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School & District Management Opinion

We Must Diversify Charter School Options

By Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno & Brandon L. Wright — August 23, 2016 6 min read
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June 4 marked the 25th anniversary of Minnesota’s charter school law, the nation’s first. In 1990, charter pioneer Ted Kolderie foresaw that chartering would “introduce the dynamics of choice, competition, and innovation into America’s public school system, while at the same time ensuring that new schools serve broad public purposes.”

A quarter-century later, 43 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, and 6,800 charter schools educate almost 3 million children. Remarkably, charters account for the entire enrollment growth in American public education since 2006. District schools actually lost students during this time, as did some private schools.

Thus far, the mission that chartering has carried out with greatest success and acclaim has been to place tens of thousands of disadvantaged children on a path to college and upward mobility. In fact, charters today primarily serve low-income children of color—the kids who typically fare worst in big-district systems. For reasons of both equity and politics, many state charter laws give priority to schools that focus on such students, while some confine chartering to core cities.


University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski put it this way: “In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement.”

One type of charter school, the so-called “no excuses” model, has had the most visible success at producing these results. Such schools are typically characterized by high behavioral and academic expectations, much more learning time, curricula geared toward college entry, and robust school cultures. Many of them—including such well-known brands as KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Academy—have worked wonders with their youthful charges. In no small part because of their success—as well as the compelling needs of the children they seek to serve—philanthropists, policymakers, a growing school reform movement, and aligned ventures such as Teach For America have striven to expand them across the country. They’ve made great progress—KIPP alone is up to 200 schools—yet plenty of needy kids still lack access to such options. Hence, as we look toward the future of chartering, one rational strategy is to continue scaling and perfecting the no-excuses model.

Yet there’s a downside, too. The focus on this one model, laudable as it is, has narrowed the broad promise originally envisioned by Kolderie and other founders of the charter movement. In fact, in the eyes of many educators, policymakers, and philanthropists—and probably in the eyes of the broader public—chartering has come to be viewed principally as a mechanism for liberating poor kids from bad urban schools and relocating them to better schools. The No Child Left Behind Act, and similar reforms at the state and local levels, equated progress with boosting reading and math test scores for low-achieving and minority youngsters. Philanthropy, too, has contributed to this narrowing of focus as—for legitimate reasons—it channeled most of its K-12 dollars into strategies and schools that promised to boost achievement for those students.

Poor kids need those options, too, but they're not the only pupil population that can benefit from charters."

But is this important mission all that the charter sector should undertake? Chartering’s founders didn’t think so, nor do we. We know that no-excuses schools don’t suit every child or family seeking alternatives to woeful neighborhood options. Some balk at this model’s rigid practices, which can yield great test scores but don’t necessarily cultivate qualities of character, creativity, and deep understanding. Critics also fret that no-excuses schools don’t do a great job of preparing young people for the independence and self-management they’ll need to thrive in college and beyond. It’s also a fact that, because they provide additional services and all those extra hours, no-excuses schools typically need more money than is generally supplied by regular charter funding streams. This adds a special fundraising burden to a sector that already receives nearly 30 percent less per pupil in operating dollars than do nearby district schools—and that, in many places, also gets no help with the cost of facilities.

The focus of no-excuses schools on minority kids also plays into the hands of critics who assert that charters are resegregating public education. Analysts affiliated with the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, assert that “charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.” We find no merit in those allegations—indeed, University of Arkansas researchers reached opposite conclusions from the same data—but chartering faces strong political headwinds even without this additional tempest.

Charter insiders know that this sector is already more diverse than the hype around no-excuses schools suggests. Indeed, a recent American Enterprise Institute study of charters in 17 cities found roughly equal numbers of more progressive models and no-excuses schools. (Plenty of other charters fit neither category.)

Poor kids need those options, too, but they’re not the only pupil population that can benefit from charters. In the years ahead, we believe chartering should plant many seeds and cultivate many crops. It’s a flexible instrument that can address all manner of needs and opportunities. What about more high-quality career-and-technical-education charters, or charters for gifted and talented students? (More than 100 charter schools now focus on children with disabilities.) Charters for art enthusiasts? Personalized-learning charters that take advantage of digital options to let kids proceed through the curriculum at their own pace? More charters for youthful offenders and former offenders? Schools just for girls and just for boys? For athletes or classicists? Character-and-civics-centric charters? Schools for rural residents? For kids whose posh but rigid suburban districts don’t meet their needs? More teacher-led schools?

Since it was first conceived, chartering has held the capacity to develop new structures for delivering and governing public education. We look to the next decade or two for chartering to pilot new delivery systems, structures, and governance arrangements, as have already begun to emerge via networks like KIPP and Aspire and in cities like Washington, Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. We also look to chartering to continue innovating at the system level with respect to staffing, technology, governance, and curriculum.

Enabling such a future will call for imagination and flexibility on many fronts, including changes in chartering’s statutory and regulatory environment, as well as new approaches to accountability and parent information. There’s also a need for more careful attention to sensitive issues of community engagement, human capital, and race. It’s a tall order but one that, if properly filled, will benefit millions more youngsters. As we observe the present anniversary, let us celebrate chartering’s past but not be confined by it. Bona fide school choice means plenty of different options, and chartering is the surest mechanism in America today to make these options available. Let’s use it to the max.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Chartering Must Cultivate Academic Choice


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