Prophet Motives

Does the charter movement stimulate reform or spur more privatization?

Illustrator: David McLimans

An Excerpt from Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools

Illustration: David McLimans

In the last two decades, charter schools have emerged as one of the dominant reforms in public education in the United States. While desegregation and magnet schools were hallmarks of education reform in the 1970s and into the 1980s, by the end of the century charter schools had eclipsed such initiatives to take center stage.

From only a handful of schools in the early 1990s, by the 2006-07 school year there were more than 4,000 charter schools enrolling more than a million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. In some urban districts, charters enrolled a growing percentage of public school students-as much as 57 percent in New Orleans and 27 percent in Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. The for-profit Edison Schools, meanwhile, had 157 schools, dwarfing the size of many urban districts.

The charter school movement has roots in a progressive agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as “an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and more effective.”

Early proponents of charter schools did not view their reform as a cure-all but as one of many vehicles to improve public schools, particularly in urban areas where this country’s dichotomies of race and class are most pronounced. As Lisa Stulberg and the late Eric Rofes wrote in their 2004 book, The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools, charters are one specific reform initiative that can “begin to open up a wider discussion of a new, progressive vision for public education.”

Unfortunately, the charter concept also appealed to conservatives wedded to a free-market, privatization agenda. And it is they who, over the past decade, have taken advantage of the conservative domination of national politics to seize the upper hand in the charter school movement.

The question today is, where is the charter school concept heading? Will it help spur reform so that all public schools, charter and traditional, can live up to the promise of a quality education for all and serve the needs of an increasingly multiracial democracy? Or will the movement drain away necessary resources and energy from districtwide reform and instead promote a system of individual consumer choice, inevitably coupled with all the inequalities inherent in a market system of distribution?

This country is on the cusp of a new political dialogue. The conservative stranglehold on political debate is ending, opening up opportunities for progressives to regain the initiative. How this opening will affect public education in general and charter schools in particular is not yet clear, but it ushers in possibilities not imaginable a decade ago.

A Multifaceted Movement

It is impossible to lump together our country’s public schools: well-funded schools in privileged suburbs are far different than under-resourced schools in poor urban neighborhoods. Likewise, charter schools come in many varieties: they are shaped by a state’s charter school laws, by the motivations and capabilities of the charter school’s founders, and by the broader local, state, and national political climate.

That being said, several legal requirements are common to all charter schools. They are publicly funded, are nonreligious, are not to charge tuition, and must obey civil rights regulations.

Some charter schools have strong ties to their community, are led by experienced educators, and are committed to providing all children a comprehensive education that meets their needs. Others are led by entrepreneurs, sometimes as part of a national franchise, who too often see schools primarily as a source of money and profits and whose educational experience is limited. Many charter schools fall somewhere between these two poles.

Philosophically, the charter school movement started with several core assumptions. Two are most important: first, that freedom from bureaucratic rules and union contracts will foster innovation and improve academic achievement; and, second, that the lessons from the charter movement’s successes will be used to improve public education overall. Any discussion of charter schools must ask not only whether charters promote a worthwhile vision of public education, but also whether they are faithful to their own promises.

The Many Meanings of Choice

While academic excellence and equity of access were dominant themes in education following the Civil Rights Movement, the concept of “choice” has risen to new heights in recent decades. A fluid and problematic concept, it nonetheless strikes home with many Americans; used properly and in moderation, it can ensure that public education is sensitive to the varying needs of this country’s 50 million public school students representing an escalating number of nationalities and languages.

White and middle-class families in the suburbs have made a choice of geography that provides them access to schools they generally like and support. For poor people in the cities, especially people of color, choices are more difficult. Thus it is not surprising that many urban families may see charters as a choice of a safer school, smaller classes, and more meaningful academics.

Virtually all segments of the charter school movement have targeted urban areas. Some hope to counteract inequity, spur innovation and better meet the needs of marginalized students. Others, taking advantage of the frustration that inevitably follows when districts are allowed to deteriorate, seek fame and fortune. Some hope to gain enough “market share” that they are on par, and compete, with traditional schools. Finally, there are those who view charters as a way to get rid of public schools altogether.

The elixir of an individualized bailout from a struggling system has serious side effects, however. It can create a painful wedge in many communities, especially among African Americans; it can weaken the political will for a collective solution to the problems in public education; and it can promote the deterioration of traditional schools. As highly motivated and engaged families pull their children from traditional public schools, urban districts have fewer resources-both financial and human-to address their many problems. The worse the schools get, the more appealing the escape to charters and private schools, all of which feeds into the conservative dream of replacing public education with a free-market system of everyone for themselves, the common good be damned. Beleaguered urban districts, meanwhile, sometimes seem to give up on systemwide improvement and instead take a triage approach of abandoning some schools while providing “life boats,” often in the form of small niche schools with a selective student body.

