President Donald Trump’s selection of billionaire and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education has further politicized the federal role in education and is heating up the long-standing conflict over charter schools.
The rancorous opposition to DeVos’ nomination reflects how confusing the issue of school choice has become. As long as the debate is framed as charter schools vs. public schools, there will be no winners, and the big losers will be the nation’s students.
Our country needs a centrist solution—a strategy that addresses the concerns of both camps and recognizes that there is truth on both sides of the debate. That strategy should reinforce the original purpose of charter schools as expressed by dozens of state charter laws: To create schools that become vanguards, laboratories, and an expression of the ongoing and vital state interest in the improvement of public education. With the charter expansion of the 2000s, however, that worthy goal was often ignored.
Many of the roughly 6,900 current charter schools do not qualify as innovation laboratories. Most states have not limited charters to those that promise to be different from traditional public schools. As a result, many are basically traditional schools on steroids, with longer hours, student uniforms, and strict discipline.
Some authorizers, meanwhile, see charters as a way to avoid unions or regulations, and offer alternatives to parents unhappy with their neighborhood options. These are the charter schools—many of which are run by large for-profit or nonprofit organizations—that can be reasonably viewed as competing with district schools. They give weight to the argument that the chartering movement is a concerted effort led by ultrawealthy conservatives to privatize public education.
DeVos’ home state makes the case. During the 2013-14 school year, Michigan had 296 charters operating about 370 schools—61 percent of which were managed by a full-service, for-profit management company, according to a study by the Detroit Free Press. Another 17 percent relied on for-profit companies for other services, such as staffing and human resources.
Critics insist that charter school operations undermine public schools, draining scarce funds from school districts. Charter advocates argue, among other things, that traditional public schools do not have the expense of educating transfer students. But the money saved is of little consolation to principals who lose students but cannot reduce teacher-salary costs accordingly, because they must comply with state mandates and union contracts from which charters are generally exempt.
At their best, the most innovative charter schools provide convincing evidence that there are better ways to educate students (especially disadvantaged ones) than now prevail in most traditional district schools. Infact, these pioneering schools bring together most of the innovative policies and practices needed to transform the nation’s traditional schools into the most successful in the world.
Most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation."
And yet, most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation. And their processes are so ingrained that one significant alteration would inevitably lead to systemic change or even a total redesign. Few public educators can imagine, let alone undertake, such dramatic change.
So what would a centrist solution look like? It should be based on two essential premises:
First, states must recommit to the original purpose of charter schools as innovation laboratories that will collaborate with district schools to improve practice and student achievement. Going forward, charters should be granted only to schools that pledge to collaborate. This will not be easy because with more than a million students nationwide on charter waiting lists, the high demand for charters means there will be pressure from parents for these schools just to open their doors.
Second, the growing demand for more charters creates an even greater urgency for the improvement of traditional public schools. Experience suggests that traditional district schools, on their own, are probably incapable of adopting the structural and practice changes necessary to prepare the majority of students for the challenges of an uncertain future. The state must provide the authority and resources to motivate and help districts adopt successful innovative practices developed by pioneering charter and district schools.
The trade-off in a centrist compromise is clear: If districts do not want to lose students and funding to a growing charter school sector, then they must build rich interaction with existing innovative charters and embrace the practices and philosophy that make those schools attractive to parents and students.
And if advocates for chartering want to achieve their original goal of improving public education, they must agree that new charters be limited to schools that promise to be nontraditional. The nation does not need more charter schools that are little different from the traditional district schools with which they compete.
Only if both sides in the debate agree that the goal must be to substantially improve public education and raise achievement for all students can such a compromise work. And states, as the institutions constitutionally responsible for public education, have an obligation to make such improvements their highest priority.
Without a centrist solution, we will continue to waste resources, time, and the futures of millions of children.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as End the Charter Schools War