School Choice & Charters

In 1998, Workplace-Based Charter Schools Promoted as Way to Ease Commute Times

By Arianna Prothero — April 02, 2015 2 min read
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Let’s go back, waaaay back, to 1998, when Wayne Gretzky and Michelle Kwan were both tearing up the ice, Spice Girl Victoria Adams got engaged to David Beckham, “Titanic” won the Oscar for best picture, and “charter school advocates” were, apparently, called “charter school enthusiasts”. No joke—read on.

That year, the charter school boom of the 90s would spread to include 30 states—but the movement was still relatively new. The full spectrum of possibilities for these independently run, but publicly funded schools was still being explored—for example, could workplace embedded charter schools be the next big thing? (Cue time warp sound-effects...).

Clutching a beeper, one medically garbed mother bolts through the school's front hallway and heads straight for the parent courtesy phone on the wall. It's a common sight here at the Medical Center Charter School, which sits at the edge of what many in Houston call a city within a city. The school was designed to educate the children of some of the 50,000 employees who work nearby in the 675-acre Texas Medical Center. ... Charter enthusiasts point to schools like this one and another in Dallas when they predict that the innovative schools may help redefine the concept of neighborhood public schools."

And not only that, such schools might also cut down on killer commute times, according to a March, 25, 1998, Education Week article I pulled out out of our vast archives.

So, did workplace-based charters ever take off? I posed the question to Todd Ziebarth, a state policy expert with the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“The short answer is no,” he said. “I think there have been a small number of states to pass laws to encourage these kinds of schools, I think Florida was the first, by allowing an enrollment preference.”

But, the bottom line Ziebarth said, is that he could count on one hand the number of states that adopted such laws, and the idea just didn’t jibe with the broader ideals of the charter school movement.

Personally, having a school inside the Education Week office sounds pretty darn convenient to me (I don’t know, maybe we could cordon off a section of the parking garage? Call it Future Ed Wonks College Academy PhD Prep!? Thoughts, anyone?), so I was curious to know why this idea petered out.

Ziebarth said he didn’t know for sure why the concept didn’t catch on, but he suspects the kinds of people who start charter schools are driven more by the desire to serve “kids in a particular community that have suffered from a lack of high-quality options” than convenience.

Fair enough.

But could workplace charter schools still become a thing? Ziebarth expects not in the current policy climate which has been tilting toward stricter authorizing practices that favor proven charter school models.

That, Ziebarth said, is a reaction to the early charter school days when policymakers were inclined to approve any charter school idea and see what worked—an attitude that’s often described as ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ and blamed for some of the persistent school quality problems in states that were early charter adopters.

“The best example of it was 1998, in Texas, where they literally got 100 [charter school] applications and they approved every single one,” said Ziebarth. “As opposed to now, we may have over compensated in that there’s a view that only ‘no excuses’ charter schools should be approved.”

I guess that means Future Ed Wonks College Academy PhD Prep! is a no go.

As for the ‘charter school enthusiast’ moniker, Ziebarth said, “I’ve been called a lot of names, but I’ve never been called that one.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.