Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter-school law in 1991. Since then, 43 states and the District of Columbia have allowed for the existence and operation of these independent public schools. Today, some 6,700 of them serve nearly three million students, almost 6% of U.S. public-school enrollment. They are the fastest-growing school-choice option in the country. They are also as close to a “disruptive innovation” as American K-12 education has seen to date, creating a new market and alternative delivery system that affords long-neglected families access to potentially higher-quality schools than they find within the traditional district structure.
Charters now educate more than half as many children as attend private schools, which have been around for ages. Along with vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, magnet schools, virtual schools, education savings accounts, and innumerable “open-enrollment” schemes, charter schools are responsible for a major increase in the rising fraction of U.S. students attending schools that their families have chosen. The charter approach contrasts sharply with traditional public education, which is generally still defined by more-or-less compulsory attendance at neighborhood schools determined by a family’s home address and enforced by a district bureaucracy. Our 2000 book, Charter Schools in Action, foresaw this innovative education governance and delivery system as a promising path to stronger achievement and as an engine “to recreate the democratic underpinnings of public education and rejoin schools to a vigorous civil society.”
Yet for all their promise, impressive growth, and visibility in the public square, charter schools remain a mystery to many Americans. Are they public or private? Who pays for them? Do they choose their pupils? Do they serve needy children or enrich plutocrats? Are they only for minority kids? Do they further segregate public education? Do they teach religion? Serious misunderstandings abound.
Charter schools are public schools of choice. Nobody is forced to attend them, and — within their capacity limits — they’re open to all who wish to enroll. They are non-selective, have no admission prerequisites, and typically use lotteries when oversubscribed. From the standpoint of families, they’re free, financed by tax dollars (and sometimes philanthropy). They don’t charge tuition. Almost all are (at least technically) non-profit entities with their operations governed by their own boards and overseen by “authorizers,” who act on behalf of the state.
The fundamental “charter bargain” is straightforward: Schools are held accountable for results — gauged primarily by academic achievement — in exchange for freedom to produce those results as they think best. Optimally, this freedom extends to their operations, budgets, staffing, curriculum, and more. If they don’t deliver the promised outcomes, their authorizers are supposed to close them, not tell them what to do or meddle with them.
That’s the theory. The reality is extraordinarily diverse. Not only are authorizer competence and conscientiousness uneven, but state charter laws and regulations themselves vary widely. The best of the charter statutes is Minnesota’s and the worst is Maryland’s, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which rates state laws on 20 elements deemed important to a solid charter program.
Such diversity is not bad — after all, we can’t have “laboratories of democracy” without risking some unevenness. But it does mean that charters in many places are hobbled by many operational constraints, too little money, and, often, insufficient attention both to the delicate balance between quantity and quality and to the weighty yet ill-defined obligations of authorizers.
Most charters are new schools that didn’t exist before the charter program was implemented, but 11% are “conversions” of pre-existing district schools. The great majority inhabit buildings where children sit in class, but some of the largest schools (and charter chains) exist only in cyber-space. Most schools are free-standing “one-offs,” but about a third belong to networks, mostly non-profit “charter management organizations,” like KIPP, Noble Network, and High Tech High; around 12% of all charters belong to profit-seeking “education management organizations,” like National Heritage Academies.
Their instructional teams are also different. Charters employ nearly 116,000 teachers, compared to 3.2 million in traditional public schools. Some 30% are non-white. (It’s 18% in district schools.) They’re younger, less experienced, and earn less ($44,500 versus $53,400), but they average an hour more per week teaching and performing other school activities, and they face larger classes (averaging 22 students versus 17 in middle-school classrooms). Charter teachers are also four times likelier to get performance-based pay than are their traditional district peers.
