School Choice & Charters Opinion

Five Myths of the Charter Public School Movement

By Joe Nathan — January 08, 2015 8 min read
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Today, Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change files his first response to Deborah Meier on the Bridging Differences blog. Mr. Nathan will co-blog with Ms. Meier in coming weeks.

Dear Deb,

Thank for this opportunity. You may be surprised to know that I’m both exhilarated and infuriated by what I see happening with the charter idea. Today I want to describe five myths about the charter public school movement. Many people don’t know, for example about the role Rosa Parks, Kenneth Clark and other civil rights heroes played in chartering.

My information comes from being involved as urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate for more than 40 years. Incidentally, our three children attended St. Paul district schools K-12.

I also helped write the first charter law. Legislators/governors in more than 25 states have asked that I helped develop/refine their charter legislation. My work in part is to help learn from and apply lessons from the most effective public schools, district and charter.

Myth 1 - Charters have nothing to do with learning—they’re all about markets

Deb, you wrote a terrific Nation magazine article in 1991 called “Choice Can Save Public Education.” I agree that choice done right (an important pair of words) will help.

That’s because there’s no single best school for all youngsters. Some learn more in a Montessori or project-based school. Others thrive in a Core Knowledge school. Some really enjoy language immersion or an arts focus. Some high school youngsters function best in the greater freedom of a college campus. Most prefer being in a high school.

A central, but often ignored, rationale for options is that all students don’t learn the same way, or have the same interests. Having different kinds of schools, as you did in East Harlem, helps increase the number of students who will reach their potential.

However, even when done well, choice by itself is not a solution to all of education’s problems.

You wrote a blog some years later that East Harlem created great options, but "... then ... a new chancellor and a new state commissioner put an end to it.”

Deb, you described a problem not only in New York, but also throughout the country. Too many great schools were closed when school boards or superintendents changed.

By 1988, some of us decided that to have lasting, effective public school options, educators needed a contract for performance, autonomy in exchange for opportunity, and some group in addition to a local board with the power to give permission to open and monitor the school. The charter idea as carried out first in Minnesota legislation, and now many other states, is, as Ted Kolderie wrote, an effort by which “The State will have to withdraw the Exclusive” (power to create schools only by local boards).

Fortunately, in some places, like Boston, the local school board has responded to a charter law by accepting a union proposal to create “Pilot Schools” like Mission Hill, which you founded. Some other districts have created new options in response to local charter.

Here in Minnesota, the St. Paul district started a new Montessori middle school, responding to a very popular Montessori junior/senior charter. A suburban district started a Chinese immersion program responding to an excellent charter that opened first.

2. Charters are not “public”

State legislators in more than 40 states have decided chartering is part of public education. Here are key elements of the charter idea as developed in first in Minnesota legislation and then in many other states, including New York and Massachusetts, where you’ve helped start and run schools.

  • More than one organization has the power to approve, monitor, and, if necessary, close schools
  • The schools must be nonsectarian and not use any admissions or audition test. (That’s a big difference from elite quasi-private “magnet schools” in many large cities that use exclusively or primarily standardized tests to determine who is admitted. That’s a terrible idea.) A lottery must be used if there are more applicants than openings.
  • Families and faculty must choose schools.
  • Schools should receive the state’s average per-pupil funding, like other public schools.
  • The schools are part of a state’s public education program. Faculty may participate in the state’s retirement program.
  • Each school has a contract for performance (i.e. a charter) specifying goals it intends to accomplish over a set period, typically three to five years.
  • In exchange for enhanced responsibility, schools receive a waiver from most state regulations except those pertaining to building safety.
  • No waiver is offered from any federal laws.

These features came directly from frustrating experience of many people, like you, trying to create options within traditional districts.

