Charter Schools: A Good Idea Run Amok?

 I first heard about the idea of charter schools from Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. As he explained the notion, it sounded pretty good. Based on the idea of charters as developed by European monarchs during the “age of exploration,” a local school board might identify some problem, or set of problems, requiring a level of innovation beyond the school district’s present capacity to respond. Teachers and other educators-perhaps in partnership with parents, local businesses, and civic groups-would be invited to join together to develop an innovative solution to the problem or problems. Those who accepted the challenge would be provided a special charter much like Queen Elizabeth granted to Sir Walter Raleigh and James I granted to Henry Hudson.  This charter would give the group a special license to explore innovative approaches to the problems identified and to act on their discoveries. 

                As a part of the charter, the chartered school group would be freed from most if not all of the policy restrictions, rules, and directives under which other schools in the district would be operating. In some cases, the group might also be provided some venture capital to support their efforts. In exchange, the chartered group would agree to document their efforts, make their work transparent to others, and, if the innovations proved to be successful, provide technical assistance and support to others who might want to use the innovation as a prototype for their own efforts to solve the same problem. 

                Shanker found the idea appealing, not only because it had the potential to release the creative capacities of teachers, but also because it had the potential to empower teachers to pursue ideas they believed worthy of pursing. It was not long, however, before the idea of the charter school was co-opted by those bent on introducing more choice and more competition into the American system of education-and, ironically, also as a tool to bring teacher unions “under control.” (Of course, those who use charter schools to promote choice and competition argue that these schools can also serve as models for public schools, but it is clear that choice and competition rather than systematic exploration of innovative solutions to persistent problems is the superordinate goal of the charter school movement. Indeed, some of the more popular charter school models operate more as franchises for an established innovation than as tools for exploring alternative models.)

                 As instruments to promote choice and competition, charter schools have become places that promise to do better (which is not to say, do differently) what traditional schools are intended to do. Indeed, some charter schools proudly proclaim that they are traditional schools. Rather than inventing the future, the goal of many charter schools seems to be to affirm the past.

                If one assumes that schools as they have been designed to operate can meet the needs of the twenty-first century and that all that is needed is relief from onerous bureaucratic regulations, then the ideas underlying most present versions of charter schools will provide some relief to a few students in a few schools. The obvious question, of course, is, “If it is the regulations that are impeding performance, why not change policies and program restrictions for all schools and for all students, not just the lucky few who enroll in this or that charter school? Why insist that the formula of strong states and weak school districts is the preferred formula, when state intervention almost invariably leads to more regulation and more bureaucratic controls than would otherwise be found in any but the most highly bureaucratized big city school system?”

                 If one assumes, as I do, that what is needed are schools that encourage continuous innovation and the disciplined exploration of alternative solutions to persistent problems, charter schools such as those now being developed will do little to help us meet the challenges we must meet to ensure that every child will be provided a high-quality education. The charter schools Al Shanker described to me could, however,  be valuable tools in our effort to transform our schools from government-based bureaucracies into the community-based learning organizations they must become if they are to serve twenty-first-century democracy and twenty-first-century economies well. (See my book Leading for Learning for a more extended discussion of this point.)    

                To properly use charter schools as such a tool, policymakers would have to renounce the idea that these schools are primarily a means of providing parents and students choice. More than that, they would need to be prepared to recognize that school improvement is not a stand-alone activity.  In the long run schools only improve on a continuous basis when there is strong sense of community surrounding the school and a sense of ownership and pride attached to the school.

                In the multicultural, multiethnic world in which we now live, democracy’s survival depends upon the building of a sense of community among the diverse populations from which children come. In addition to needing strong communities as a condition of their own improvement,  public schools may be the only organizations positioned to systematically address the need to build community, just as the schools may be the only organizations that might help parents better fulfill their educational functions. The challenge confronting many schools, therefore, is to build a sense of community among diversity rather than to simply design schools that assume a unity of purpose that does not exist.

                The fact is that many of the problems we locate in schools have their origins in the family and community. Rather than lamenting this fact and complaining about the lack of family support and community support, maybe schools should be encouraged to explore innovative solutions to these and other problems. Rather than seeking ways to help schools develop the capacity to do those things families and communities no longer can or will do, it might  be worthwhile to charter a faculty to explore new ways for schools to build community in places where a clear sense of community does not exist and to help parents to better carry out their functions as educators?

                 Maybe a school that operated under a specific charter to build community rather than trying to serve a community that is fractured could also serve as a catalyst to solve many additional problems that are affecting community life in America-for example, the lack of honest communication across racial and ethnic boundaries. Maybe schools could once again serve as vital centers of community life and become the cultural institutions they must be if they are to serve our democracy well. Maybe schools could become places where the young and the old, the rich and the poor join together to ensure the continuation of our democratic way of life as well as to provide each child with a quality educational experience. Failing this I fear schools will continue to devolve into the government-dominated agencies present reform efforts are threatening to cause them to become.

                If the initial concept of charter schools were adhered to and charter schools were seen as tools to explore ideas like transforming schools into community-building agencies, well-conceived charter school initiatives might address issues that have plagued our education system for many years. As things now stand, however, the charter school is as likely to further aggravate the problems that exist in some communities as it is to address those problems. The problem for educators committed to democracy is to create ways to educate children from diverse backgrounds and to do this in a way that embraces diversity rather than accepting Balkanization as a solution. Too many charter schools treat race as a variable to be controlled rather than a resource to be used. Indeed, as a group, charter schools are even more segregated than are public schools.

                What we need are schools that build communities and reinforce a sense of unity among us rather than schools that are designed to support the divisions that exist between and among us. We need schools that are based on the understanding that a strong common bond that fosters pluralism and tolerance and that honors cultural diversity and democratic discourse is the only means we have to ensure that democracy will prevail and the further disintegration of community life will be avoided. Charter schools such as those once described to me by one of the nation’s foremost union leaders could well lead the way to the communities we need to support the schools all of our children deserve. However, charter schools such as those now being encouraged will, I fear, not only fail to solve the problems we have but might well exacerbate them.

3 Responses to “Charter Schools: A Good Idea Run Amok?”

  1. Rosa Sanchez says:

    Thank you, Phil!
    I am anxious for you to share your thoughts on the Common Core State Standards. Only a handful of our states have not joined this effort.
    Take care.

  2. Annette Higgins says:

    I enjoyed your analogy comparing privatization of schools to the USPS, however, I feel that the competition in some cases might be just what is needed to spur the US education system into engaging in some valuable improvement. Is there any way I can convince you that the role of charter schools may be to challenge the status quo?

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