Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

So You Want To Start A Charter School?

By Tom Watkins — September 06, 1995 7 min read
  • Allow choice, alternatives, and options within the public school system. One size fits all--or the you-can-have-any-color-you-like-as-long-as-it’s-black syndrome--is no longer acceptable in public education.
  • Break the exclusive franchise or monopoly of the existing system by allowing state universities, community colleges, and state school boards to offer public education.
  • Be public schools. Charter-school laws assure that schools do not discriminate against students on the basis of intellect, athletic ability, academic achievement, handicapped status, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a existing public school district.
  • Be nonsecular.
  • Increase accountability in exchange for the relaxation of bureaucratic rules and regulations. (“You will be set free and you must produce results.”)
  • Reduce the mandates from above and let the directions that fill the void come from parents, students, and teachers.
  • Empower teachers, parents, and other community members to create new, innovative public schools.
  • Produce educational results for the students or risk being closed down due to a lack of customers.

As a Democrat, I have been asked this question (and meaner versions) often over the past four years. Yes, I support public schools and believe they have helped shape this country. No, I do not believe that teachers or their unions are the problem. Yes, I do support public school choice and breaking up the exclusive franchise that public school districts currently hold on parents and children.

In spite of public schools’ past achievements, the current system is leaving far too many children behind. Efforts under way to “fix” or help existing public schools may be laudable, but more can and should be done for the students and their parents--not for the district or the system.

I often hear the following questions: “How could you collaborate with the enemy (conservatives, Republicans, free marketers, etc.) in supporting the establishment of charter schools?” “Don’t you realize that this is the ‘camel’s nose under the tent,’ the first step down the slippery slope to a voucher system?” I have pointed out to these questioners that of the first eight states to pass charter-school legislation, four had Democratic governors and four Republican. More impressively, in those first eight states, 13 of the 16 legislative bodies involved in the charter-school decision were controlled by Democrats. Hey, even President Clinton, the “New Democrat,” supported the student-focused value of charter schools in his 1994 State of the Union address. If I am wrong, I am not alone.

But neither am I naive enough to believe that all charter-school advocates share my vision of public, child-centered charter schools. Certainly there are those who see this innovation as a back-door route to using public funds for private and religious schools--or simply as a way to make a profit. From my recent experience in this area, I would put charter-school advocates into three main categories:

  • Zealots and ideologues. These people tend to view charter schools passionately, as a way toward “the truth” or at least an intermediate answer to public education’s problems that will suffice until they can get a voucher system in place. Their enthusiasm and devotion to the cause blinds them to complexities. “Have charter--will reform,” is their battle cry; their belief system, an amalgam of the following homilies: Private is always better than public, the market system is inherently superior to the public system, unions are always the problem, and private and religious schools out-perform public schools even when socioeconomic differences are taken into account.

    This group is on a mission--watch out!

  • The entrepreneurs. I have no problem with people making money. In fact, I could care less if the private sector, represented by such companies as Education Alternatives Inc. or the Edison Project, makes a profit operating public schools. But that profit margin has to come after the real bottom line: children getting the education they need and deserve. If someone can develop a method of educating young people that is effective, innovative, and inclusive and makes money, more power to them.

    Profit motives, per se, don’t concern me. My concern is for some of the vultures I see circling charter schools with no real regard for the educational outcomes of the children in them. This group is slick, their presentations and proposals look good on the surface--but the long-run prospects for real beneficial change for the students are limited.

    They remind me of some of the community-group-home operators I encountered as the director of a state mental-health department. The overwhelming majority of the private nonprofit groups in this field run high-quality community-care facilities. But there are a minority who abuse the system, cheat the clients, and live off other people’s misery. They pad their payrolls, skimp on quality, and maximize their income. The motive is money--not service. Look out for these so-called entrepreneurs in education.

  • Child-, parent-, and teacher-centered reformers. There are many people (I would like to think I fall into this category) who believe strongly in the value of public education yet realize it is flawed and, in some places, near the breaking point. These individuals and organizations realize that real changes will require boldness and risk-taking. To these reformers, charter schools are not anti-public schools but pro-child, pro-public choice, and they offer real alternatives. These reformers realize that charter schools are not intended to replace all existing public school systems, but will, just as Apple Computer helped change the culture of I.B.M. and foreign automobile makers prodded change in domestic-auto quality, provide the productive tension needed to spur enhancements in children’s learning environments.

Are charter schools a panacea? Absolutely not. Is there a possibility that the zealots, ideologues, and opportunists will enter the fray? Of course. As the old Chinese proverb says, “When you open the window--all the flies can come in.”

But when the plans for public charter schools adhere to the following concepts, they offer real hope for real change. Public charter schools should:

  • Allow choice, alternatives, and options within the public school system. One size fits all--or the you-can-have-any-color-you-like-as-long-as-it’s-black syndrome--is no longer acceptable in public education.
  • Break the exclusive franchise or monopoly of the existing system by allowing state universities, community colleges, and state school boards to offer public education.
  • Be public schools. Charter-school laws assure that schools do not discriminate against students on the basis of intellect, athletic ability, academic achievement, handicapped status, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a existing public school district.
  • Be nonsecular.
  • Increase accountability in exchange for the relaxation of bureaucratic rules and regulations. (“You will be set free and you must produce results.”)
  • Reduce the mandates from above and let the directions that fill the void come from parents, students, and teachers.
  • Empower teachers, parents, and other community members to create new, innovative public schools.
  • Produce educational results for the students or risk being closed down due to a lack of customers.

It is not enough for the critics of charter schools to stand on the sidelines and paint all charter-school advocates as “right-wingers,” “the religious right,” or “anti-union conservatives.” Charter schools are a reality in 12 states with at least a half a dozen more states ready to enact laws this year. It is our collective responsibility to assure that the principles of public education are maintained while we make necessary changes for the children.

I call on members of teachers’ unions to stop seeing charter schools and their supporters as the enemy and to join us in creating new, exciting public educational possibilities. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the best charter schools (measured by student performance) were organized and operated by members of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association?

Let’s compete to improve education for the students. I challenge the NEA and the aft to create a charter school in each of the states where laws permit, to free those schools from state rules and regulations while their personnel operate under current collective-bargaining agreements, and to show the world that teachers, not rhetoric, educate children. Public charter schools offer public school teachers their best route to assuming their rightful role as true education professionals.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as So You Want To Start A Charter School?

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