Although we hail charter schools as a promising reform, the creation of these publicly financed but (mostly) independent schools remains one of the fiercest battlegrounds in U.S. education. Since many states today have statutes authorizing such schools, however, the fight is no longer about whether any should exist. The front line in the battle has shifted to whether these schools will be free to demonstrate the power of this idea.
In brief, they are different kinds of public schools. In other words, charter schools are not the lite version of conventional public schools.
That is why, though we saw a number of imaginative and outstanding education programs in California charter schools, only some of them have gained control of their budgets and personnel. That is why the pent-up demand for charter schools in the Golden State vastly exceeds the supply. And that is why California’s charter program, though the second-oldest in the land (after Minnesota), is generally regarded by education reformers as considerably less than a full demonstration of this strategy’s potential.
Though such strictures do not make it impossible to run a good school, they certainly make it harder.
Most elementary schools prefer to hire certified teachers when they can, but freedom to widen the search is crucial to their staffing flexibility. In our sample, nine percent of charter teachers came from private and homeschools and ten percent from outside the conventional teaching ranks altogether, including people with Ph.D.’s and university experience.
District micro-management is precisely what charter schools most need to get free from. A great charter school is, in effect, a one-school district. Some are existing public schools that secede from the “system,” converting to charter status; others are new institutions founded by teachers, parents or community groups.
What makes elementary schools so promising an education reform strategy is that they–at least those that achieve true autonomy–are accountable for results rather than following rules. Public authorities thus retain final say over these new-style public schools, which are tuition-free and open to all who wish to enroll. But charter schools are spared from day-to-day bureaucratic supervision and encouraged to be different. Hence some emphasize “core knowledge” while others stress “experiential education”. Nobody, however, is forced to sign up. Pupils choose to come, which means charter schools are also accountable to their customers. If a school can’t attract enough students, it must close.
Yet nearly every charter school in the land has more families wanting to enroll their children than it can accommodate. And contrary to the claims of critics, these schools are being sought out not by privileged kids but by families least well served by conventional schools.
Far from “creaming”, as critics alleged, it’s more accurate to say of charter schools that they are dealing with a lot of the “skim milk” that the regular dairy cannot or will not handle. Yet despite this early evidence of their responsiveness to some of the neediest children in the land, elementary schools still have dogged enemies within the education establishment, people and groups who have striven with fair success to keep charter schools few and weak: capping their numbers, cramping their autonomy and limiting their funds.
That is why, again contrary to the claims of critics, most charter laws still make it difficult to launch viable schools. And for those schools that do get launched, far from being handed a bucket of public dollars to do whatever they like with little or no accountability, charter schools in most states are burdened by myriad rules and procedures.
Besides crippling schools, such terms can sour relationships. It all comes down to a matter of control. That’s the problem with every school board.
Yet those schools that can hold onto their money and wrest real autonomy from the powers that be can be dazzling in the uses they make of this opportunity. California contains several charter schools that have been free to innovate, respond to the needs of children and become more efficient.
We don’t yet know for certain that charter pupils are learning more. But we know from sitting in many classrooms and interviewing hundreds of students, parents and teachers that these schools emphasize learning because they know that they will lose their charter if their students fail. They fulfill parents’ demands for safety, order, basic skills and dedicated teachers. They are mostly small schools in which people know each other’s faces, schools with clear missions and distinctive philosophies, schools full of adults and children who want to be there. Not a bad recipe for educational success.
By offering popular alternatives to the status quo, charter schools call attention to how poorly it serves many students. By attracting needy kids, grateful parents and fine teachers, these schools signal that one size does not, in fact, fit all. And by redefining what America means by “public education”, charter schools offer an accountability model that old-style schools will someday find difficult to avoid.
Besides their potential for good, charter schools are a subversive influence that may do great damage to the status quo.
In the face of relentless attack by forces that find such an alternative alarming, however, it’s far from clear that the charter school movement will be allowed to get big and strong enough to demonstrate its full potential.