In the 1970s, I helped start two innovative district schools, one in Minneapolis, and one in St. Paul. I taught social studies and other subjects in fall 1971 at the K-12 district option, St. Paul Open School. That school, now grades 6-12, is still operating. Key features were parents, faculty, and students helping make decisions, multiple forms of measurement, using community-based learning, graduation via portfolio, and an adviser/advisee system.

The U.S. Department of Education recognized Open School as a “Carefully evaluated, proven innovation worthy of national replication.” I spent several years directing the project that helped other educators create similar programs.

But over the 40-year history of that school, the district sometimes assigned principals who actively opposed the school’s philosophy. You know what a problem that can be.

In 1983, I wrote a book called Free to Teach describing problems innovative district educators were encountering. Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the National Governors Association, read it. He hired me to coordinate the governors’ development of priorities for improving preK-16 education.

The concluding report was Time for Results. With encouragement from governors such as Bill Clinton, Richard Riley, and Dick Lamm, Gov. Alexander wrote that the “Governors are ready for some old fashioned horse trading. We’ll regulate less if schools are more willing to be responsible for results.” That’s a key phrase. The report also urged expansion of early childhood, shared facilities, etc. That “horse trading” idea helped lead to the charter idea.

3. Charters have nothing to do with expanding civil rights

Charter advocates were influenced in part by the kind of frustration felt by many African-Americans.

Dr. Kenneth Clark’s 1968 article, “Alternative Public School Systems,” in Harvard Education Review shares that anger and desire to move beyond reliance only on local districts. Clark’s “doll test” research was cited in the Brown v. Board decision. By 1968, frustrated by many districts’ treatment of African-American students, he recommended new public schools created by groups operating OUTSIDE existing public school systems.

It’s not surprising that civil rights legend Rosa Parks spent part of the last decade of her life trying to start a charter in Detroit.

4: Charters promote segregation

Bill Wilson, a friend and colleague is the first African-American elected to the St. Paul, Minn., City Council. He also served as Minnesota’s state commissioner of human rights. Bill was forced to attend an inferior school miles from home when he was a youngster because of his race. He has founded and is the executive director of a charter public school that has won numerous local and national awards. The school is 100 percent African-American and more than 90 percent low income. Bill has pointed out: There is “a huge difference between forcing people, because of their race, to attend a school, and giving new options to people, especially those from low-income families and families of color.”

Many other African-American, Native American, and Latino educators have started charters than are predominantly students of one race. They agree with Bill—there is a huge difference between assigning students to an inferior school because of their race, and giving them options.

5. There’s little innovation in the charter movement

Some people have made terrific use of the opportunities chartering provided. In a future response, I’ll offer more examples, including the “teacher led” school idea. This is being done by some charters and has been picked up by some districts and unions.

We now have charters created by groups of teachers, who are the majority of the board of directors running the school. It’s run as a workers’ cooperative. The teacher-majority board sets their salaries, working conditions, curriculum, etc. That’s real teacher empowerment.

There are other examples of innovations. I’ll say more in future responses.

Unquestionably, some people in the charter movement are incompetent. Some are crooks. The same is true of district schools—there are some great, OK, and mediocre ones. We should be learning from the most effective, whether traditional district or charter.

Like district schools, charters vary widely in philosophy, instructional approaches, focus, etc. So trying to make a broad statement comparing districts and charters is like trying to compare gas mileage of leased and rented cars. Not a meaningful comparison.

You refer to some charters as more like a chain. The majority of charters are independent. But, yes, some of them are part of a group. Would you regard Coalition of Essential Schools, or Core Knowledge, or Montessori schools as “chain” schools? CES, Core Knowledge, and Montessori schools share key principles, but differ in some ways. That’s also true for example, for Achievement First, KIPP, and YES Prep Schools.

Yes, some charters are run from central offices. I’d suggest judging them (and all public schools) by results—not by who runs them.

You asked great questions that I gave incomplete answers to. In future columns, I’ll spend more time responding. But I wanted to respond to five myths, and explain why some of the strongest charter advocates are veterans of traditional district schools.


Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.