Ever since their creation two decades ago, charter schools have been defined by three fundamental?if somewhat contradictory?ideas: accountability for results, school-level autonomy, and meaningful parental choice. That the charter notion has stood the test of time is a testament to the power of these three ideas. Charter schools remain at the center of the school reform conversation because they are the node that connects these disparate reform instincts with one another.
Consider parental choice. When charter schools were first proposed, back in the early 1990s, fervor for ?school choice? was running high. Milwaukee had just created the nation's first large-scale voucher program, and prominent scholars (like John Chubb and Terry Moe) and politicians (like Lamar Alexander) were calling for many more. But private school vouchers raised the specter of public support for religious schools; charters offered a secular alternative.
[pullquote]The debate is not whether parents should have choices but how broad those choices should be.[/pullquote]
Demand for ?autonomy? was reaching fever pitch, too. This was the era of ?reinventing government,? of Chicago's ?local school councils,? of enthusiasm for decentralization and ?site-based management.? Reformers saw stifling bureaucracies and hidebound teacher union contracts as anathema to the breakthrough innovations they craved. They viewed the magnet schools of the 1970s and 80s as a step in the right direction?at least in terms of offering parents distinct choices?but as far too timid in tackling the underlying malaise of ?the system.? At the least, charter schools would offer educators the chance to experiment with new approaches and to pilot promising methods. But maybe charter schooling would point to a whole new system entirely?a ?system of schools? instead of a ?school system.?
And notions of ?accountability? were hot as well?though that notion was still in its embryonic stage. Under the original charter...