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Education Opinion

Why Charter Districts Can Work—and Why They Might Not

By Neerav Kingsland — January 25, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the United States of America Part III

Why Charter Districts Can Work--and Why They Might Not

Superintendents, I predict that charter districts will lead to better execution, increased attraction of talent, and more innovation. I’ve written about these positive attributes elsewhere, so I’ll briefly summarize below. But I also want to devote a significant portion of this section to exploring why charter districts might not work. Developing charter districts poses serious risks to student learning--and these risks must be considered.

Why Charter Districts Can Work: A Brief and Limited Overview

Monopolistic employers lead to dysfunctional labor relations: When there is only one employer in town, and it happens to be poorly run, labor relations will get ugly quick. Thick contracts are the norm (have a cocktail, sit back, and read this). I don’t blame the unions for their contracts--it is a response to a poorly set-up system.

Attracting the Top Third: The highest performing countries draw teachers from the top third of college graduates. All Hail Finland. Research shows charter schools attract teachers from more selective colleges. More here. Fighting over state mandated teacher evaluations is, in the long run, a waste of time. Just open more charter schools.

Innovation requires experimentation: Traditional school districts retain a monopoly of method which is equally as harmful as their monopoly of operation. A diverse charter school sector will experiment more frequently than a monolithic bureaucracy. The work coming out of Uncommon Schools (here, here, here) is mind-blowing. Want more: here, here, here, here, here. Charter schools innovate better than districts.

Why It Could Get Worse: Potential Pitfalls of Charter Districts

Terrible charter schools poorly educate children throughout our country. Charter school districts could fail as well. Superintendents, trust me when I say I think about this incessantly. Some possible reasons for failure include:

New Orleans is not Replicable: The New Orleans charter district formed in part because of a natural disaster. The city attracted extremely entrepreneurial and risk-taking individuals. Perhaps there can only be one such place. The success of smaller pilot endeavors is not always replicable. Given that New Orleans is the only true example of a charter district, we should be cautious about scaling this unique situation.

Poor Regulation: Charter school districts are not free markets. Governments approve plans for schools and set government mandated performance targets. If the government authorizes weak schools and fails to close schools that don’t serve kids--well, Ohio serves as major warning. Furthermore, in newer markets, ill-intentioned first movers could dominate the market if not constrained. Poor regulation could lead to worse educational outcomes.

Culture: People are unpredictable. Perhaps the move to charter schools will alienate educators. Perhaps the trend of charters attracting teachers from more selective colleges collapses. Who knows? School systems include thousands of adults with different histories and beliefs, making behavioral prediction very difficult.

International Comparisons: The highest-performing national educational systems do not utilize charter schools as a primary strategy. Given that I think charter districts will work, I view this as a monumental national opportunity. But the global paucity of charter districts should give Relinquishers pause.

Together, all of these pitfalls warrant immense caution. Mitigating these risks is of great importance. We should not create charter districts overnight, and we should prepare for some failure. This will be discussed tomorrow.

Let Me End with a Chart

Jimmy Carter, an unheralded Relinquisher, deregulated the railroad industry via the Staggers Act. This led to better execution (ability to charge market rates and enter into open contracts), more innovation (aluminum freight wagons and more fuel efficient engines increased the number of ton-miles per gallon of fuel by 38 percent), and attracted more effective people into the industry (Warren Buffet became a major investor in railroads after deregulation).

At the time of the Staggers Act, most other countries operated nationalized freight railroad systems. Relinquishing the control of freight railroad systems to non-governmental entities was not an international best practice. Today, the United States has one the most effective freight systems in the world.

Reformers--here’s a question to mull over with a glass of wine after a hard day: what would have happened had Jimmy Carter simply tried to reform our government operated freight system? Would similar results have followed?

And one last thing: in the above chart, doesn’t the productivity line plotted between 1964 and 1980 look uncannily like the line plotting NAEP scores of 17 year olds between 1971 and 2008?

It does.

We need a Staggers Act for education. With your large influence, perhaps one of you will call for such legislation.

I hope you do.

Part IV tomorrow.



--Neerav Kingsland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.