Though they enjoy bipartisan backing in many places, charters remain politically contentious. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is among the latest political figures to try to push them back, only to encounter the buzz saw of charter-school advocacy, in this case orchestrated by his fellow Democrat, former councilwoman Eva Moscowitz. She leads a highly successful charter network in the city that grew dramatically with the encouragement of de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
THE GOOD — AND NOT SO GOOD
At the core of the current case for charter schools are five strong, positive attributes. First, politics aside, they enjoy widespread public approbation — almost 70% approval according to the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll, with 54% of respondents believing that charters provide a better education than traditional public schools. This is true despite massive misunderstanding of what they are and how they work. (Barely half of those surveyed understand that they are public schools, and even more think they can charge tuition.)
Second, the number of charters included in the top 100 of the U.S. News “Best High School” rankings rose from 10 in 2009 to 24 in 2014, even though most charters concentrate on earlier grades. Other ratings of outstanding public schools nearly always include a robust representation of charters.
Third, charters mostly serve poor and minority student who would otherwise be stuck in the worst urban schools. Over 56% of their students are Hispanic and African American, versus 39% in district schools.
Fourth, demand plainly exceeds supply. The National Alliance estimates that some 586,000 children were on charter-school waiting lists in 2013. As vividly depicted in the film Waiting for Superman, most of those youngsters and their families are desperate for alternatives to their grim district schools.
And finally, charters play a huge role in the education systems of some cities. The most striking example is New Orleans, which rebuilt its post-Katrina school strategy around charters; now, more than 90% of that city’s children are enrolled in charter schools. The District of Columbia is almost half charter. Today, charter enrollments have reached 30% in a dozen districts and 20% in more than 40 cities. Los Angeles has 140,000 children in them, and New York City has more than 70,000.
Turning to academic performance, however, our praise must be more muted, as the charter track record is, in a word, mixed. Some of the country’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of the worst. One can average it out and conclude that charter schools are producing results that resemble the district schools to which they offer alternatives. But that glib statement doesn’t do justice to a galaxy of educational institutions that range from dismal to superb.
The soundest large-scale national analysis of charter schools to date, published in 2013 by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), matched charter pupils in 25 states (plus D.C. and New York City) against otherwise-similar students in district-operated schools. Charter pupils performed better in nine jurisdictions, worse in three, and essentially the same in 15. (The best were in Rhode Island, Tennessee, and D.C.; the worst were in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.) The strongest charter advantage was in reading, and those getting the greatest boost were black or Hispanic and poor. (White and Asian kids, however, did worse in charter schools.) Elementary- and middle-school charters, on average, did better than their district counterparts, while charter high schools did not.
Unsurprisingly, states that have taken charter quality seriously tend to show better outcomes — but they also have fewer schools and thus more families unable to access them. Waiting for Superman depicts the bitter frustration and disappointment of those who fail to win the admission lottery. Those who win, however, are apt to get a better education than is typically found in charters in other states where they have been allowed to emerge like toadstools, with scant attention to whether prospective school operators know what they are doing. This signals the painful tradeoff states face between charter-school quality and quantity. And it illustrates the vexing reality (doubly vexing to school-choice advocates such as ourselves) that market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness. Milton Friedman may have gotten this part wrong, at least over the short run. As we’ve witnessed first-hand in Ohio and elsewhere, a great many parents are (understandably) grateful to find schools for their children that are safe, accessible, and welcoming. But they are either ill-informed or not too fussy when it comes to those schools’ academic records.
Those records can vary stunningly even within a single city. For example, of D.C.’s 46 charters with sixth-grade classes, eight get exceptionally strong academic ratings from the national school-information service GreatSchools. But five others get exceptionally weak ratings. In Boston, almost every charter middle school is an exemplary performer on the GreatSchools metrics (based primarily on state test results). In Dayton, on the other hand, of the 15 charters with sixth-grade classes, none gets high marks, five are middling, and nine very weak (one wasn’t rated). The expanding group of Success Academies run by Eva Moscowitz in New York is racking up outstanding academic results, as are most schools in the spreading national KIPP network. Yet other charter chains and networks are rightly faulted for pathetic outcomes on state assessments and other conventional achievement gauges.
