Can we re-open the charter frontier?

Benjamin J. Lindquist

A response to Robin Lake’s article “Is charter school growth flat-lining?”, originally published 2/17/17 in The Lens.

Robin Lake recently noted that the growth in charter school openings has slowed to less than 2 percent annually. “Things could start rebounding,” she wrote, “but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices.”

Robin is right about the trend but I want to challenge her explanation. I see four reasons why growth has slowed but am optimistic that, if we take the necessary steps, we can move into a period of dynamic expansion.

Reason #1: Innovation is unwelcome

At the outset, charters were a new frontier in public education. Educators who launched them could try out bold innovations in mission and vision, school culture, governance, management, human capital, marketing, curriculum, instruction, technology and assessment.

As the charter sector has matured, however, the space to innovate has shrunk. State laws and rules now force charters to mimic districts in many ways. Onerous state and federal compliance requirements force conformity. Authorizers might allow charters to set unique performance goals, but at renewal time, they make decisions mostly on state test results.

In few places is there a political—or philanthropic—appetite for true innovation any longer. We only want “what works.” We struggle with the idea of a school that “experiments on kids” even if parents want it.

Taken together, these forces threaten the entire premise of chartering. The challenge is to once again give charter leaders the ability to build distinctive institutions that deliver a better value proposition to the families and students that they serve.

Reason #2: Mission impossible

Over the past ten years, charters have been pigeon-holed. Rather than a living laboratory where more effective practices can be developed, they’ve come to be seen as an extreme intervention to replace failing inner city schools and educate the most underserved.

In some states, political bargains have been struck to limit charters to big urban districts. Even when there aren’t legal restrictions, elected officials and district leaders have become adept at blocking charters from their suburbs and towns. NIMBY!

Who wants to tackle the toughest challenges in public education—challenges that have deepened in recent decades—only to have your charter yanked when you don’t produce miracles in the first three to five years—and all of this with scarce start-up dollars (especially for one-off schools) and operating funds that average seventy-eight cents on the district dollar.

We need to return to the original purpose of chartering—and finance it fairly.

Reason #3: Lack of entrepreneurial capacity

The great charter starters of yester year—people like Mike Milkie of the Noble Network, Chris Barbic at YES Prep, JoAnn Gama and Tom Torkelson at IDEA, and Dan Scoggin of Great Hearts—figured out how to start one-off schools and turn them into today’s leading CMOs. They did this by leveraging a rare mix of educational vision, personal charisma, results-driven mindset, stamina, entrepreneurial chops, team collaboration, and access to resources.

But K–12 education doesn’t cultivate these qualities in many people. Most educators are trained to expect job security, contract hours, twenty-two holidays a year, a two-month summer break, and retirement at fifty-five. In return, they accept low pay, a job setting with little professional collaboration, and a slow promotional ladder. By mid-career, they’re habituated to all of this.

Yet America needs a more entrepreneurial, self-improving K–12 education market. Our school-age population has become extremely diverse with a wide variety of individual needs and aptitudes. New technologies are transforming teaching and learning. Parents now expect access to options—which have proliferated in the form of magnet schools, inter-district choice, dual enrollment, homeschooling, charters, vouchers, tax credits, savings accounts and more. These trends beg for an entrepreneurial market that can continuously change and improve.

Right now, we have a limited pool of education entrepreneurs prepared to thrive in such a market. We need more leadership programs that find, equip, and support the next generation of education entrepreneurs. If we expect more from these entrepreneurs, we must equip them with the expertise and resources to give us more.

Reason #4: Risk intolerance

Over the last two decades, charter authorizers, policy-makers, and advocates have been horrified by stories of fiscal mismanagement and scandal in a few bad schools. These stories are ALARMING. In response, we’ve systemically regulated charter schools, blocked the launch of unproven concepts, and stifled grassroots startups. A few bad apples have changed how the orchard is tended for the entire crop.

Looking forward, we must embrace the reality that encouraging schools to open means there will be casualties. Schools that fail should be closed. That’s the charter bargain, and those closures are happening.

The alternative is to run in place, preventing all but the strongest CMOs and EMOs from opening new schools. The inevitable result, however, is very little innovation, few school openings, and a charter sector that looks ever more like the blob we are trying to reform.

Are there solutions?

I am not suggesting that we lower the performance bar, but rather that we define quality in broader, more sophisticated ways. American families need quality educational options that:

  • Serve the whole child;
  • Meet different learner needs and aptitudes as well as parent preferences;
  • Build a broad foundation of knowledge (not just skills);
  • Focus on growth in achievement towards mastery (not just proficiency);
  • Form strong character, diplomacy and citizenship habits; and
  • Prepare high school graduates for a workplace that requires the ability to develop new—and durable—mindsets, skill sets and expertise.

We need to be honest with ourselves about whether our current schools are meeting these objectives in a demonstrable manner. And then we need to be realistic about putting in place the leadership preparation programs, startup runway, institutional development dollars, ongoing operating funds, and accompanying supports in place to raise the quality bar.

It’s time to re-open the charter frontier. Here are three approaches:

  1. The Charter School Startup Grant Program at the U.S. Department of Education, which was available for grassroots school startups in most states during the Bush and Clinton years, could be revamped so it isn’t just an insider’s game for experienced CMOs and a lucky few states with new startups.
  2. Authorizers could get better at patiently encouraging school founders to put all the necessary ingredients in place to launch innovative schools rather than issuing quick rejections and forcing so much conformity.
  3. The many charter school gate-keepers—be they state education departments, authorizing bodies, or foundations—could hire entrepreneurial leaders onto their teams who are willing to get their hands dirty, work with charter founding groups, fight for sufficient resources, and encourage calculated risks.

The era of a narrow focus on proficiency in math and reading in grades 3–8 is gone. A myopic focus on No-Excuses schools won’t yield the diversity of educational models, learning pathways and quality experiences that American children need today.

Although they aren’t known for moral exemplars, Silicon Valley and Wall Street recruit terrific talent by rewarding entrepreneurs and prizing a culture of innovation and risk taking. Why can’t the charter sector do likewise—plus the morality and character that children need from the grownups who teach them?

Benjamin J. Lindquist has spent twenty-two years as a charter school operator, venture philanthropist and grant-maker. He wrote this article with editorial support from Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr. You can reach him by email at [email protected].

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.