Is the Charter-School Movement Stuck in a Rut?

As the U.S. charter fleet sails past the 5,000-school and two-decade markers, there is reason to worry that it’s getting complacent, unimaginative, and self-interested.

This criticism is separate from the quality-and-achievement challenges that beset many current schools and the “caps,” fiscal constraints, and political/bureaucratic barriers that continue to confront far too many of them in far too many places. Here I refer to accumulating signs of resistance among the movement’s own captains and admirals to schools that would fly the charter flag but don’t behave exactly like the typical charter schools of the past twenty years.

It would be a pity if the charter enterprise were now to grow rigid and intolerant, considering how well it has accommodated some extraordinarily interesting and unconventional schools, institutional forms, and uses of chartering unimagined back in 1991. Think of teacher-led schools sans principal, schools for disabled kids, and schools for dropouts. “Virtual” and “hybrid” schools, some of them operating statewide, some as part of national franchises. For-profit operators and multi-campus management organizations—even single charters harboring multiple schools with distinct operators. We have single-sex schools. Early-college schools. Schools with curricular foci that range from “back to basics” to “experiential.” Schools that restore “local control” to small towns aggrieved by excessive district consolidation. Schools that experiment with unconventional union contracts, even a couple of schools run by unions.

To its great credit, the charter movement has flexed and stretched and managed to take in, if not always to embrace. this sort of school diversity. Which is, of course, a major rationale for its existence in the first place.

But that may now be changing—and not for the better. Recent examples include:

  • National charter spokesmen recently deploring the existence of selective-admission charter schools in New Orleans, even though these are conversion schools that were selective before they were charters;
  • Also in New Orleans, respected national groups urging the school board not to renew charters for more than five years, even though several of the schools (which had requested ten-year renewals), by virtue of being conversion charters, have actually operated for many decades and are among the highest-scoring schools in Louisiana;
  • Major funders and reform outfits shunning “middle class” charter schools as if those kids don’t also need better education options;
  • Palpitations all over at the prospect of charter schools with a religious connection. Never mind that perhaps the most promising way to salvage urban Catholic schools—with their excellent track record of educating disadvantaged kids—is to reconstitute them as charters; and
  • Outrage at the announcement last week by Douglas County, Colorado that it is going to operate its new private-school voucher program via a district-sponsored charter.

This wouldn’t be the first “reform movement” in the history of education to turn into an ideologically rigid, pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we’re-aboard sort of vested interest. But it would still be a great pity. The basic justification for chartering rests on two legs: providing quality alternatives for youngsters stuck in bad or ill-fitting schools, and functioning as a kind of R & D center or beta site for K-12 education where things can be tried that (for a hundred reasons) are hard to do in regular district schools.

In my view, any school that satisfies at least one of those two criteria should qualify as a charter school, so long as it’s clear—and transparent—about its mission and publicly accountable in some suitable way for its results.

It doesn’t have to be accountable in the “usual” way if its mission is better aligned with some other measure or mechanism. Long before NCLB, several states—Texas comes to mind—allowed for “alternate accountability” for schools dealing with dropouts, at-risk youth, etc. The school and its authorizer obviously need to agree on its accountability metrics—and be public about both targets and actual attainments. The school also needs to be public about its governance and finances.

But it doesn’t have to look like other charter schools—or any other school we’ve come up with so far. It can be academically selective if it wants—so long as everyone knows what the criteria are. (That’s not the same as the squalid New York charter operation that was recently busted for secretly shutting out kids who have “issues.”) Lotteries make sense in some circumstances but not in all.

It can even have religious ties. Before- and after-school “wraparound” religious-instruction programs, and released-time programs, ought to be no-brainers when someone else pays for them. But it’s reasonable for charters themselves to try religious education so long as they thread the Zelman needle. (Keep in mind that in most of the civilized world, government schools are routinely operated by organized religions and teach those religions on the government nickel.)

A charter school can also be affiliated in various ways with voucher-style programs that educate kids in what we’re accustomed to calling “private schools.” How is that different, really, from outsourcing the operation of existing charter (or district) schools to private firms, many of them profit-making? The same thing can be done one student at a time, with the public money continuing to follow the kid to this school or that.

More disruptive innovations will arise over time, and charter-movement leaders should be grateful and welcoming, not resistant. Besides, if they don’t cooperate, they’ll eventually get end-run, much as they did to district schools once upon a time.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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