Still, the overall charter picture was brighter in CREDO’s 2013 study than in 2009, when the same organization found that, in 16 states, charter pupils were learning less than their classmates in traditional public schools — the equivalent of seven fewer days per year in reading and 22 fewer days in math. By 2013, however, charter students had erased the gap in math and forged ahead of their district counterparts in reading by the equivalent of eight school days per year.
A still-newer CREDO analysis, published in March 2015, examined charter schools in 41 urban communities across 22 states. It found them achieving, on average, 40 additional days’ worth of learning growth in math and 28 days in reading compared to matched peers in district schools. The results were positive for nearly all pupil groups, but, again, notably so for poor and minority youngsters. Yet this was not the case everywhere; CREDO found charters in 11 communities posting smaller learning gains than district schools in math and ten with lesser gains in reading.
Test scores are not the only or necessarily the best way to evaluate schools or their value to those who attend them. Some other metrics, though scarce, are noteworthy. In Chicago, for example, charter high-school students are 11% likelier to enroll in college within six years, compared with their peers in district schools. And “value-added” measures, though tricky, also help to gauge schools’ effectiveness, since those serving disadvantaged kids may be helping them make important gains even though they don’t yet reach the “proficient” bar as defined by the state.
However it is measured, “achievement” is the coin of the realm in today’s education struggles and policy deliberations. But the country’s charter-school enterprise of the past two decades is better viewed as a significant experiment than a horse race. This experiment has revealed a host of issues, dilemmas, and opportunities that deserve sober consideration and should prompt changes in how we handle charters going forward. This calls for particular attention to what has not been going well.
AUTHORIZING AND FUNDING
Half the charter “bargain” is results-based accountability, the terms of which are stipulated in a performance contract — the charter agreement — between two parties. The school’s governing body is one party. The other is the entity that monitors it — the school’s “authorizer” or “sponsor.” The authorizer is, in effect, a state licensing agent that determines which prospective school operators deserve charters; enforces whatever rules and procedures the schools are subject to; and, after some period of time (typically five years), judges whether a school has performed well enough to justify renewing its charter. During that period, authorizers can intervene in, and if necessary shut down, poorly performing schools and any that get into operational trouble (with fiscal or governance issues and the like).
These are weighty responsibilities, but in hindsight those present at the creation of the charter bargain (ourselves included) paid too little attention to how authorizing would work — and many states set things up badly. Along with heedlessness, however, the weakness of this arrangement reflected political compromises arising from the animus that traditional school districts bore toward the charter concept and the competition for pupils and resources that it could foster. As a result of those compromises, 90% of the more than 1,000 charter authorizers operating today are those self-same districts, with more than half overseeing just one school each. This is an inherent conflict of interest, and for many districts it is also a profound management challenge to deal with schools operating independently of their direct control.
The other 10% of authorizers are an odd mix of universities, state agencies, independent chartering boards, and non-profit organizations (of which the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, with which we’ve been affiliated, is one in Ohio). In several cities (New York, Chicago, and Indianapolis), the mayor has a role in authorizing. Large authorizers (those with ten or more schools) account for 72% of charter schools and 66% of the student population.
Some authorizers do great work. Prominent examples include the District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board, the Massachusetts Department of Education, and the State University of New York. But too many others display mixed motives, are influenced by perverse incentives, or lack judgment, courage, or expertise. They’re also plagued by a shortage of solutions to schools’ various troubles — for instance, when a charter school is closed down, where are its students supposed to go and who decides? Who “owns” its assets? Who pays its debts and handles the residue of its contracts with staff and vendors?
Charter doctrine is clear: Bad schools should be closed (or “non-renewed”) by their authorizer. Yet it turns out to be as hard to close bad charters as traditional district schools. Hundreds of kids are affected, and the alternatives for them are often no better than the troubled charter. Furthermore, parents are almost universally hostile to the demise of their children’s current schools. It’s possible, of course, for authorizers to intervene to rectify what’s wrong, yet that blurs the distinction between authorizer and operator and may compromise the former’s objectivity when it’s time to judge performance. Some imaginative authorizers have found ways to transfer responsibility for troubled charters to other operators — ”charter re-starts” — but that requires others who are game to shoulder the added responsibility. Although 118 charter schools were closed (or non-renewed) by authorizers in 2013 — evidence the theory isn’t all wrong and that receiving a charter is not a permanent license — the fact remains that authorizers don’t have enough good options when schools falter.
