Seeking Clarity in Charter School Governance
Charter schools were created to provide a space for school leaders to innovate and adapt to the needs and strengths of the children they serve. It is clear now, more than two decades after the first charter school opened its doors, that chartering is a great first step, but not enough.
Charter laws, which differ from state to state, leave undefined gray areas about school freedoms and the role of authorizers. Some laws offer school leaders few freedoms. For instance, Maryland's law forces charters to abide by the provisions of the local collective bargaining agreement for teachers. But none makes it entirely clear what charters and their authorizers may, must, or can't do.
The ambiguities have their downsides. Charter leaders complain that authorizers, especially school districts, change the rules and impose new requirements in response to a problem in only one school, or whenever it suits them. And negligent authorizers indulge schools that should, under any serious performance-accountability scheme, be closed.
School districts inevitably face a conflict of interest, tempted to favor the schools they run directly (and the teachers they employ) over schools run by independent parties. Yet giving chartering power to other agencies means that no one agency is responsible for all of a city's students.
These factors and others crowd out people with good ideas and promising approaches to educating children, and make it hard for parents and students to navigate their choices. The only way to eliminate these problems is to clarify the government's role in public education and limit its powers. We argue that a more bounded set of responsibilities would enable local school boards to focus their attention on what matters most: ensuring that all children benefit from public education.
A more permanent approach is needed to ensure that schools have the freedom of action to adapt to the needs of diverse learners and to focus public oversight on performance, not compliance. Our new book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, shows how this can be done. We propose that a local school board should have only two powers: to approve an annual slate of schools to operate in its locality, and to employ a CEO who will track school performance, identify children and neighborhoods whose needs are not being met by the current schools, and find school providers to meet unmet needs and replace nonperforming schools. Schools, not government, would employ teachers. All schools would also rent or buy facilities and technology and decide how to deliver instruction. Families would choose schools based on their children's particular learning needs, and money would follow those children to the schools they attend. There would be no big district bureaucracy to consume resources that would be better utilized at the school level.
States could maintain independent charter authorizers, but these would be similarly limited in what they could require of schools. School boards or authorizers that shirked their duties (for instance, did nothing for neglected groups or let low-performing schools persist indefinitely) would be decertified and replaced.
We call this new system constitutional because of its emphasis on limited powers for government and checks and balances. It eliminates the idea that school freedom is a privilege to be revoked whenever public officials deem it convenient. Government must be clear about what it will provide schools. For example, government needs to address exactly how pupil-weighted funding schemes will work, what facilities will be provided and at what cost, and how public transportation resources will be used. It should also be clear from the beginning what schools must do, such as providing evidence of performance, admitting students fairly, and serving students with special needs.
All of this would be established in a "schools' bill of rights." Guarantees of school freedom or use of public resources would not just be verbal. A school would have a right to compensation if, for example, its school board or authorizer failed to provide promised funds, changed enrollment criteria and admissions processes to the school's disadvantage, or required new testing or data reports.
Like any system of rights, these would need to be exercised and defended. If one school accepted a new burden, rather than challenge its authorizer, all would be threatened. The same would be true of a school board or charter authorizer that favored one school by going easy on it or giving it extra money. Unlike under chartering, schools would have incentives to defend the level playing field for all, rather than make their own deals with government.
In the past 20 years, reformers have learned a lot thanks to chartering, and have shown that empowering school leaders and teachers to make decisions can benefit students via better school climates and increased time for learning. But we have also seen the limitations of what is, at best, a blunt instrument. It's time to go beyond chartering and bring clarity to public education governance.
Vol. 34, Issue 23, Pages 22-23