Charter Schools, Free Association, and Social Entrepreneurship

By 02/11/2016

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Last week, the Brookings Institution released its 2015 Education Choice and Competition Index. It is a valuable effort to identify and quantify the strength of various cities’ school choice environments. But it misses an aspect of school choice that I also found to be largely absent from the dialogue during National School Choice Week: the burgeoning growth of “mediating institutions.”

“Mediating institutions” is a clunky and amorphous term, but generally refers to entities that are formed by voluntary association and exist between government and the individual – that is, civil society. Examples include everything from families; to religious organizations such as churches, temples, and mosques; nonprofit organizations such as the YMCA or the Boy Scouts; charitable organizations such as the United Way or the Shriners; as well as the business community. One recent example of the power of these entities is the effort by the Local 370 plumbers union in Flint, Michigan to address the disastrous water quality crisis.

Within K-12 education, it seems to me that any study of school choice environments should include an analysis of civil society and the role it plays in enabling the delivery of high-quality public education. My hypothesis is that cities with similar degrees of choice-friendly policies and politics can have different outcomes, depending on the civil society organizations that have developed to support the school choice sector.

These organizations can be schools themselves. Charter schools are important intermediaries between individuals (parents who select schools on behalf of their children) and the government (which funds education for the public good).

But, importantly, mediating institutions can also be the numerous entities that have emerged to fill gaps in the charter school sector such as facilities, talent, enrollment, community engagement, and advocacy. These are gaps that a) the government does not fill and b) no one individual can fill alone. Today, dozens if not hundreds of these civil society organizations support the function and growth of high-quality options for kids.

To name just a few familiar examples: New Schools for New Orleans, Building HopeFriends of Choice in Urban Schools, Charter Board Partners, The Mind Trust, Families Empowered, Civic Builders, Building Excellent Schools, A+ DenverEducate78, and Choose to Succeed.

These organizations demonstrate that school choice is not just about empowering individuals to make decisions. Nor is school choice just about breaking down a sclerotic government monopoly. School choice is also an important social endeavor that creates a space in which groups of individuals can collectively and freely apply their talents to address different aspects of a societal issue.

I am encouraged by the mere existence of these organizations. To quote Alexis de Tocqueville, “I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance it freely.”

This activism within civil society demonstrates the viability of the idea that we are collectively capable of rising to the occasion and that solutions must not necessarily come in the form of more government.

Importantly, civil society is often better equipped to identify and respond to needs as they emerge, adapt to changing conditions, and subside or pivot when demands have been met. Often, but not always, civil society organizations also develop deep knowledge of the community and can help ensure that new efforts are informed by history and local context.

We can learn a great deal about school choice, entrepreneurship, social capital, and community from studying these organizations in greater depth. Here are a few questions I think deserve more thought:

• Are there meaningful differences between civil society organizations that emerged to support the charter school sector compared to those that developed around the district-school sector (for example, parent associations, wrap-around providers, advocacy groups)?
• What is the spectrum of formality of these associations, and how can this inform the school choice movement? Is there a tipping point in a city’s charter school market share at which informal civil society associations emerge as new mission-driven organizations?
• How are these entities funded? My best guess is that they rely on philanthropy and fee-for-service engagements—is there a role for public funding?

As the charter school sector expands, it is necessary but not sufficient to study political and policy conditions, or the growth in the number of high quality charter school seats. We must also invest in understanding how the charter school sector has catalyzed a new generation of myriad civil society organizations—and how we can best create the conditions for their continued success.

– Juliet Squire

This first appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

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