Even big authorizers with the wherewithal to handle their duties professionally are not immune to conflicts of interest. Half of authorizers cover the costs of their own operations by deducting fees from per-pupil funds flowing to their schools. The more — and larger — the schools in their portfolios, the more revenue they receive, hence closing a school means an income loss for the authorizer.
Still, as with the criteria for measuring student achievement, the process of authorizing is getting more competent and choosier. In 2012-13, authorizers approved 308 new schools out of some 1,118 applications, a far cry from the early days when nearly anything that could fog a mirror received a charter. Forty-three percent of authorizers report that they have established specific priorities or preferences for new applications. But that means 57% have not.
The funding of charter schools raises some similar quandaries. On average, charters receive fewer public dollars per student than district schools enrolling similar children. A 2014 University of Arkansas study found that the typical charter school gets just 72% of what’s spent in nearby district schools. That’s a $3,800 per-pupil shortfall, nearly $1.6 million less in revenue for an average-size charter, equivalent to the salaries and benefits of about 30 teachers.
The cost of facilities poses further challenges. Many charters must find the money within their meager operating budgets to cover the rent or lease for the place where they teach. A 2015 study by the National Alliance found that, of 43 jurisdictions with charter laws at the time, one-third have no arrangement to help these schools deal with the cost of facilities. Just seven states give charters access to the facilities programs that serve district schools. Fifteen jurisdictions provide per-pupil facility allowances for charter schools, but only in Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, and D.C. does this exceed $1,000 per pupil. And of those jurisdictions with facility grant or loan programs on the books, barely half are actually funding such programs.
The central fiscal problem for charters is that they typically get the same state allotments as other public schools but seldom benefit from local funds (often collected through property taxes). On average, they receive just $1,780 per pupil from local government sources, while district schools take in $5,230. Despite (or conceivably because of) this fiscal inequity, another University of Arkansas analysis found that charters are more cost effective than traditional public schools. Relating school revenues to student learning, the researchers found charters to be 40% more cost effective in math and 41% more so in reading.
A common criticism of the charter movement is what some call the “oversized” role that philanthropy plays in supporting it. Detractors caricature this donor support as the “billionaire boys club” or “hedge fund crowd” wielding their money to privatize public education. While it’s true that philanthropists have provided generous support to the charter movement on multiple fronts, this allegation is undermined by the facts, notably that district schools get even more money from nonpublic sources: $571 per pupil versus $552.
GOVERNANCE AND REGULATION
The other half of the charter “bargain” is that schools have the freedom to operate as they think best, subject to minimal regulation in such key realms as pupil safety, fiscal integrity, non-discrimination, and adherence to state academic standards. Yet few locales have truly eased the regulatory burden on their charter schools. Many jurisdictions never exempted them from such irksome and unnecessary provisions as state certification of teachers, nor from innumerable smaller irritants. In Ohio, for example, an authorizer must enforce dozens of state education-code provisions (and multiple other statutes) that afflict charters as well as district schools.
Even when charters are cut some slack, it doesn’t always last. Recent years have seen numerous instances of re-regulation, of government fishing expeditions pursuing supposed infractions that are used to justify more rules, and of clashes between state and federal requirements. These can arise in unexpected places. In 2012, for example, the Department of Defense adopted a new recruitment policy that required graduates of online and blended-learning charter high schools to score 50 or higher on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, while those graduating from traditional schools could enlist with scores in the low 30s. It took a provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to correct this discrimination against charter students. In another example, the Department of Education required charters seeking federal “start-up” funds to use “blind” admissions lotteries, thus contradicting many state laws that allow weighted lotteries to give preference to disadvantaged children and sometimes to siblings of current pupils. Rectifying this took nearly two years.
