Why the Charter School Idea Has Stood the Test of Time

By 03/23/2011

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Ever since their creation two decades ago, charter schools have been defined by three fundamental—if somewhat contradictory—ideas: accountability for results, school-level autonomy, and meaningful parental choice. That the charter notion has stood the test of time is a testament to the power of these three ideas. Charter schools remain at the center of the school reform conversation because they are the node that connects these disparate reform instincts with one another.

Consider parental choice. When charter schools were first proposed, back in the early 1990s, fervor for “school choice” was running high. Milwaukee had just created the nation’s first large-scale voucher program, and prominent scholars (like John Chubb and Terry Moe) and politicians (like Lamar Alexander) were calling for many more. But private school vouchers raised the specter of public support for religious schools; charters offered a secular alternative.

Demand for “autonomy” was reaching fever pitch, too. This was the era of “reinventing government,” of Chicago’s “local school councils,” of enthusiasm for decentralization and “site-based management.” Reformers saw stifling bureaucracies and hidebound teacher union contracts as anathema to the breakthrough innovations they craved. They viewed the magnet schools of the 1970s and 80s as a step in the right direction—at least in terms of offering parents distinct choices—but as far too timid in tackling the underlying malaise of “the system.” At the least, charter schools would offer educators the chance to experiment with new approaches and to pilot promising methods. But maybe charter schooling would point to a whole new system entirely—a “system of schools” instead of a “school system.”

And notions of “accountability” were hot as well—though that notion was still in its embryonic stage. Under the original charter school conception, public bodies (state and local school boards, public universities) would sign contracts with non-profit organizations, spelling out the terms of the “charter.” These terms would focus on student outcomes, broadly defined. Some charter authorizers would embrace test scores as a fair indicator of success; others might look at graduation rates; others might find something else still. But regardless, schools would have to meet the terms of their own charter or risk being put out of business.

Fast forward twenty years, and these three ideas have maintained their currency. Parental choice in public education is now a given; no one argues that parents should have to send their children to the school down the street anymore. The debate is not whether parents should have choices but how broad those choices should be. (Other neighborhood schools? Magnet schools? Charter schools? Virtual schools? Private schools? Home schools?) By some estimates, over half of all parents now participate in some form of school choice; there’s little doubt that choice is here to stay.

So too with “accountability”—though this idea has evolved dramatically. For better or worse, we moved away from the notion of individualized contracts for every school— charters that could customize the measures of student outcomes to align with particular philosophies and approaches. Now we embrace uniform accountability systems, driven mostly by test scores and graduation rates—that seek to evaluate each school the same way and make a summary judgment on their effectiveness. And most recently there’s a move—encouraging, on the whole—to common standards that are pitched at a much higher level than the state standards they replaced. This should empower school shoppers (i.e., parents) with better information than ever before.

And “autonomy” is where the bulk of today’s current reform conversation is headed, even though it isn’t talked about that way. Almost all of the big issues of “teacher effectiveness” and “doing more with less” come down to the decades-old notion that school leaders should have final say over staffing and budget issues. Should teachers be paid on a uniform salary scale, or differentiated by performance? When layoffs are unavoidable, should they be done on the basis of seniority, or should principals be allowed to keep their best teachers? When dollars are tight, do class sizes need to remain limited, or can leaders increase some strategically in order to invest funds elsewhere? This all comes down to “autonomy.”

Reformers find charter schools so compelling because they are living, breathing examples of these ideas in action. And when the stars align, these ideas give birth to some of the very best schools in the country—especially in the impoverished urban communities that need good schools the most.

But there’s a problem, and it’s that the charter sector also includes some of the very worst schools in the country. Arguably, that’s because charter authorizers have been unwilling or unable to shut down their lowest-performing schools. (A recent Fordham Institute study found that almost 80 percent of a group of low-performing charter schools were still open, and still low-performing, five years later.) Statewide accountability systems—with the support of federal policy—are starting to create urgency for change on that score, making these poor results transparent and inaction untenable.

This low performance among many charter schools also indicates that the three original ideas—choice, autonomy, and accountability hardly constitute a magic formula. The charter idea assumes a certain amount of “capacity” in the system—groups of people with the knowhow to create excellent schools—that simply might not exist. It can’t easily address systemic issues that cut across schools, like student mobility, the teacher labor market, or inequitable financing. And at some level it assumes that, when given a choice, parents will gravitate toward schools making the greatest academic gains—an assumption that needs to be rethought.

Charter schools look to remain in the middle of school reform for years to come. But like so many things in public policy—and in life—they are necessary but not sufficient to the greater task at hand: creating an education system that maximizes the potential of all of our young people.

This essay first appeared as part of a collection from the Policy Innovators in Education Network, Schools in High Gear: Reforms that Work When They Work Together. The PIE Network is a collaborative of two-dozen state-based education reform advocacy organizations, along with five national policy partners (Fordham, the Center for American Progress, Education Sector, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education).

-Mike Petrilli

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