“Urban schools should be liberated from the stifling district bureaucracy and given the latitude to operate the way independent secular schools do,” writes Hugh Price, the President of the National Urban League, in a recent issue of Education Week. Price is but one of many business and education leaders at the national, state, and local level to embrace one of education’s most intriguing and promising reforms. Why? The answer lies in the pages of a new book called Charter Schools in Action.
This is a book that anyone with an interest in seriously reforming public education will find useful. Finn, a conservative education reformer and one of the most prolific and creative minds in the field of education, is joined by Bruno Manno, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (Manno is also a contributing editor to Philanthropy), and Gregg Vanourek, a student of nonprofit administration at Yale University. Together, they have produced a book that is masterful for its clarity of purpose, organization, and at times humor. The book closes with a provocative essay about where charter schools could take us by 2010, highlighting their promise and some potential pitfalls.
The authors first offer an in-depth overview of the field. Charter schools, we learn, are “independent public schools of choice, freed from rules but accountable for results.” In outlining how we came to embrace charter schools, the authors offer a brief historical overview of education in the United States. The monopolistic one-size-fits-all, pour-more-money-at-inequities-to-get-better-results approach is the old model. Today’s assumptions view public schools as any school that is open to the public, paid for by the public, and accountable to the public, which gets at the very essence of what a charter school is.
Charters are rooted in their community, offer vast curricular and fiscal autonomy—depending on state law—and are responsible solely for producing the results they promise in a charter they sign with their state chartering authority (this can be the local education agency, a university, a nonprofit, or any state entity). We also learn, surprisingly, that in the United States the very idea behind these radical schools begins with the late Albert Shanker, the long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers, who proposed the concept in a 1988 speech at the National Press Club. Just twelve years later, there are more than 1,600 charter schools across the country—charters can even be found in Britain, New Zealand, Chile, and Pakistan.
This book has something for everyone. For the policy wonk, there are charts, tables, surveys, studies, and historical evidence. For those interested in passing a charter law, there are real-life examples of how the movement began and how to overcome the opposition. There is even a set of “fire-fighting solutions” for those interested in starting a charter school, and a list of organizations and philanthropists ready to lend would-be charter school initiators a hand, especially for acquisition of facilities.
Donors will be interested to read about Donald and Doris Fisher (founders of the GAP clothing chain), who contributed $4 million to rehabilitate a historic house in Denver that is now home to a charter school run by the Edison Project. The authors interview thousands of parents, educators, students, legislators, investors, and the school staff to offer their viewpoints throughout the book. A typical policy-wonk book this is not.
The authors adopt a tone supportive of charters, but they also highlight some of their shortcomings. The Sequoia School in Mesa, Arizona, for instance, has suffered drastic enrollment fluctuations and staff turnover. Staff burnout also seems to be a common trait in the more ambitious programs.
The book successfully demonstrates how creative-minded entrepreneurs can do a better job of educating kids at a lower per-pupil cost, since charters often only get their per-pupil share of funding and nothing more. The Boston-based Academy of the Pacific Rim, for example, promises a money-back guarantee: if students don’t pass their 10th grade state assessments, the Academy will allow their parents to pick another school and will transfer to that school the $7,500 that the state pays for each charter pupil.
But are charter schools succeeding? Given how young they are, the evidence is spotty. Studies do show that these schools are havens for the needy. For their size, they serve more minority students than public schools do. Charters have also proven to be innovative. A California study found that 78 percent of that state’s charters were experimenting with new instructional practices. Many are making significant changes in organizational and institutional arrangements (such as distinctive grade clusters, schools in cyber-space, schools that replace principals with committees of teachers, and schools that offer stock options to their employees). The authors also offer case studies where charters are improving traditional public schools.
Whether the charter movement will succeed or fail will depend heavily on the accountability model it adopts. The authors review several existing models but they are not thrilled with any, and offer their own detailed formula based on the financial sector’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Under this formula, charters will report their activities and results using standardized formats and where they will agree to undergo independent audits to ensure financial transparency and comparability, something utterly alien to the existing K-12 system.
The final chapter of Charter Schools in Action is also the most intriguing. It paints a picture of an ideal world where customers have access to all the information they could possibly want about schools and where there are many schools from which to pick and choose. In this imaginary place, called Metropolitan USA, circa 2010, almost all schools are charter schools, some are even religious charters. There is even a state court in charge of solving disputes relating to education and an Association of School Operators representing the independent charter school leaders. Parental satisfaction is at an all-time high.
The authors predict that private vouchers are a marginal issue in this world, that there are fewer private schools, and that the Association of School Operators may take the place of the existing education bureaucracy. But the biggest flaw in their irenic view of the future is that the world they envision is unlike any that the government-run system has been able to create and maintain. For all their independence, charter schools are still ultimately “owned” by the government and subject to the whims of those in charge.
Nina Shokraii Rees is a senior education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.