Far too often, a single school’s error has led states, districts, or authorizers to institute new oversight regimes that apply to all charters. And the regulatory whip has also been wielded by political foes, usually in the name of “leveling the playing field” so charters don’t have unfair advantages over district schools. But this contradicts the premise that charters are meant to be different — and freer.
Authorizing challenges aren’t the only problems in charter-school governance. Each school ordinarily has its own governing board, a non-profit corporate body that receives the charter from the authorizer and is legally responsible for operating the school, including selecting and supervising the principal. Think of them as mini-school boards, although usually self-perpetuating like other non-profit boards rather than elected by voters. But this promising arrangement has yielded new dilemmas. For example, strong school founders often recruit their own boards, which end up more beholden to the leader’s — or outside operator’s — desires or whims than to the needs of students, taxpayers, and other school constituents. Profit-seeking management organizations contracting with schools to oversee their operations create other challenges when investor interests trump those of quality teaching and learning.
Board competence is a challenge, too. Much like a private school’s board of trustees, the kinds of expertise one would hope to find among its members include strategy, finance, real estate, pedagogy, human resources, employment law, community relations, and stakeholder engagement. That’s hard to assemble within a five- or seven-member board for a penurious stand-alone school serving 400 students — and harder still to assemble for almost 7,000 such schools. A closely related challenge is the role of the principal, whose job description resembles the head of a private school more than a typical public-school principal, who ordinarily works in a context where most school needs are provided — for better or worse — by the district.
THE POLITICS OF CHARTER SCHOOLING
Charters have, from the outset, received the support of prominent political figures in both parties from city halls to state capitols to the White House. For Republicans, they widen school choice and erode the district monopoly. For Democrats, they expand opportunities for poor and minority children and give entrepreneurial teachers the chance to create and run their own schools. Every President — Democrat and Republican — from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama has been a charter fan.
Yet they’re not a perfect fit for either side. Conservatives fret that they’re not vouchers — these are still public schools under government’s thumb — and many GOP legislators represent smug suburban and rural districts that want no part of them (or the kids apt to attend them). Plenty of Democrats remain beholden to teacher unions that detest charters (though not as much as they hate vouchers) and that are frustrated and embarrassed by their failure to bring many charter teachers into their fold. (A 2011 study found only 12% of charters had collective-bargaining agreements for their teachers, and then mostly in states that require it.)
New York City’s teachers’ union (then led by Randi Weingarten, who now heads the American Federation of Teachers) set out in 2005 to show that it could run its own charter school with unionized teachers. At the time, Weingarten declared: “Our charter schools will be leaders in scholastic innovation and the perfect environment for the [union] to demonstrate that its educational priorities work.” But the school’s results proved so dismal that its authorizer, the State University of New York, recently refused to renew the charter of its primary- and middle-school units — and the high-school portion is on life support.
The list of charter enemies, however, extends beyond unions. The overwhelming majority of district boards and superintendents want no part of them, won’t collaborate with them, and often refuse to authorize them. They also press state lawmakers to make it hard to open more charters and discourage the legislators from lightening regulatory loads. And plenty of otherwise well-meaning civic leaders, philanthropists, and education reformers view charters as a sideshow, deflecting energy, attention, and resources away from the more than 80% of children who remain in district-operated schools.
The expanding universe of education reformers also encompasses a sprawling range of opinion and disputation over the mission and value of charter schools. In fact, charters often serve as proxies in durable disagreements over fundamental philosophy and strategy: how much to rely on the marketplace for education quality control instead of government-driven standards and accountability structures; whether to welcome profit-seeking entrepreneurs to the charter table; the extent to which technology should replace flesh-and-blood instructors and classroom experiences for children; how much schools ought to differ from one another; whether the exclusive focus of reforms should be poor kids and low achievers; whether schools of choice must always be secular and open-enrollment; and whether big charter management networks will isolate such schools from authentic ties to their local communities with all their racial and ethnic diversity.
