauce." But there are common features that describe Boston's Brooke charter school schools, and other top organizations around the country.
There’s no “secret sauce.” But there are common features that define top networks like Boston’s Brooke charter schools.

As described by Richard Whitmire, the “cool kids club” of the charter school movement was founded in the late ’90s, with the launch of the Aspire network in California.

From there, an interconnected web of charter school founders spread across the country, learned from one another, won the backing of big foundations and started the nonprofit management organizations and standalone schools that educate roughly one-fifth of the country’s three million charter school students — and get some of the strongest academic results for low-income children.

This movement within the charter movement includes the likes of Uncommon Schools, Yes Prep, IDEA Public Schools, and smaller organizations from L.A. to Boston, many of them chronicled in Whitmire’s book The Founders. In some ways, it stands apart from the charter sector as a whole. It receives many of the positive national headlines about charter schools, accounts for most of the movement’s prestigious prize winners, and attracts a substantial share of its philanthropic support.

The leaders of these schools technically compete for students. But many of them work together. They visit each other’s schools, picking and choosing practices they can import to their own organizations. During an event this week, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Whitmire said these schools, many of which follow a “no-excuses” model, seldom start out with mediocre results. They tend to be “high-performing charters from the first day they open.”

There’s no special curriculum these schools share in common. Their main “secret sauce,” according to Whitmire, is organizational culture: A belief in the potential of low-income children of color; a desire to learn, share and collaborate — both with other charters and with school districts; perhaps most importantly, a willingness to constantly improve, exemplified by KIPP’s reaction to a 2011 report that found its students who reached college often struggled to finish their degrees. The network responded with a major push to help its graduates get through college.

A look around Florida, which is home to just shy of 10 percent of the charter school movement (more than 650 schools; nearly 300,000 students), raises the question: Why haven’t more members of the cool kids club set up shop here? There are certainly schools in this state that serve large proportions of low-income students and get strong academic results. But schools run by the roughly 20 percent of the charter school movement captured by Whitmire’s narrative remain scarce.

This issue has been on the radar of state education officials for years, and it’s a key focus of Florida’s implementation plan for a new federal charter school grant.

Whitmire describes a handful of cities — New York, Newark, Los Angeles, Denver — that have become magnets for talented teachers and charter school leaders. With its improving test scores, robust choice ecosystem and status as the fourth-largest school district in the country, centered on a vibrant international city, is there any reason Miami-Dade Public Schools can’t become one of those magnets, too?

Picture credit: Screenshot from “Brooke: America’s best charter?

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)