Is the charter-school movement stuck in a rut?


car in mud pit photo

Quite the rut 
(Photo by Brian Tomlinson 19)

As the U.S. charter fleet sails past the 5,000-school and
two-decade markers, there is reason to worry that it’s getting complacent,
unimaginative, and self-interested.

This criticism is separate from the quality-and-achievement
challenges that beset many current schools and the “caps,” fiscal constraints,
and political/bureaucratic barriers that continue to confront far too many of
them in far too many places. Here I refer to accumulating signs of resistance
among the movement’s own captains and admirals to schools that would fly the
charter flag but don’t behave exactly like the typical charter schools of the
past twenty years.

It would be a pity if the charter enterprise were now to
grow rigid and intolerant, considering how well it has accommodated some
extraordinarily interesting and unconventional schools, institutional forms,
and uses of chartering unimagined back in 1991. Think of teacher-led schools sans
principal, schools for disabled kids, and schools for dropouts. “Virtual” and
“hybrid” schools, some of them operating statewide, some as part of national
franchises. For-profit operators and multi-campus management organizations—even
single charters harboring multiple schools with distinct operators. We have
single-sex schools. Early-college schools. Schools with curricular foci that
range from “back to basics” to “experiential.” Schools that restore “local
control” to small towns aggrieved by excessive district consolidation. Schools
that experiment with unconventional union contracts, even a couple of schools run by unions.

This wouldn’t be the first 'reform
movement' in the history of education to turn into an ideologically
rigid, pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we're-aboard sort of vested
interest. But it would still be a great pity.


To its great credit, the charter movement has flexed and
stretched and managed to take in, if not always to embrace. this sort of school
diversity. Which is, of course, a major rationale for its existence in the
first place.

But that may now be changing—and not for the better. Recent
examples include:

  • National charter spokesmen recently deploring
    the existence
    of selective-admission charter schools in New Orleans, even
    though these are conversion schools that were selective before they were
  • Also in New Orleans, respected national groups urging
    the school board
    not to renew charters for more than five years, even
    though several of the schools (which had requested ten-year renewals), by
    virtue of being conversion charters, have actually operated for many decades
    and are among the highest-scoring schools in Louisiana;
  • Major funders and reform outfits shunning
    “middle class” charter schools as if those kids don’t also need better
    education options;
  • Palpitations
    all over
    at the prospect of charter schools with a religious connection.
    Never mind that perhaps the most promising way to salvage urban Catholic
    schools—with their excellent track record of educating disadvantaged kids—is to
    reconstitute them as charters; and
  • Outrage at the announcement
    last week
    by Douglas County, Colorado that it is going to operate its new
    private-school voucher program via a district-sponsored charter.

This wouldn’t be the first “reform movement” in the history
of education to turn into an ideologically rigid,
pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we’re-aboard sort of vested interest. But it
would still be a great pity. The basic justification for chartering rests on
two legs: providing quality alternatives for youngsters stuck in bad or
ill-fitting schools, and functioning as a kind of R & D center or beta site
for K-12 education where things can be tried that (for a hundred reasons) are
hard to do in regular district schools.

In my view, any school that satisfies at least one of those
two criteria should qualify as a charter school, so long as it’s clear—and
transparent—about its mission and publicly accountable in some suitable way for
its results.

It doesn’t have to be accountable in the “usual” way if its
mission is better aligned with some other measure or mechanism. Long before
NCLB, several states—Texas comes
to mind
—allowed for “alternate accountability” for schools dealing with
dropouts, at-risk youth, etc. The school and its authorizer obviously need to
agree on its accountability metrics—and be public about both targets and actual
attainments. The school also needs to be public about its governance and

But it doesn’t have to look like other charter schools—or
any other school we’ve come up with so far. It can be academically selective if
it wants—so long as everyone knows what the criteria are. (That’s not the same
as the squalid
New York charter operation
that was recently busted for secretly shutting
out kids who have “issues.”) Lotteries make sense in some circumstances but not
in all.

It can even have religious ties. Before- and after-school
“wraparound” religious-instruction programs, and released-time programs, ought
to be no-brainers when someone else pays for them. But it’s reasonable for
charters themselves to try religious education so long as they thread the Zelman needle. (Keep in mind that in
most of the civilized world, government schools are routinely operated by
organized religions and teach those
religions on the government nickel.)

A charter school can also be affiliated in various ways with
voucher-style programs that educate kids in what we’re accustomed to calling
“private schools.” How is that different, really, from outsourcing the
operation of existing charter (or district) schools to private firms, many of
them profit-making? The same thing can be done one student at a time, with the
public money continuing to follow the kid to this school or that.

More disruptive
will arise over time, and charter-movement leaders should be
grateful and welcoming, not resistant. Besides, if they don’t cooperate, they’ll
eventually get end-run, much as they did to district schools once upon a time.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the pushback against Douglas County's voucher program from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.