The Future of Charter Schools?

With both presidential candidates discussing school choice as a plank in their educational platforms, it is only natural to start thinking about the role of charter schools in the coming years.  It is no secret that charters were vigorously fought by the educational establishment for many years, seen as a vehicle for taking money from the old-school publics and “diluting” the school district’s mission.  As years have gone by, we’ve seen many charters do extremely well (and some still very poorly), as the model has moved into the mainstream and status quoers’ ire has instead been directed at vouchers and similar programs.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was discussing the future of charter schools with a colleague, and the discussion took an interesting turn.  What model would a future president embrace?  Would the charter school movement still be dominated by “mom-and-pop” schools, the sort that defined the poor quality at the start of the movement but have been able to turn themselves around with quality management and strict performance rubrics?  Would we turn to a not-for-profit model, leading the way for continued national scalability of programs such as Green Dot and KIPP?  Or would there be an opening for for-profit providers, as those corporations formerly referred to as EMOs take center stage once again.
Personally, Eduflack believes that choice number two is the likely path of choice, regardless of who is running the U.S. Department of Education.  Providers like Green Dot and KIPP can demonstrate results and produce data, some almost providing the sort of longitudinal studies we’ve long been looking for on student performance.  They also allow implementation at scale, providing a common level of quality and a common measure of achievement from school to school, whether it be across the city, across the state, or across the nation.  And at the end of the day, the education establishment still doesn’t feel comfortable turning over the future of their schools to for-profit providers.  Sure, we’ll procure services or programs, but we aren’t ready to hand over the keys and the alarm codes to a “money-making” corporation.  (We can debate this argument at another date.)
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a new report on quality charter schools.  www.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/csforum/report.html  In its expected call for greater innovation in our nation’s public school infrastructure, the policy document lays out six key principles for quality charter schools:
* Charter schools achieve excellence early in their operations
* Charter schools improve their performance year in and year out
* Charter schools that achieve consistently strong results can expand and replicate
* Charter schools have access to robust infrastructure to help students and teachers succeed
* Authorizers address chronic underperformance by closing the school and opening superior options swiftly
* Charter schools strengthen all corners of public education by sharing successful practices and fostering choice and competition among the schools
These principles are dead on, not only for charter schools but for all public schools.  Shouldn’t all our schools achieve excellence?  Shouldn’t all improve year in and year out?  Shouldn’t we replicate best practices at all schools?  Shouldn’t all have a robust infrastructure?  Shouldn’t we do something about chronic underperformance at all schools?  These should principles should be nailed to the schoolhouse doors of every school in the United States, not just our charters.  These should be shared national goals, embraced by every principal and every superintendent across this land.
Even after all this time, we still see public charter schools as completely separate entities from our public school systems.  In cities like Washington, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, etc. charters are a major part of the public instruction infrastructure.  Yet we put them in their own bucket, separated from the very schools they are intended to supplement and divided from the school districts they are intended to improve.  We set academic standards for charters that are far higher than those set for old-school publics, yet expect them to achieve it with far fewer resources.  We want them to do more, but we want them to do it quietly where few will actually notice.
In many ways, quality charters can serve as incubators for best practice in our school districts.  They allow us to strengthen administrative functions and oversights.  They allow us to set tough standards and chart the path to reach them.  They allow us to innovate, both in terms of instruction and social structures.  And they allow us to break the notion that we can’t expect more, and we should be satisfied with the status quo.
Last week, the Brookings Institution released a new paper from Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead on the federal role of supporting innovation in education.  www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1016_education_mead_rotherham.aspx  As I read this paper, I can see the opportunity for high-quality charter providers, those who can demonstrate their results and hold the opportunity to replicate their successes in new schools or in new communities.  A chance for charters (along with highly successful traditional publics) to spotlight their best practices and use them to improve quality throughout our national school framework.  If that isn’t how we should be spending federal educational R&D funds, I don’t know how else we should. 
Just imagine — federal investment in proven innovations that establish strong, well-managed schools, boost student achievement, and model best practices?  Doesn’t matter if it is a public school, a charter school, or a finishing school, that’s an investment we all benefit from.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Charter Schools?

  1. Great post. The presidential campaign has certainly brought charter schools into the national conversation lately. Let’s hope this discussion proves to have legs.More charters than ever are operating across the country, with 355 new schools opening for the 2008-09 school year.The Center for Education Reform’s latest tally of charters operating in the U.S. is 4,568 – and they serve more than 1.3 million students.

  2. I’m worried there aren’t more people questioning the benefits of charter schools. While they definitely can perform better than public schools, they can also only serve a limited number of students.I’m worried when both presidential candidates would rather concentrate resources on a privileged minority of students, which is all charter schools would actually serve, rather than every student.The need to develop new methods and best practices in schools are why universities have Colleges of Education dedicated to research.

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