Too often, charter schools and “choice” public schools prefer, in practice if not in rhetoric, to educate “the deserving poor.” There is far less inclination to serve students whose parents are absent or uninvolved, or who have severe physical or emotional educational needs, or who have run afoul of the juvenile justice system, or who don’t speak English as their first language. Perhaps the most glaring example involves students with special education needs. Such students are increasingly overrepresented in traditional public schools, making a mockery of reforms that held out the promise that special ed students would not be treated as second-class citizens.

For both charter and traditional public schools, the question is how to develop a system that recognizes individual preferences, but not by limiting the choices and opportunities available to others. What is necessary is a commitment to serving all students, and to guard against the danger of linking choice with exclusion and privilege.

At the same time, progressives must guard against dismissing all alternatives to the traditional public school system. There are times when a focused commitment to the specific needs of specific students is both necessary and positive, or when one must break through the boundaries of traditional schooling in order to create a working model of what could be.

The Freedom Schools established by the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee and other civil rights groups in 1964 are a well-known example of finding a vision of education outside of the public school system. Similarly, many “free schools” and “alternative schools” in the 1960s and 1970s were an important antidote to the dehumanizing factory model of education that valued standardization above all else. More recently, the Coalition of Essential Schools was founded in 1984 to promote equitable, intellectually vibrant, and personalized schools that, while operating within the boundaries of public education, oftentimes did so outside established district procedures. These examples show, in different ways, the power of individuals working together to create schools that challenge the inequities and inadequacies of too many traditional public schools.

The charter school movement does not grow directly out of such examples. But the involvement in charter schools of progressives with similar visions should not be dismissed.

At the same time, one cannot deny that the charter school concept, as a movement, has been hijacked by individuals, groups, and corporations who are guided by free-market principles, often with a hostility to unions, and who do not necessarily embrace core values of equity, access, public purpose, and public ownership.

If charter school reform is to live up to its initial promises, progressives must regain the initiative and use charter schools to empower teachers and parents, to challenge the dominant narrative in public education of standardization, selectivity, and privilege, and to use those lessons to improve all public schools.

Bureaucracy and Contracts

From the beginning, the most important and consistent themes of charter school proponents were that freedom from bureaucracy and from union contract provisions would spur innovation and achievement.

The claims, especially dissatisfaction with bureaucracy, struck a chord among families frustrated with how well public schools were serving their children’s needs, especially when the claims were coupled with anecdotes of teachers and parents prevented from implementing worthwhile educational practices.

Without a doubt, too many public school districts suffer from rote thinking and top-down mandates that are codified into bureaucratic rules and regulations. Sadly, the juggernaut of standardized testing and drill-and-kill curriculum promoted by the federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) has only heightened the problem of harmful mandates.

As for union contracts, there is no doubt that some complaints are valid, especially concerns over rigid seniority rules that make it difficult for schools to hire a staff committed to a common vision.

But it would be naive to ignore that some of the antiunion rhetoric comes from conservatives wedded to an antiunion ideology. Some union rules are the result of hard-won protections-with civil rights, special education, academic freedom, and gender-based protections just a few examples. Other bureaucratic rules are designed to counteract problems of corruption or incompetence. And many union protections were fought for and won in order to safeguard the rights of teachers around issues such as due process, adequate pay, and decent working conditions-rights that every individual should have, and that have the added benefit of ensuring a stable corps of experienced teachers for our public schools.

The extent to which a charter school is exempt from the union contract or unnecessary bureaucracy varies, based not only on state legislation but the chartering organization’s views and the ideology of a charter school’s founders. The movement as a whole, however, remains committed to the view that bureaucracy and union agreements are to be circumvented whenever possible.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the charter school movement is how well it has lived up to its promise of innovation and improved achievement as a result of its freedoms from bureaucracy and union agreements. Overall, studies have shown that charter schools perform either worse or just as well as comparable public schools, which leads to an unanswered question, as noted in the 2005 book, The Charter School Dust-Up, by Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein:

If, however, charter schools are not improving the achievement of disadvantaged children, it may be that the cause of low student performance is not bureaucratic rules but something else. When a treatment is based on a diagnosis, and the treatment doesn’t work, it is prudent to examine not only whether the treatment should be improved, but also whether the diagnosis might be flawed.

Even if it is shown that certain bureaucratic rules, union requirements, or state and federal mandates stifle innovation and suffocate higher achievement, shouldn’t they be thrown out or modified for all schools, not just charters?

