Can the Broken Charter System Be Fixed?

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It seems that every day, someone new is coming forth to proclaim they can solve the “broken” education system in this country. Whether it was the declaration of the “new math” of the 1960s, the “open classrooms” of the 1970s, the smaller class sizes of the 1990s, or the recent trend of charter schools, our nation has a tendency to latch on to something that works great under certain circumstances but is incredibly problematic when expanded state- or nationwide. On that note, the amount of positive publicity surrounding charter schools in recent years has led to an explosion of new charter schools throughout the country. Although there is a great promise in the charter movement, I fear that without proper forethought, it will turn out to be just another fad that the world of education will look back on with an embarrassed chuckle 10 years down the road.

First, a little prudent disclosure: I am an administrator at a charter school in California, and I have spent my entire career working at charter schools. I know that charter schools can be fantastic and productive institutions in almost any community. Each of the three where I taught and administered had a clear vision, a workable long-term plan to fulfill that vision, and the overwhelming support of the surrounding community.

But charter schools are not the quick-fix answer to our problems. Effective charter schools evolve from a community need and are only able to thrive when they serve that need. Increasingly, many charter schools are starting up without a clear objective beyond responding to an unfocused malaise about their neighboring, lackluster schools. Without a clear focus, many of these new charters are floundering. As these floundering schools multiply, the problems inherent in starting a new small school multiply, threatening the viability of the entire charter school movement.

One of the most pressing problems I have witnessed results from the economies of scale that come into play within schools and districts. At a large comprehensive school, more students translate into more money, which translates into more programs and more services. At a small startup charter, which may begin with only one grade level, there are barely enough students to support the necessary services and staff. As the school grows, staffing needs will increase. But without the backing of a large district, the school will run into trouble securing funding for additional staff, salaries, buildings, special education, and a slew of other important expenses.

Districts are able to shuffle money around more easily as well as borrow money for large projects with greater ease—a luxury that the vast majority of charters do not have simply because of their small size. For charters with ample community support, financial challenges can be overcome with diligent fundraising. But for the majority of new charters, which may not have such a deep well of community support, financial challenges can lead to serious problems that not only undermine the future success of a school but ultimately could undermine the entire charter school movement.

Charters have a tendency to hire cheap and inexperienced teachers who tend to be very passionate about their subjects and excited to be in the classroom, but who may not have enough natural teaching talent to be wholly successful. With relatively fewer experienced teachers, some charters may falter under the weight of that inexperience. Charters also tend, perhaps erroneously, to hire fewer administrators, in an effort to save money. If a school is being led by an overburdened administrative team, then the routine tasks required to keep a school running tend to take precedence over the leadership and mentoring that are central to a successful school. This lack of direction is detrimental, if not deadly, to a new charter school—an administrator who is stretched too thin cannot truly be effective at his or her job.

In an effort to save money, many charters are making financial decisions that make sense in the short term but can be fatal in the longer term. In the charters where I have worked, the ones that were successful knew where to spend the money. They knew there needed to be a balance between young, passionate teachers and older, more experienced mentors. There was also a recognition that people (even principals) have their limits and that forcing them to do too many jobs means something else suffers. Frankly, many charters are not well run and, as a result, they fail to deliver on many of their lofty promises, ultimately serving their students poorly and eroding public faith in charter schools as a whole.

As a dedicated member of the charter school movement, I am pleading for adequate planning and restraint. Just because a community sees a problem in its local school does not mean that a charter school is necessarily the best solution. I believe that in many cases it could be a great solution, but if we, as a society, wholeheartedly embrace this movement as our go-to solution, we will most certainly end up doing more harm than good. If you are going to start a charter, make sure you know where a steady stream of funding is coming from and where that money will be best spent. Make sure to have a focused vision of where you want the school to be now and in the future. A simple and common-sense request, I know, but one that all too often is not heeded.

Vol. 30, Issue 15

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