The overwhelming majority of district boards and superintendents want no part of them, won't collaborate with them, and often refuse to authorize them. They also press state lawmakers to make it hard to open more charters and discourage the legislators from lightening regulatory loads. The expanding universe of education reformers also encompasses a sprawling range of opinion and disputation over the mission and value of charter schools.
In fact, charters often serve as proxies in durable disagreements over fundamental philosophy and strategy: how much to rely on the marketplace for education quality control instead of government-driven standards and accountability structures; whether to welcome profit-seeking entrepreneurs to the charter table; the extent to which technology should replace flesh-and-blood instructors and classroom experiences for children; how much schools ought to differ from one another; whether the exclusive focus of reforms should be poor kids and low achievers; whether schools of choice must always be secular and open-enrollment; and whether big charter management networks will isolate such schools from authentic ties to their local communities with all their racial and ethnic diversity.
This worked, up to a point.
Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education
Many practices pioneered by charters have entered the education mainstream, at least as strategies with solid potential, and now enjoy widespread use within the charter sector itself. These include more time on task longer days, weeks, and school years , hiring non-unionized teachers, self-governing schools with building-level autonomy, imaginative uses of technology, and "virtual districts" that operate across traditional boundaries. Such integration, however, also carries a cost in terms of charter independence. They've also supplied a school-turnaround mechanism that several states Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan have deployed to create "recovery districts" that take dismal schools away from districts and turn them into charters operated by others.
Only in New Orleans, however, can charters be said to have evolved into a nearly complete alternative delivery system for public education. Sadly, most traditional districts and their cadres of self-interested stakeholders remain all but oblivious, if not hostile, toward charters in their midst, keen to minimize their numbers and preserve as much as they can of their own old monopoly.
Over the long haul, history won't favor that stance.
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For the foreseeable future, however, it leaves charters and their supporters more in the role of supplying some children with alternatives than transforming the system that gave rise to the need for alternatives. Perhaps no part of the charter world has changed as dramatically over the last two decades as its advocacy apparatus. Today, a host of organizations educate the public and try to influence and build support for charters, including hands-on involvement in electoral politics.
They reach out to sundry constituencies and stakeholders, from the general public to policymakers to the families with children in these schools. Moscowitz faced down de Blasio in part through a huge march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Influential allies in Albany also helped. Most of these groups are non-profit organizations that live on tax-deductible contributions from donors. Within certain limits, they can lobby policymakers directly. But a growing number of them have been joined by entities whose main focus is lobbying and politics: c 4 organizations and political action committees that are free to spend limitlessly on lobbying for specific legislation, getting friendly candidates elected, and advancing ballot initiatives, among other things.
Education Reform Now illustrates the new model. Founded in as a c 3 , it operates at the federal level and has 13 state-level affiliates, along with a c 4 partner named Education Reform Now Advocacy and a PAC called Democrats for Education Reform. The PAC aims "[t]o make the Democratic Party the champion of high quality public education," and its agenda explicitly includes enacting strong charter laws.
In New York State, DFER went head to head with the unions to lift the cap on how many charter schools could be created, outspending the teachers unions in lobbying expenses. The Alliance for School Choice and its affiliates the American Federation for Children and the American Federation for Children Action Fund also press for more and better charters, as well as vouchers and other forms of taxpayer support for private-school options. But creating a vibrant education market involves more than offering school options to families. Such enablers take many forms, beginning with a strong policy environment that makes it truly feasible to launch new schools and thereby curb the traditional monopoly.
Also required are an ample and diverse supply of high-quality school options, along with a transparent accountability system that monitors their performance; timely and comprehensible school information for parents and taxpayers alike; fair and efficient school selection and enrollment systems, combined with transportation that makes more schools accessible to families; human-capital pipelines that recruit and develop top-notch teachers and school leaders from a variety of backgrounds; a sufficiency of resources in the form of money that follows students to the schools of their choice and is weighted according to their needs; and, finally, school-support and advocacy organizations that supply diverse services while also keeping all players honest.
It's a little embarrassing to acknowledge, with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it's a "school of choice" with some freedom to be different. We didn't pay enough attention to authorizing and governance. We focused on quantity rather than quality. We assumed that a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has done.
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We didn't demand enough funding or facilities. We wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but we didn't take seriously enough the risk of profiteering. The laudable impulse to concentrate first on poor, minority kids trapped in abysmal inner-city schools contributed to charters getting the reputation for just being places for poor, minority inner-city dwellers to attend.
There's a certain sameness across much of the charter world and save perhaps for virtual schools not enough real innovation. Yet the future holds at least as many challenges and unresolved questions as it calls for corrections for some oversights of the past.
For example, if charters come to instruct large fractions of a city's children, who is responsible for the "education safety net" by which every kid has access to a school that can satisfactorily address his educational needs? What about the challenges of pupil discipline and the related question of whether charters must retain every youngster that they admit, regardless of behavior or academic performance?
Must every school be expected to accommodate the singular challenges of every child, no matter how difficult or esoteric? What about encouraging more charters to serve clienteles other than disadvantaged city dwellers: middle-class kids, gifted children, just girls or just boys, children of military personnel, and others? What about charters that want to deviate from state academic standards in order to focus on particular specialties, including some that opt to concentrate on quality career or technical education rather than academic preparation for college?
Today, however, they're right in front of us. Does the charter movement retain the nimbleness and audacity to take on these and other challenges, or will it, like so many one-time reforms, ossify into a conventional interest group? There's reason for hope. Most charters are union-free and in some cases free from state-licensure requirements for principals and teachers. There has been remarkable demand, both by kids and families wanting to choose and by people and organizations wanting to start schools.
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We also have some fantastic proof points about the ability of great schools to alter the life prospects of poor kids. Some "chains" of charters manage to demonstrate sustained and widespread quality while also illustrating the concept of virtual school systems. When so many thousands of complex institutions are spread across thousands of jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation are profound, and all the more so when what's being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as public schooling.
The pushback against charters has been intense.
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And as we have noted, many of today's challenges could not have been fully anticipated. In such circumstances, there's no shame in acknowledging imperfection and incompleteness. Indeed, it would be shameful not to encourage recalibration and further experimentation.
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Where it has worked well, the charter-school movement has worked so well that it amply deserves to be sustained and perfected. Where it hasn't, wise policymakers will push back against its tendency to turn into a self-interested protector of mediocrity. Chester E. Finn, Jr. He is a former Assistant U.
Secretary of Education for Research and Innovation. Bruno V.
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He is former Assistant U. Secretary of Education for Policy and an emeritus board member of the Thomas B.
Fordham Foundation. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Walton Family Foundation or the Fordham Foundation. Forgot password? A Progress Report on Charter Schools. Next Article. Pathways to Upward Mobility Robert Schwartz. Insight from the Archives. A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues. Sign-in to your National Affairs subscriber account. The sponsor shall review each monthly or quarterly financial statement to identify the existence of any conditions identified in s.