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Charter Schools: Escape or Reform?

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The charter school movement, started as a means of escape for small numbers of dissidents, is evolving into an engine of broader reform for public education. The movement is still small, with fewer than 300 of the nation's 85,000 public schools operating under charters that allow public funding and freedom of action in return for accountability for results, but it might soon be strong enough to transform the definition of public education and the ways school districts operate.

Perhaps the most important sign that the charter school movement is maturing from escape to reform is the effort in many states to raise or eliminate the ridiculously low caps on the numbers of charter schools (25 in Massachusetts and Colorado; 100 in all of California). Without arbitrary caps, the numbers of charter schools in any locality would be limited only by the supply of qualified applicants. In some communities, all public schools might eventually be operated by independent groups of teachers, parents, social-service agencies, teachers' unions, or independent nonprofits.

This possibility is a long way from the original dreams of the few teachers and parents who just wanted to remove their own schools from the burdens of regulation and school board oversight. Early charter school supporters saw local boards as major impediments to educational innovation. They wanted to make it easy, almost automatic, for private groups to get charters. The law in Michigan, for example, makes it possible for school sponsors to bypass local boards entirely, by requesting charters from other public agencies, including state colleges and universities.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

The possibility of unlimited numbers of charter schools puts a different light on the desirability of automatic approval and multiple routes of authorization. If charters are to become widespread or universal, some mechanism of community oversight is necessary. Charter schools will not be isolated exceptions--they will be the way that the community educates many or all of its children. Some community forum or agent must ensure that there is a school for every student, that parents get help validating schools' claims, and that there is some connection between what students are taught at one level of education (for example, elementary school) and what the next higher level of education requires. If they are seen as normal ways of delivering public education, charter schools are not about total autonomy. They are about educational diversity, innovation, responsiveness to community needs, and ultimately, improved performance.

Those who, like the present authors, see charter schools as a route to comprehensive reform of public education are critical of local school boards as they now operate. But they think boards need to be reformed into the kinds of community agencies described above, not bypassed entirely. They want charter school laws to transform local boards from operators of a highly regulated bureaucracy into managers of a system of individual schools, each with its own mission, clientele, and basis of accountability.

Supporters of reform-oriented charter school laws do not want to go back to the system of bureaucratic control that led to the charter movement in the first place. They want to create a system of charter schools that takes account of both the public and the private interests in schooling. Charter bills now being drafted in several states would change the powers of local school boards so they can and must authorize charter schools. They would constrain local boards' discretion so that a charter must be granted to any group that can meet established criteria. Once a charter is granted, a school's survival would depend on whether the parents and teachers who run it deliver the kinds of instruction promised and whether, on objective measures, students are learning. Private interests, as represented by parent choice, would count, too. Parents could choose among schools, and no school could survive without students. But, again representing a balance of the public and private interests in education, a charter school where students were not learning could be shut down whether or not parents were happy.


No one entirely trusts today's local school boards to give charter applicants a fair chance. Both the "escape" and the "reform" theories of charter schools call for charter applicants to have recourse to appeal if a local board turns down an application. The difference is that the escape-oriented statutes try to set up appeal venues that have biases toward approval of all charter applications, letting a potential school provider shop for an authorizer that is sympathetic with its proposal. Reform-oriented statutes now being drafted would constrain a local board's discretion so that a charter must be granted to any group that can meet established criteria--and cannot be granted to any applicant that fails to meet them.

A move toward objective criteria protects qualified applicants from local boards that would deny charters merely to avoid competition, even while it protects the public from unqualified charter providers. Charter schools could therefore be trusted to claim increasingly large shares of public school students and funding. Some local boards might eventually oversee all-charter systems. Then, local boards would no longer operate schools themselves. They would be more like the Federal Communications and Securities and Exchange commissions, which promote fair competition and protect consumers, than like an armed service or police department, which runs everything directly.

In their haste to be free of school districts and to establish their own schools, followers of the "escape" theory of charter schools give up an important source of financial and administrative support. Without some external support, charter schools must provide for themselves all the protections once provided by the district, including start-up capital, liability insurance and teacher retirement, legal advice, and other professional services. As some charter school operators have already found, skimping on assistance and advice puts the whole enterprise at risk, including children's educational opportunities, the founders' own time and money, and the public's funds. Total autonomy is an illusion. Even well-established independent schools join associations to provide access to teacher labor markets, staff development, performance assessment, and help with self-evaluation.

If they are to become central to a whole community's effort to educate its children, charter schools must have clear and reliable relationships with community agencies that can authorize charters, guarantee funding, and hold school operators to their promises. Those community agencies--which for the want of a better term we call local school boards--are as essential to a charter-based reform of public education as are the groups of teachers, parents, and others who agree to accept charters to operate individual schools. If the local mix of schools depends entirely on individual initiative, no one is responsible for the overall quality and appropriateness of a community's schools. This consequence is scarcely different from the results of a voucher scheme,under which schools are provided only by private entrepreneurs.

All charter school supporters agree that charter schools should be run by their own founders and staff, and freed from most of the process requirements that limit how current public schools hire and teach. But it matters whether charter schooling is about escape or reform. If charter schools are for escape, charter laws should make it easy for new schools to form without prior community scrutiny of school plans or operators' qualifications, enroll students, and claim public funds. Charter schools' survival should depend almost exclusively on parent satisfaction; no elected board or appointed superintendent should have any discretion about the establishment, continuation, or closing of a charter school.

But if charter schools are for reform, we must devise a system of public education that combines the educational advantages of school independence with the economic advantages of school districts. Today, local school boards are a problem for all charter school applicants. But in the long run, local boards with new missions and limitations can be integral parts of the charter school movement.

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