Chartering: Progress, Predicaments and Possibilities

It was great to hear insights from 25 years of chartering from Bruno Manno at a recent conference of charter school attorneys. Now Senior Advisor for K-12 Education at the Walton Family Foundation, Bruno has a long career in chartering. We served together years ago on the founding board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Bruno calls chartering “the most visible and substantial education reform of the modern era,” along with promulgation and strengthening of academic standards. But what lies ahead?

Clearly, he says, charter schools have been “spectacularly uneven” in many ways, and remain “the object of widespread misunderstanding as to what exactly they are and how they work.” And for all they have done that’s praiseworthy, he says, “they have not begun to fulfill their potential as an engine of change for American education.” I agree.

He notes ongoing “dilemmas” arising from the district vs. charter market structure, authorizing, governance, leadership, funding, the balance of freedom and regulation, and the constant political tussle. What might the future hold?

More and better charters for urban minority kids. Let’s do more of what we are doing well, he says. He notes that the “no excuses” model is working, and expanding and perfecting this role for charters in urban areas is a plausible plan for the future.

More and better Charters in new specialty areas. How about charter schools for career and technical education? Prison-based schools? Early childhood schools? Schools that pioneer new approaches to education?

More and better systemic efforts. Charters can help revitalize the antiquated governance and structures of public schooling, he says. The Denver school district is a good example of combining a traditional school district with innovative schools. The District of Columbia has a strong district sector and a strong charter sector. In New Orleans, the charter sector has replaced the district sector.

“The fact that public education today has two distinct sectors–the district sector and charter sector–is a remarkable accomplishment in just 25 years,” Bruno said. “Chartering is critical to improving the district sector.”

He continued, “Just because some charter schools fail doesn’t mean the strategy is failing. Chartering is more than schools. Chartering is a strategy for innovation and improvement and a strategy for reducing inequality and catalyzing upward mobility.”