Finding Quality Teachers

One of the problems facing many charter schools, and indeed public schools overall in urban and rural areas, is the insufficient number of excellent teachers committed to teaching all students. Studies have consistently shown that after socioeconomic status is taken into account, a good teacher is the single most important factor in student achievement.

Teacher certification for charter schools varies significantly by state. Some states require that charter schools hire certified teachers, some states such as Arizona and Texas do not, and some states set a percentage such as 25 percent or 50 percent certified teachers, according to the Education Commission of the States. Some require that charter school teachers be credentialed at the same level as other public schools only in college prep and core academic classes.

In its initial years, the charter school movement overall had a lower percentage than traditional public schools of certified teachers, and disproportionately relied on teachers with less experience. In fact, strong anecdotal evidence shows that many of the charter schools that have been favorites with the mainstream media have had an extraordinarily high percentage of new teachers and a high turnover rate.

Which raises an important question: is it possible to build a systemwide reform movement, as charter schools purport to be, if the movement can neither be sustained at a quality level nor replicated?

No one disputes that it is possible to build good schools, as individual charter, public, and private schools across the country demonstrate. The issue is creating a system of schools based on institutionalized structures and practices that ensure lasting success on a districtwide basis. Reforms are bound to fail if they rely on the voluntarism of idealistic, overworked teachers who burn out and leave the school once they decide to have a family or want any semblance of a meaningful personal life.

Such issues are related to questions of scale. Many good, experimental schools, both charter and traditional, rely on a particular vision that cannot be replicated on a significant basis without broader reforms such as adequate resources, a solid corps of qualified teachers, and a reinvigorated commitment to serving all children. In this context, perhaps it remains best to return to the original vision of charter schools as limited experiments designed to try out new ideas that can be used to improve education throughout the district.

Some in the charter school movement instead view charters as growing exponentially, becoming a substitute for traditional public schools. Yet when charters reach that tipping point where they become a significant sector unto themselves, immense problems arise-not just with maintaining quality, but also with undermining traditional public schools because those traditional schools have fewer resources and a higher percentage of disadvantaged students.

Finally, the larger the system of charter schools, the more glaring the need to address the issue of democratic control of our schools. In too many instances, important decisions are taken out of public control and ceded to boards of directors who have minimal public accountability beyond insuring against fraud and corruption. In the case of charter franchise operations, especially by for-profit companies, concerns of public accountability are especially pressing. For all their faults, school boards are democratically elected bodies that provide a mechanism for public input; for all their strengths, even nonprofit boards of directors do not have similar responsibilities to the public.

To date, there has been insufficient discussion of dealing with these complicated issues of scale, sustainability, replication, and public democratic control.

Unfettered free-market ideology, with its notion of proprietary ownership of any formula for success, has been especially harmful in undermining the original ideal that charter schools would champion innovation and share the lessons learned in order to improve all public schools. Too often, charter schools are far less innovative than promised and, when they do purport success, do not collaborate with other schools to share what works and, equally important, what doesn’t work.

Commitment to All Children

Throughout the history of education in the United States, public schools have served dual and conflicting purposes. On the one hand, our public schools pay homage to a vision based on core concepts of public control, high standards, and equal access so that all children can develop their potential and become contributing, productive members of our democratic society. At the same time, our schools are infamous for replicating and exacerbating this country’s undeniable stratifications based on class and race.

It is also essential to recognize that school reform cannot be isolated from resolving society’s larger injustices. If our schools are to fulfill their promise, we must ensure that all children have the healthcare, housing, and family financial stability they need to do their best. This is not an excuse for the shortcomings of our public schools. Indeed, demanding such reforms as an essential component of good schools can reinvigorate the broader social movement.

At the same time, we must ensure that our public schools become doorways to opportunity, not barricades based on privilege. The original charter school proponents saw charters as a way to improve public education as a whole, not to split off into a separate movement or isolated niche schools. They were motivated by equity, not selectivity.

The question facing the charter school movement is whether it will fulfill its founding promise of a reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and stratify our schools.

Creating successful schools, whether charter or traditional, is not easy. It is difficult, demanding work that requires vision, support, and resources. What is more, schools have crucial obligations not only to individual students and families, but to our society as a whole as we strive to create a multiracial democracy capable of addressing the many social, economic, and environmental issues that cloud our future.

As Rethinking Schools has often noted, public education, for all its flaws, exists because generations of people have fought to improve the future for themselves, their children, and the broader society. Whether public education continues to exist, and whether it rises to the challenges before it, remains an open question. Charters, for better or worse, will be part of the answer.

Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and Stephanie Walters are the co-editors of Keeping the Promise?: The Debate Over Charter Schools. This essay, which they coauthored, is excerpted from the book’s introduction. “Keeping the Promise? is available from