Some early charter-school boosters viewed them as R&D centers for public education, places with the freedom to innovate, experiment, and take chances across a host of topics — curriculum, instruction, schedule, calendar, governance, technology, leadership, staffing, and the like — that tended toward sameness and rigidity in traditional districts. This worked, up to a point. Many practices pioneered by charters have entered the education mainstream, at least as strategies with solid potential, and now enjoy widespread use within the charter sector itself. These include more time on task (longer days, weeks, and school years), hiring non-unionized teachers, self-governing schools with building-level autonomy, imaginative uses of technology, and “virtual districts” that operate across traditional boundaries. Save for continuing innovation in the realm of “blended learning,” however, the charter sector does not appear to be doing much R&D today. It’s even less clear that many traditional districts are embracing — or really want to embrace — the alternatives that charters have successfully piloted.
In a few communities — prominently including Denver, New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Spring Branch, Texas (near Houston) — the district has incorporated charters into its own education-reform strategies and, in so doing, has eased charters’ access to facilities and other resources. (Such integration, however, also carries a cost in terms of charter independence.) In a few other communities — perhaps most prominently the District of Columbia — charters can fairly be described as a disruptive innovation that has spurred constructive competition and change in the traditional system. They’ve also supplied a school-turnaround mechanism that several states (Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan) have deployed to create “recovery districts” that take dismal schools away from districts and turn them into charters operated by others. Only in New Orleans, however, can charters be said to have evolved into a nearly complete alternative delivery system for public education.
Sadly, most traditional districts and their cadres of self-interested stakeholders remain all but oblivious, if not hostile, toward charters in their midst, keen to minimize their numbers and preserve as much as they can of their own old monopoly. Over the long haul, history won’t favor that stance. For the foreseeable future, however, it leaves charters and their supporters more in the role of supplying some children with alternatives than transforming the system that gave rise to the need for alternatives.
ADVOCACY AND TRANSFORMATION
Perhaps no part of the charter world has changed as dramatically over the last two decades as its advocacy apparatus. Today, a host of organizations educate the public and try to influence and build support for charters, including hands-on involvement in electoral politics. They reach out to sundry constituencies and stakeholders, from the general public to policymakers to the families with children in these schools. (Moscowitz faced down de Blasio in part through a huge march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Influential allies in Albany also helped.) Most of these groups are non-profit organizations that live on tax-deductible contributions from donors. Within certain limits, they can lobby policymakers directly. But a growing number of them have been joined by entities whose main focus is lobbying and politics: 501(c)(4) organizations and political action committees that are free to spend limitlessly on lobbying for specific legislation, getting friendly candidates elected, and advancing ballot initiatives, among other things.
Education Reform Now illustrates the new model. Founded in 2006 as a 501(c)(3), it operates at the federal level and has 13 state-level affiliates, along with a 501(c)(4) partner named Education Reform Now Advocacy and a PAC called Democrats for Education Reform. The PAC aims “[t]o make the Democratic Party the champion of high quality public education,” and its agenda explicitly includes enacting strong charter laws.
In New York State, DFER went head to head with the unions to lift the cap on how many charter schools could be created, outspending the teachers unions in lobbying expenses. The Alliance for School Choice and its affiliates (the American Federation for Children and the American Federation for Children Action Fund) also press for more and better charters, as well as vouchers and other forms of taxpayer support for private-school options. In addition, many states have state-wide charter associations — like the California Charter Schools Association and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools — that play significant 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and PAC roles to advance the charter cause.
