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School Choice & Charters Commentary

Why Charter Schools?

By Tony Wagner — June 22, 1994 7 min read

Tony Wagner is the president of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston. He is a former teacher and university professor and was the founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility. His first book, How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities, will be published in August by Beacon Press, with a foreword by Theodore R. Sizer.

Ruben Cabral was for 10 years a housemaster within the 2,400-student Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. In his last two years there, he led the planning and implementation of a school-within-a-school--called The Academy--which features interdisciplinary team teaching, cooperative learning, and other innovations. He succeeded in launching the new program, but the struggles with the local union and school administrators exhausted him and prompted him finally to accept another job.

Shortly before he left, Ruben confided: “The truth of the matter is I’m glad to be getting out. I’m tired of fighting the bureaucracy. There’s more and more of it. Why do we need a business office when we do all the purchasing and payroll here? Why do we need a personnel office, when we are the ones who should be doing the hiring anyway? What do the assistant superintendent and the superintendent’s cabinet [a group of central-office middle managers] contribute to improving schools? Most of our energy goes to fighting the system instead of changing it. We need schools that are completely outside the system. How do you dismantle a bureaucracy?’'

The possibility of creating new charter schools completely outside the confines of existing district and union bureaucracies promises one answer to Ruben Cabral’s question. Charter schools offer the opportunity to create from scratch small, autonomous units which are much more like independent schools than traditional public schools in their size and governance. Susan Moore Johnson’s recent book Teachers At Work (Basic Books, 1990) documents the greater degree of professionalism, collaboration, and esprit de corps that she found among teachers in private schools.

Many believe that these are reasons enough for supporting the concept of charter schools. However, without a broader vision of the social need and value of charter schools, there is a serious danger that many will simply replicate the worst side of private schools as well--elitism and the accompanying deep-seated educational conservatism. The answer to this country’s education crisis is not to create more Andovers and Exeters at public expense. The education these schools offer--while of higher quality--is as obsolete in curriculum and teaching methods as that offered in many public schools.

Circumventing bureaucracy, then, is a necessary but insufficient mission for charter schools. In my view, freedom from bureaucratic constraints simply provides the opportunity to do the real work of charter schools--educational research and development.

Over the past six months, I have had the opportunity to work with two very talented and committed high school teachers in Chelsea, Mass.--Sarah Kass and Ann Connolly Tolkoff. Tired of trying to change curriculum, teaching, and administrative practices that they felt were damaging to their students, they decided to apply for one of the first Massachusetts charters for public schools, created with the passage of new legislation in 1993. The existence of this opportunity gave these two risk-taking entrepreneurs the incentive to plan a very different kind of school--to be called City on a Hill. Their goal is to “teach urban youth to lead ... to rekindle the passion for democracy, the commitment to public service, and the hunger for learning.’'

City on a Hill--like many of the better alternative schools of the 1970’s--will require all students to perform community service, do independent research, and participate in weekly school “town’’ meetings. Learning from some of the mistakes of the past, these two teachers are also determined to create an academically rigorous program. Students will have to demonstrate mastery of specified competencies in order to earn a high school diploma.

Ann and Sarah have spent long hours thinking about what those competencies should be. They have consulted examples of best practices in other schools, like Central Park East in New York City, and have now begun to plan with the teachers they have hired for their summer program. Being able to get “out of the box’’ of serving seat time and amassing Carnegie units for a diploma has enabled these educators to completely rethink what all students need to know and be able to do for productive work, citizenship, and personal lives, as well as how to involve parents more actively and how to assess teachers. It is an extraordinary intellectual and creative challenge.

The approaches City on a Hill is developing promise to provide a better education for a representative cross-section of urban adolescents--but, more importantly to its co-founders, it will also be an open laboratory for educational innovation. Ann and Sarah hope to locate their new school within an existing Boston high school so that educators, academics, community leaders, and parents from around the city can benefit from what they are learning. They are even planning to involve representatives from all these groups in assessing the quality of their graduates’ work. Their commitment, then, is to create highly visible and replicable models for change.

The 50-page application to the state for a charter that Ann and Sarah submitted is a thorough and thoughtful blueprint for innovation. It came as no surprise when City on a Hill was awarded one of 15 charters on March 15 of this year--the only charter given to two teachers. Now, Ann and Sarah are busy raising the start-up money needed for their school.

Even if charter schools are wildly successful in Massachusetts and elsewhere, I do not believe they will drive other public schools out of business--which is the marketplace argument for charter schools and public school choice that many conservatives and business leaders use. Seeing how hard Ann, Sarah, and their colleagues must work to raise $150,000 in private “venture capital’’ or start-up funds is sobering and makes clear that these schools will not be created in large numbers. (Thus far, the state has not provided any start-up money.)

Leaving aside the problem of start-up funding for a moment, providing a high-quality education has never been a highly profitable endeavor--not with motivated, affluent students, and especially not with students who need a great deal of remediation.

Even in well-run private schools, tuition usually only covers about 85 percent of the operating cost--the “deficit’’ being made up with income from endowment and annual-fund drives among parents and alumni. And most private schools keep costs down by refusing admission to students who have special needs or learning disabilities. In my view, it is highly unlikely that Christopher Whittle’s Edison Project--a plan to create a national chain of for-profit schools which would charge a tuition half that of most independent schools--or other similar endeavors will ever turn a profit. If they do, it will be at the expense of students’ real learning.

In another way, business practices do have a lesson for educators, however. There is much that schools might learn from corporations about how to stimulate innovation. First, R&D must be funded. Businesses that need new products have large research-and-development budgets. School districts have no such budgets. Second, corporations identify the risk-takers and provide them with the opportunities to create new approaches--and they leave them alone! When Compaq needed to develop a better method for manufacturing computers, rather than try to change existing plant practices, they spun off an entirely new small plant to pilot and perfect new approaches. General Motors is trying the same strategy quite successfully with the Saturn project. Such efforts--often called “skunkworks’'--are given the resources, independence, and latitude they need to create improved products and methods. If successful, the pioneers then teach others how to replicate what they have done.

I believe that publicly supported charter schools can and must be our “skunkworks’’ for educational research and development, but they must be given the time that is needed to do the job. We are too impatient for a quick educational fix in America. It’s worth noting that it took Ford more than 10 years of R&D to come up with the better products and quality that finally enabled them to regain the number-one car-sales slot over Honda.

I don’t think it will take City on a Hill quite that long to develop much better approaches to education. But their charter is only for five years--as are all the others in Massachusetts. If business and political leaders are serious about change, then they must give charter schools the time and resources needed to do the vital work of creating laboratories for the reinvention of American schools. Nothing else will suffice.

Information about City on a Hill is available from Ann Tolkoff or Sarah Kass, 39 Jordan Rd., Brookline, Mass. 02146.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 22, 1994 edition of Education Week as Why Charter Schools?


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