Of all the efforts underway to improve public education, charter schools are the liveliest and most promising. These independent public schools of choice, freed from rules but accountable for results, vaulted into the education spotlight in the mid-1990s. Today, 37 states have charter laws (though not all have charter schools). This fall, 300,000 students will be attending nearly 1,500 charter schools.
A charter school is a public school: open to all who wish to attend it (without regard to race, religion, or academic ability); paid for with tax dollars (no tuition charges); and accountable for its results to an authoritative public body (such as a state or local school board) as well as to those who enroll and teach in it. But the charter school is also a new animal in the educational ecosystem, differing from a standard public school in at least four key features:
- Almost anyone can create one, including educators, parents, and community groups;
- The students who populate them (and the educators who run them) are there by choice;
- Unlike public schools, they risk being closed for not producing satisfactory results; and
- The schools are exempt from most state and local regulations, and are essentially autonomous in their operations.
A number of ideas in the education environment and the wider culture helped the charter concept take root. Within the world of education, these include the hunger for higher standards for students and teachers; the realization that education quality should be judged by results, rather than by inputs such as per-pupil spending or class size; the impulse to create new and different school designs that meet the needs of today’s families; and the movement to give families more education choices.
Not only changes in the education realm, but also developments in other domains of American society over the past decade have helped clear a path for charter schools. In the corporate sector, traditional bureaucratic arrangements were being restructured, dispensing with middle management and top-down control. In the public sector, the effort to reinvent government was spawned. Accompanying these changes has been renewed interest in the mediating structures of civil society as ways to meet human needs and solve community problems.
With all these changes chipping away at centralization, standardization, monopolies, and bureaucratic control, could K-12 schooling remain essentially uniform and authoritarian?
Charter schools are today’s most prominent expression of education’s movement away from the world of homogeneity and uniformity. They switch the emphasis from inputs to results by focusing on high standards of student achievement. They flip the structure from rule-bound hierarchy to decentralized flexibility by putting committed educators in charge. They reaffirm the old American principle of local control but do so at the individual school level, where they welcome a wide array of instructional designs—educational hybrids that draw on the best of the public and private sectors. And finally, they introduce enterprise, competition, choice, and accountability into an ossified educational system.
Bryan Hassel’s book is a thoughtful, cogent, and well-researched contribution to our understanding of this new world. It addresses both the promise of charter schools and their pitfalls. The first part of the volume examines the politics of charter schools in four states: Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Due to compromises made by proponents to win passage of charter bills in these jurisdictions, the four states have charter laws that range from strong to weak. The second part of the book traces the effects of these legislative compromises on the implementation of the four states’ charter programs. The final section speculates about changes in policy and practice that would improve the prospects for charter schools to succeed.
Two items merit particular mention.
First, Hassel’s most interesting conclusion regarding the politics of charter programs is that strong laws—the kind that give maximum programmatic and financial autonomy to schools—were most likely to emerge “in states where Republicans consistently controlled the governor’s mansion and where unions were strong.” In other words, strong Republican gubernatorial leadership was a crucial ingredient in confronting and overcoming union opposition to strong charter school laws.
Second, Hassel adumbrates four conditions that must be met if charter school programs are to fulfill their potential. These are:
Autonomy: A charter school must have enough program, fiscal, and operational autonomy to allow it to differ in significant ways from district public schools.
Viability: A charter school must be able to survive, especially financially.
Impact: The charter school sector should have the potential to have an impact on regular public schools.
Accountability: A charter school must be held accountable for results both by parents and by the public authority that granted its charter.
How can private philanthropy foster the charter idea and the schools that it inspires? There are at least three critical needs that donors can help meet.
Start-up and capital costs: Most charter laws provide no money to school founders for start-up costs and facilities. Funders can provide grants, donated or leased property, or access to borrowed capital on workable terms. They can also support private and public partnerships that create school financing authorities that are not controlled by the school districts and that assist charter schools in building or renovating facilities. Finally, donors can create real estate trusts that contract with districts to own and lease facilities for all sorts of public schools, including charter schools.
Technical expertise: Donors can underwrite staff training for individual charter schools or create technical assistance centers that would work with individuals interested in starting a charter school. These centers can also provide continuing training for charter school operators. Funders can also donate services and loan employees from their organizations to help individual charter schools or these technical assistance centers.
Protection from opponents and hostile regulators: As Hassel points out, charter schools have plenty of enemies. Donors interested in public policy can support the creation of watchdog, advocacy, and “friends” groups to counter the inevitable assaults charter schools face. These groups also can keep state and local policymakers informed about the progress and problems of charter schools.
In sum, Hassel’s book thoughtfully and persuasively suggests that charter schools have the potential for effecting an historic change in the education status quo. They welcome decentralized control, entrepreneurial management, and grassroots initiatives. No wonder the entrenched establishment so often opposes them.
Bruno V. Manno is senior fellow in education at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a former assistant secretary of education for policy and planning, and a contributing editor to Philanthropy.