Panic struck the education establishment over the election of President Donald Trump and his selection of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education. There was fear that she would preside over a dramatic expansion of nontraditional forms of education, including charter schools. But even senators who opposed DeVos’ nomination concede that charters have become mainstream in the education world. While charters’ continued expansion is important, it’s also clear that their progress has come at a price. Charters are suffering from regulatory strangulation—not from foes, but from so-called friends. As a devoted advocate of charter schools, DeVos, once confirmed, could make her most important contribution to education by restoring sanity in charter school policy.
Charter schools began as a state effort to disrupt districts’ exclusive franchise over education. Since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota a quarter-century ago, this school choice option has united people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles who have wanted more personalized and innovative public education to meet student needs in ways that traditional public schools have often failed to do.
Between 1991 and 1999, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to enact charter school laws in 35 states and the District of Columbia. It was the beginning of a competitive environment that shook the education establishment. In fact, the rise of charter schools mirrors disruptive innovation, a term coined by the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The theory explains how technology allows for the creation of better services, which eventually replace those of well-established competitors. Traditional public schools, for example, are focused on low-risk, sustainable improvements. They lost their dominance in the market to cutting-edge charters that worked to transform labor, capital, materials, and information to better meet consumer needs.
For more than 2.5 million students in almost 7,000 schools, 43 states, and the District of Columbia, charter schools have ignited innovations in how education is delivered, measured, and structured, by lengthening school days, emphasizing project-based learning, and using new and creative models for classroom management. That traditional public education has adopted many of the same notions first tried in charters is cause for celebration. The more established innovations become, the greater their impact. But charters also run the risk of losing the very conditions that made them able to innovate in the first place.
Charters are slowly morphing into bureaucratic, risk-averse organizations fixated on process over experimentation."
That is the precarious position in which the charter sector finds itself today. The operational freedom initially afforded to charters through law, in exchange for performance-based accountability, caught a regulatory fervor that its own advocates invited. Charters are slowly morphing into bureaucratic, risk-averse organizations fixated on process over experimentation. Such organizational behavior is called isomorphism, allowing once-innovative organizations to resemble those they disrupted. The root cause has been a regulatory push of laws at both the state and federal levels. These have empowered state agencies to micromanage everything from the approval to the authorization of charters. Some call it accountability. Others know it better as bureaucracy.
Sociologists Walter W. Powell and Paul DiMaggio discuss the effect of isomorphism on systems of organization in their 1991 book The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. They argue that “once a field becomes well-established ... there is an inexorable push toward homogenization.” In charters’ case, the push toward regulation was a result of stinging critiques in both the media and research, often from inconclusive data.
The critiques of charters are spearheaded largely by a 2009 report from the CREDO Institute, an independent research group at Stanford University, which found that nearly half of charter schools nationwide had academic-performance results that were no different from those of public schools. The group’s report produced the famous and frequently quoted (but incorrect) finding that charter schools do no worse or better than regular public schools and resulted in widespread calls to close charter schools, without third-party vetting of the data. Ultimately, this response started the path toward increased regulation and the stifling of innovation for charter schools.
Even leading advocates of charters, such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, have embraced misleading data points about charters and have begun to allow bureaucratic forces to strangle the charter sector’s innovation. They increasingly advocate one-size-fits-all charter laws and accountability systems. State legislators adopt education laws that are rife with top-down compliance, discouraging the growth of new charter schools.
That’s where the next education secretary could turn the key to reverse this isomorphic trend, starting with gutting the regulatory requirements of the once-simple federal charter-grant program and repealing a bevy of nonregulatory guidance that restricts how states do business. But the new secretary must also be discriminating in personnel selections; even the most prominent leaders in the charter sector have isomorphic tendencies. If charter schools do not reject isomorphism, they will cease to be the laboratories of innovation that made them successful in the first place and will instead become part of the education establishment they were once built to reject.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Untie Charters’ Bureaucratic Strings