in-depth “Progress Report on Charter Schools”.
It's a little embarrassing to acknowledge, with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it's a "school of choice" with some freedom to be different. Early advocates, ourselves included, were naïve about some key things.
We didn't pay enough attention to authorizing and governance. We focused on quantity rather than quality. We assumed that a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has done. We didn't demand enough funding or facilities. We didn't insist on sufficient autonomy — nailed into place, not just vaguely promised. We wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but we didn't take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.
The laudable impulse to concentrate first on poor, minority kids trapped in abysmal inner-city schools contributed to charters getting the reputation for just being places for poor, minority inner-city dwellers to attend. There's a certain sameness across much of the charter world and (save perhaps for virtual schools) not enough real innovation. The R&D quality of charters has eroded, along with the vision of the late Albert Shanker, longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers, that charters would emerge as teacher-created, teacher-run schools.
Yet the future holds at least as many challenges and unresolved questions as it calls for corrections for some oversights of the past. As the charter sector has emerged as a durable — and in some places sizable — element of American public education, issues have come into focus that call for fresh policy thinking. For example, if charters come to instruct large fractions of a city's children, who is responsible for the "education safety net" by which every kid has access to a school that can satisfactorily address his educational needs? What about the challenges of pupil discipline and the related question of whether charters must retain every youngster that they admit, regardless of behavior or academic performance? Must every school be expected to accommodate the singular challenges of every child, no matter how difficult or esoteric? What about encouraging more charters to serve clienteles other than disadvantaged city dwellers: middle-class kids, gifted children, just girls or just boys, children of military personnel, and others? Why not select students — rather than conduct random lotteries — for some schools (for gifted kids, say, or Mandarin learners, future chemists, or violinists)? What about charters that want to deviate from state academic standards in order to focus on particular specialties, including some that opt to concentrate on quality career or technical education rather than academic preparation for college? Back in 1991, when Minnesota tiptoed into the charter pond — and in 2000 when we wrote about this new education phenomenon — issues such as these were beyond the visible horizon. Today, however, they're right in front of us.
Does the charter movement retain the nimbleness and audacity to take on these and other challenges, or will it, like so many one-time reforms, ossify into a conventional interest group?
There's reason for hope. This movement is still basically bipartisan — a rarity in today's polarized policy world. Most charters are union-free and in some cases free from state-licensure requirements for principals and teachers. There has been remarkable demand, both by kids and families wanting to choose and by people and organizations wanting to start schools. We also have some fantastic proof points about the ability of great schools to alter the life prospects of poor kids. Some "chains" of charters manage to demonstrate sustained and widespread quality while also illustrating the concept of virtual school systems.
This is not the first time — and won't be the last — that a grand policy initiative has encountered bumps and yielded mixed results. When so many thousands of complex institutions are spread across thousands of jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation are profound, and all the more so when what's being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as public schooling. The pushback against charters has been intense. But their promoters have sometimes been naïve, too, and occasionally self-interested. And as we have noted, many of today's challenges could not have been fully anticipated. In such circumstances, there's no shame in acknowledging imperfection and incompleteness. Indeed, it would be shameful not to encourage recalibration and further experimentation.
Where it has worked well, the charter-school movement has worked so well that it amply deserves to be sustained and perfected. Where it hasn't, wise policymakers will push back against its tendency to turn into a self-interested protector of mediocrity. Billions of tax dollars and, more important, millions of children's futures are at stake.