But creating a vibrant education market involves more than offering school options to families. It includes building organizations, structures, rules, and routines — ”market enablers” — that make the marketplace work efficiently and yield quality outcomes. Such enablers take many forms, beginning with a strong policy environment that makes it truly feasible to launch new schools and thereby curb the traditional monopoly. Also required are an ample and diverse supply of high-quality school options, along with a transparent accountability system that monitors their performance; timely and comprehensible school information for parents and taxpayers alike; fair and efficient school selection and enrollment systems, combined with transportation that makes more schools accessible to families; human-capital pipelines that recruit and develop top-notch teachers and school leaders from a variety of backgrounds; a sufficiency of resources in the form of money that follows students to the schools of their choice and is weighted according to their needs; and, finally, school-support and advocacy organizations that supply diverse services while also keeping all players honest.
It’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge, with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it’s a “school of choice” with some freedom to be different. Early advocates, ourselves included, were naïve about some key things.
We didn’t pay enough attention to authorizing and governance. We focused on quantity rather than quality. We assumed that a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has done. We didn’t demand enough funding or facilities. We didn’t insist on sufficient autonomy — nailed into place, not just vaguely promised. We wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but we didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.
The laudable impulse to concentrate first on poor, minority kids trapped in abysmal inner-city schools contributed to charters getting the reputation for just being places for poor, minority inner-city dwellers to attend. There’s a certain sameness across much of the charter world and (save perhaps for virtual schools) not enough real innovation. The R&D quality of charters has eroded, along with the vision of the late Albert Shanker, longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers, that charters would emerge as teacher-created, teacher-run schools.
Yet the future holds at least as many challenges and unresolved questions as it calls for corrections for some oversights of the past. As the charter sector has emerged as a durable — and in some places sizable — element of American public education, issues have come into focus that call for fresh policy thinking. For example, if charters come to instruct large fractions of a city’s children, who is responsible for the “education safety net” by which every kid has access to a school that can satisfactorily address his educational needs? What about the challenges of pupil discipline and the related question of whether charters must retain every youngster that they admit, regardless of behavior or academic performance? Must every school be expected to accommodate the singular challenges of every child, no matter how difficult or esoteric? What about encouraging more charters to serve clienteles other than disadvantaged city dwellers: middle-class kids, gifted children, just girls or just boys, children of military personnel, and others? Why not select students — rather than conduct random lotteries — for some schools (for gifted kids, say, or Mandarin learners, future chemists, or violinists)? What about charters that want to deviate from state academic standards in order to focus on particular specialties, including some that opt to concentrate on quality career or technical education rather than academic preparation for college? Back in 1991, when Minnesota tiptoed into the charter pond — and in 2000 when we wrote about this new education phenomenon — issues such as these were beyond the visible horizon. Today, however, they’re right in front of us.
Does the charter movement retain the nimbleness and audacity to take on these and other challenges, or will it, like so many one-time reforms, ossify into a conventional interest group?
There’s reason for hope. This movement is still basically bipartisan — a rarity in today’s polarized policy world. Most charters are union-free and in some cases free from state-licensure requirements for principals and teachers. There has been remarkable demand, both by kids and families wanting to choose and by people and organizations wanting to start schools. We also have some fantastic proof points about the ability of great schools to alter the life prospects of poor kids. Some “chains” of charters manage to demonstrate sustained and widespread quality while also illustrating the concept of virtual school systems.
This is not the first time — and won’t be the last — that a grand policy initiative has encountered bumps and yielded mixed results. When so many thousands of complex institutions are spread across thousands of jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation are profound, and all the more so when what’s being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as public schooling. The pushback against charters has been intense. But their promoters have sometimes been naïve, too, and occasionally self-interested. And as we have noted, many of today’s challenges could not have been fully anticipated. In such circumstances, there’s no shame in acknowledging imperfection and incompleteness. Indeed, it would be shameful not to encourage recalibration and further experimentation.
Where it has worked well, the charter-school movement has worked so well that it amply deserves to be sustained and perfected. Where it hasn’t, wise policymakers will push back against its tendency to turn into a self-interested protector of mediocrity. Billions of tax dollars and, more important, millions of children’s futures are at stake.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., is Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Research and Innovation.
Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor in the K-12 Education Program with the Walton Family Foundation. He is former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Policy and an emeritus board member of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Walton Family Foundation or the Fordham Foundation.